Reference Blog Entries

We Hold These Truths...

Laura's picture

Painting of Thomas Jeffererson, John Adams and Benjamin Franklin writing the Declaration of IndependenceWhen the fireworks explode on the 4th of July this year we should remember the explosive document that is behind this celebration. It was the Declaration of Independence, a remarkable document produced by a small group of men who were expressing the sentiments of many of the newly-formed colonies. They felt that the policies of Great Britain were intolerable. They wrote a declaration stating their objections as well as their intention to break away from British rule. 

Richard Henry Lee of Virginia proposed the declaration hoping that Britain would back down. Thomas Jefferson wrote the draft, and the other members of the committee, Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, Robert R. Livingston and Roger Sherman, gave suggestions. It is good to re-read this eloquent text of 1776 and to imagine what it must have been like to take such an historic step. To read more, go to the Upper Arlington Public Library’s American History database.   

Logo for American History database; profile of the head of George Washington in color

After Hamilton

Megan's picture

Portrait of John MarshallIf you’re a fan of the musical, you might wonder about what happened to the Federalist party after Hamilton. One month before Jefferson’s term began in 1801, Federalist John Marshall was appointed Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. While this is a powerful position now, at the time, the Supreme Court didn’t have any clear purpose, or even have a regular location where they could meet - until 1810, overlooked in the official plan, they met in the basement of the Senate building.

Enter Marshall, another Federalist with an excellent brain. One of President John Adams’s final acts in office was to appoint Federalists to newly-created judicial positions, so he could stack the judiciary against the Democratic-Republicans. Thomas Jefferson sought to remove these “midnight judges,” and in many cases succeeded. William Marbury, one such commissioned judge, had never received his commission - it should have been delivered, but in the last-minute confusion, John Marshall himself, the then-Secretary of State, had apparently forgotten to send it. Marbury demanded that Madison, the current Secretary of State, be ordered to give him his commission, but Madison refused.

The Supreme Court, led by Marshall, agreed to hear the case, and in apparent retaliation, Jefferson blocked the court from meeting for more than a year. Marshall was in a delicate position - if he ruled in favor of his Federalist colleague Marbury, the Court would be powerless to enforce the order. Madison could just ignore it, and the already feeble Court, never clearly outlined in the US Constitution, likely wouldn’t recover, and would never develop any national influence, effectively killing the Federalist party. But if he ruled against his colleague, he would be condoning Madison and Jefferson’s overreach, and declaring his own actions as Secretary of State to be perhaps not totally legit. And this would still reveal the weakness of the Court - it would prove that Jefferson could control them after all, by making them do his bidding in this matter.

Marshall cleverly triumphed in the end, establishing the Supreme Court as we know it today. The Court’s decision found that Marbury had a right to his commission, but actually, nothing could be done about this, because the Supreme Court itself didn’t have the right to hear his case in the first place. Congress had unconstitutionally given the Court original jurisdiction in this matter, so the Court struck down that portion of the law, and offered Marbury no remedy.

The Court had never struck down a law before, and had never had the power to review laws to determine whether or not they were constitutional. So by backing out of the decision, Marshall brilliantly established these powers. By allowing Madison to do what he was going to do for Marbury anyway - nothing - he also effectively stymied the Jefferson administration from rebuking the Court for its power grab. In this decision, and many that followed, Marshall made the Court a strong, independent branch of the Federal Government, and kept the Democratic-Republicans on their toes.

Learn more about Marshall, Madison, Marbury v Madison, Jefferson, the Supreme Court, and of course, Hamilton with the following resources:

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