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SUPREME COURT HISTORY
The First Hundred Years
Court History
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The First Hundred Years
by Jeffrey Rosen

For much of the Supreme Court's first century, its fiercest battles concerned the conflict between national power and states' rights. The battle was embodied by the clash of ideas and personalities between the Federalists, led by President John Adams and Chief Justice John Marshall, and the Jeffersonian Republicans, led by President Thomas Jefferson. The Federalists supported a strong federal government to preserve the union, feared unchecked majority rule, and hoped that independent courts would check democratic excesses. Reacting perhaps to their memories of monarchical rule, the Republicans were suspicious of both national power and the federal courts, believed strongly in states' rights, and insisted that constitutional disputes should generally be decided by local majorities rather than unelected judges. Ultimately, Marshall bested Jefferson in their constitutional battles, establishing both the power of Congress to regulate the national economy and the obligation of states to obey federal laws with which they disagreed -- all principles that Jefferson denied. But the confident Supreme Court that Marshall established nearly destroyed itself by intervening in the national crisis over slavery, and it took the Civil War to put it back on track.

The conflict between nationalism and states' rights dates back to the debates surrounding the framing of the Constitution itself. Federalists insisted that Congress and the president needed broad power to meet unforeseen national challenges; anti-Federalists worried about state sovereignty and insisted that only a written Bill of Rights could prevent the national government from violating the historic liberties of the people. On the Supreme Court, Marshall wrote the principles of the Federalists into the Constitution. In Fletcher v. Peck (1810), the first time the Supreme Court struck down a state law as unconstitutional, Marshall emphasized that private property and contracts couldn't be lightly interfered with by local majorities. The Marshall Court continued to advance Marshall's twin goals of encouraging national unity and thwarting local obstructionism in Martin v. Hunter's Lessee (1816), in which Justice Joseph Story, Marshall's good friend and loyal lieutenant, wrote an opinion asserting the Supreme Court's power to review state court decisions dealing with federal law.

'It is emphatically the province and duty of the judicial department to say what the law is.' -- John Marshall

The culmination of Marshall's national vision came in McCulloch v. Maryland (1819), in which he wrote an opinion for a unanimous Court upholding Congress' power to charter the Bank of the United States. Marshall resurrected the same arguments that Alexander Hamilton had used to persuade George Washington to charter the bank over Jefferson's objections: namely, that the Constitution gives Congress the authority to pass all laws "necessary and proper" for executing its constitutional powers, and that those words should be construed broadly, in a practical spirit. Marshall also insisted that the states had no power to tax the bank, rejecting Jefferson's view that the Union was a compact of sovereign states, any one of which could substitute its own constitutional views for those of Congress. Although the decision was popular in the middle and Northern states, it precipitated a backlash against the Court in the Southern and Western states.

Portrait of Thomas Jefferson
During his presidency, Thomas Jefferson was often at political odds with Chief Justice John Marshall, his distant cousin.

Reproduction courtesy of Corbis images