The Eighteenth-Century Background of John Marshall’s Constitutional Jurisprudence

This analysis of Marshall’s constitutional jurisprudence avoids the pitfalls of previous theories. It does not see the Federalist political program as the source of Marshall’s constitutional doctrines and thus does not need to explain how Marshall qualified his political principles or how he convinced non-Federalist judges to accept them. Instead, this essay argues that legal, not political, principles underlay Marshall’s jurisprudence, but it attempts to understand those principles in a manner consistent with the unavoidable twentieth-century assumption that law is a body of flexible rules responsive to social reality rather than a series of immutable, unambiguous doctrines derived from a nonhuman source. The essay briefly concludes by returning to the previous interpretations of Marshall’s constitutional jurisprudence to compare the merits of those interpretations with this essay’s new interpretation.