Sunday, February 04, 2007

February 4, 1801:

John Marshall Becomes Chief Justice

With certain exceptions, such as the popular David McCullough, historians tend to be sour on John Adams, second president of the United States, but he did leave the new nation an incalculable legacy: John Marshall as chief justice (pictured). In the waning days of his term in office -- but before it was clear whether Thomas Jefferson or Aaron Burr would succeed him -- President Adams nominated Virginia lawyer, representative and then Secretary of State John Marshall, a Federalist, as chief justice of the United States. He was nominated by Adams late in January, confirmed and sworn in on February 4, 1801.

"There is no evidence that Adams had planned to name Marshall, or that he had calculated the move beforehand," wrote Jean Edward Smith in John Marshall: Definer of a Nation (1996) "Instead, the available information suggests that pace of events forced the choice. Adams simply could not afford to delay naming a new chief justice if the Federalists were retain control of the Court. Marshall was at hand, he was prepared to accept the post, and his personal loyalty to the president had been demonstrated time and again over the past year. By choosing Marshall, the petulant Adams was also demonstrating the power he still held as president. ..."

Which would make the appointment another example of a short-term expedient growing into something monumental. At the time, Adams probably couldn't imagine that Marshall would find his life's work on the court, serving over 34 years, and participating in more than 1,000 decisions and writing more than 500 opinions, including the landmark Marbury v. Madison. But Adams lived until 1826, so he might have had a notion of how his hasty appointment helped make the Supreme Court such an important institution.

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