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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Excellent, balanced biography, 5 Dec. 1998
By A Customer
Although a long-time Jefferson fan, I could not put this book down about his "nemesis". Marshall turns out to have been every bit as patriotic, anti-party and fair minded as Jefferson is reputed to have been. As the author points out, it is hard to believe how two men that were so alike could dislike each other so much. Rather than ascertain the cause of their dislike, the author was very honest in stating that there doesn't seem to be any one particular instance to give reason to such enmity. As a matter of fact, the two men were related and Jefferson, as president, had appointed Marshall's father to an important surveyor's post. The author goes to great length to give Jefferson his due and to not be vindictive. While the author obviously likes Marshall, he does not play favorites or make excuses for his subject. He explains both men's actions and motivations and stresses that both were generally after the same goals for America. As he has in recent works, Jefferson did come across as a bit petulant and vindictive in some of his actions and reactions. I couldn't help many times agreeing with Marshall's points of view when looked at from a practical or legal point (independence of the courts, commerce clause protection, laws of contracts, strong national government and anti-nullification). He was also anti-slavery in a mild, southern way. Mr. Marshall comes across as a very bright, unpretentious, extremely likable man to friend and foe alike. He was able to prevent political differences from damaging friendships and always displayed a big heart (including leading local efforts to raise money to help the estate of the deceased Jefferson). Because of his personality and leadership style, this man was able to dignify the Supreme Court's position and led it to record an astounding proportion of unanimous decisions, helping the court not to avoid looking divided on important issues. The book is very well written and despite its apparent thickness it was a delight to read about such a relatively little-known giant in our history. I rank Marshall and Madison as probably the two least credited men in our history for getting the republic on firm ground and for tempering the extreme positions that people like Jefferson, Patrick Henry, state rightists and several High Federalists were advocating. No student or aficionado should miss reading this important work.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Past Sheds Light On Present, 26 Mar. 1997
By A Customer
Those who decry the current state of judicial affairs in this country will be interested to learn that our modern court system has changed very little since its inception back in the 18th Century. This, along with many other scholarly insights, is the compelling undercurrent running through Jean Edward Smith's John Marshall: Definer of a Nation.

Smith, no stranger to scholarship himself, guides the reader in painstaking detail through the rise of one of the most renoun jurists of early American history, John Marshall. Marshall, who served his country first as a soldier under General George Washington and later as the first truly influential chief justice of the Supreme Court, is a figure ripe for investigation at this particularly legal-oriented period in our history. For it was Marshall who, in his landmark decision, Marbury v. Madison, first gave rise to the notion of judicial review, the concept that suggests that the Supreme Court indeed has final say over the constitutionality of a given state action.

What is fascinating about Marshall's life is how bitterly he had to fight to establish what we today take for granted, the Court's supreme authority. Marshall's relentless pursuit of a powerful judiciary was often at odds with the vision of his fellow founding father, Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson, who pushed for a small, decentralized federal government in a largely agrarian America, was constanly at odds with Marshall, and the tale of their stormy political battles resonates throughout the pages of Smith's biography.

Of course, the philosophical musings and feindishly political battles of our founding fathers may not make for interesting reading for everyone. Smith's book is chock full of obscure anectdotes and oftentimes difficult-to-get-through detail. All the same, the interested reader seeking to understand just how our current court system got to be this way can do worse than pick up Smith's tome for some insight. For, in the end, the battles fought between America's early political titans bear a strong correlation to -- and perhaps even explain -- blips on the judicial radar screen now called things like "O.J."
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Top 5 of my favorite biographies., 10 Jun. 1999
By A Customer
A must read for anyone interested in the formation of our nation, the debate over states' rights, icons of 18th century America and/or the origins of American jurisprudence. This biography is an easy read which you will recommend to family and friends.
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5.0 out of 5 stars An extremely well-written and well-researched biography., 24 April 1998
By A Customer
This is one of the best historical biographies I have ever read, full of interesting facts and insights into the life and character of a truly great American. The treatment of Jefferson was a little rough,though. I also found one very glaring inaccuracy which indicated that Smith's knowlegde of the Battle of Baltimore and North Point was limited. General Ross was not killed while "leading an attack on Fort McHenry" as stated on page 420. Ross died while leading his troops overland from North Point toward eastern Baltimore. Ross had nothing to do with the Naval bombardment of Fort McHenry observed by Francis Scott Key, author of the "Star Spangled Banner".
Smith's work is otherwise so excellent that I easily overlooked this histical slight to my hometown of Baltimore. I enjoyed his work as much as Grant's "Memoirs". Mr. Smith, please write a biography of Patrick Henry.
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5.0 out of 5 stars An Outstanding Biography of a great American, 15 Nov. 1997
By A Customer
This is an outstanding biography of a great American who not only gave the United States a solid foundation for its judicial system, but also shaped the judiciary as one of the major branches of the Government. The biography is a marvellous and beautiful piece of work by Jean Edward Smith. The focus is on John Marshall and the law. This exquisite literary work reveals a great mind and a great man! The author, by often quoting John Marshall's letters and legal opinions, portraits a creative mind with a capacity for splendid expression. I would recommend this book for anyone interested in American history and Government. I will also recommend this for all students and practioners of law.
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5.0 out of 5 stars Gives Marshall his due as a principal architect of the govt., 1 Nov. 1998
By A Customer
The author acknowledges up front that the book has little to say that is critical of the great Chief Justice. Nevertheless, the author presents a balanced view of the man and his times. As befits one of the greatest writers in legal history, Smith's prose is clear, precise and entertaining. Given Marshall's long tenure on the Court and his many accomplishments and associations with great historical figures, this book should be of interest to anyone with a serious interest in American History. One is left with the strong impression that Marshall's role in shaping the government has not been fully appreciated.
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5.0 out of 5 stars Wonderful biography, great history, 17 July 1999
By A Customer
This book provides an excellent history of Marshall, constitutional law, and the supreme court. Marshall demonstrates that consensus can be more powerful than partisanship, a lesson that is often forgotten in today's sound-bite age.
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