Book Review – Without Precedent: Chief Justice John Marshall and His Times – Joel Richard Paul

Without Precedent: Chief Justice John Marshall and His Times – Joel Richard Paul


Paul, J.R. (2018). Without precedent: Chief justice John Marshall and his times. New York: Riverhead Books.


John Marshall (1755-1835), for whom Marshall University is named, was the fourth Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court, serving 1801 to 1835. Perhaps one of the most influential of the Founding Fathers of the United States, his legacy is often viewed considering his major case findings and legal acumen. However, his leadership transcended the courts, and his ability to build consensus and find common ground during the formative years of the United States his true legacy was his ability to navigate difficult political waters within a legal and legislative environment, and in so doing, preserve and strengthen a very fragile republic.

Heavily influenced by three figures – his father, George Washington, and Fredrich von Steuben.  Summarizing the influence, Paul notes that

“Washington and Steuben gave Marshall an early lesson in two styles of leadership: Washington demanded unquestioning deference to authority while Steuben fostered collegiality. These two heroes came to represent the twin attributes of Marshall’s professional success: Marshall’s influence as a statesman and jurist derived from his ability to command respect for the authority of the law and his talent for finding common ground.” (p.9)

Navigating challenging political times between Presidents John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, and then the populist rise of Andrew Jackson, Marshall utilized the Supreme Court as a set of guardrails on the actions of the government.  Taking a relatively enlightened view for the time on issues such as Native American tribal rights, slavery, and Federal government control relative to the states, the Court under Marshall authored nearly 1,000 opinions, of which nearly 80% were unanimous. (Paul, 2018, p.4)  This is more impressive when considering that the Court composition changed dramatically over his 34-year tenure as Chief Justice – from a Federalist to a Republican to a Democratic-dominated court.  His skill was finding common ground and leading his fellow justices to the same conclusions.

Implications for Leaders

As a student of history and the law, I found it fascinating that Marshall’s leadership on and off the bench was able to set the stage for the next 200 years of American jurisprudence. More impressive, and relevant to today’s challenges with the Supreme Court, was the ability of Marshall to navigate a political climate that was arguable more polarized than what we see today and do so in a fledgling republic with limited precedent for solving the big legal, political, economic and international problems it faced.

Perhaps the most valuable lesson learned in reading the biography of Marshall was his willingness to subordinate his idealism for pragmatism.  Serving as one of the emissaries of the Adams administration to France during the XYZ Affair, Marshall saw the dangers of the ideological excesses of the French Revolution.  “Marshall’s experience in Paris convinced him of the fragility of society and the need to diffuse power among the branches of government to safeguard the rule of law. It also made him suspicious of ideologies. Unlike Jefferson, who came away from France with a romantic idea of revolutionary ideology, Marshall’s natural inclination toward moderation and pragmatism was reaffirmed by his Paris mission.” (Paul, 2018, p. 168)

Marshall’s approach in leadership was one of pragmatism and loyalty to people.  Jefferson and Jackson tended to be driven by ideology, and Marshall was willing to compromise his own opinions before compromising his own leaders, associates, or the Republic. This would sometimes result in inconsistencies in his legal opinions but generally served to reinforce Constitutional principles and maintain the peace and unity of the Union.

Perhaps summarizing Marshall best, Paul notes that “Marshall acted to forge consensus on the Court and avert constitutional crises. Marshall tried to persuade his brethren to his point of view when he could, and when he could not, he sought common ground. Marshall did not see compromise or pragmatism as a moral failing. Nor should we. Compromise and pragmatism made possible the Union.” (2018, p.440)

Many of the leaders we read about are viewed through idealism, where Marshall is best viewed through the lens of pragmatism.  Had Marshall stuck strictly to a Federalist ideology during his tenure as Chief Justice, it is likely that the United States would look very different today if it existed at all.  His ability to look at the big picture, work for consensus, perform legal gymnastics were necessary to get to the result he knew was required, and convincing a very ideologically diverse Supreme Court to over 1,000 decisions where almost all were unanimous in an extremely polarized political environment is not only a testament to his leadership and pragmatic approach. Still, it is also a lesson for our current Chief Justice and leaders tasked with navigating today’s similarly turbulent environment.


John Marshall and his approach to pragmatic and consensus-driven leadership are worthy of additional study. After reading his biography, I gained more pride because my degree will bear the name of such an effective and influential leader.  I strongly recommend this well-written book.  You will learn that pragmatism is a valid position and does not limit your ability to be a leader. Under certain scenarios, especially in a polarized environment, it enhances leadership effectiveness.

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