How Great Were the 'Great' Marshall Court Decisions?

61 Pages Posted: 20 May 2001  

Michael J. Klarman

Harvard University

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This article commemorates the two hundredth anniversary of the ascension of John Marshall to the Chief Justiceship of the United States Supreme Court by taking a revisionist look at some of the landmark decisions of the Court that he presided over for thirty-four years. Political scientists and legal scholars have written a great deal in recent years questioning conventional assumptions about the importance of Supreme Court decisions such as Brown v. Board of Education, Roe v. Wade, and Engel v. Vitale. Yet almost nothing has been written about the consequences of the "great" Marshall Court decisions. Scholars continue, almost universally, to assume that the old Marshall Court chestnuts - decisions such as Marbury v. Madison, McCulloch v. Maryland, and Dartmouth College v. Woodward - were of enormous significance to the history of the early republic. A closer look at these rulings in their historical context, however, suggests that such assumptions are in need of serious revision.

This Article reconsiders the consequences of three categories of Marshall Court decisions. Part I looks at the most famous Marshall opinion of all, Marbury v. Madison, and questions the importance of its proclamation of the judicial review power. Part II reevaluates the importance of McCulloch v. Maryland and Gibbons v. Ogden - decisions that approved extremely broad conceptions of national legislative power. Part III turns to some of the famous Contract Clause decisions of the Marshall Court - specifically, Dartmouth College v. Woodward, Sturges v. Crowninshield, and Green v. Biddle - and challenges the widespread assumption that they were instrumental to American economic development during the first half of the nineteenth century. Finally, Part IV considers one way in which the Marshall Court did make a vital contribution to American history: It helped establish the Supreme Court as a significant, if not quite co-equal, branch of the national government. This final Part assesses the extent to which Marshall and his colleagues were responsible for the Court's growing institutional stature and the extent to which this development was fortuitous.

Suggested Citation

Klarman, Michael J., How Great Were the 'Great' Marshall Court Decisions?. Virginia Law Review, October 2001 (UVA School of Law, Public Law RPS Version). Available at SSRN: or

Michael J. Klarman (Contact Author)

Harvard University ( email )

1875 Cambridge Street
Cambridge, MA 02138
United States

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