"Active until late in the Andrew Jackson administration, John Marshall (1755-1835) was the last of his generation still in high office. The only founder who outlived him, James Madison, was long retired. Son of a small Virginia landowner, Marshall served several years in the Continental Army during the Revolution. After studying law, he became an influential figure in the conservative Tidewater establishment and a Federalist. Together with Madison, he worked hard to persuade Virginia to ratify the Constitution, which it did, narrowly. George Washington offered him several jobs in his administration, but he declined. He traveled to France on a diplomatic mission under John Adams, who appointed him secretary of state in 1800 and then chief justice in 1801, two months before leaving office. This annoyed the incoming president, Thomas Jefferson (already an enemy); at the time, however, the Supreme Court was not a powerful body, so he didn’t make an issue of it. Despite exceptions such as Stephen Budiansky’s Oliver Wendell Holmes (2019), biographies of judges rarely make for gripping reading. Though not on that level, journalist and historian Strauss’ interpretation is solid, stressing that Marshall’s vigorous leadership elevated the court to a co-equal branch of government and gave it the power (not mentioned in the Constitution) to invalidate state and federal laws. The author examines Marshall’s landmark legal accomplishments, but he also digresses into sections on a host of intriguing historical ideas. After mentioning that Marshall was considered a potential presidential candidate, Strauss inserts a long chapter describing a dozen Americans who yearned to be president but failed—e.g., Henry Clay, William Seward, William Jennings Bryan, Adlai Stevenson. At his death, Marshall became a mythical figure. Strauss devotes a chapter to other leaders who attained mythical status, from Washington to Kennedy. Readers concerned with the present makeup of the court may be reassured to learn about the worst justices of the past.
Entertaining historical tidbits within a fine short biography."