A New York Times Notable Book of 1996
It was in tolling the death of Supreme Court Chief Justice John Marshall in 1835 that the Liberty Bell cracked, never to ring again. An apt symbol of the man who shaped both court and country, whose life "reads like an early history of the United States," as the Wall Street Journal noted, adding: Jean Edward Smith "does an excellent job of recounting the details of Marshall's life without missing the dramatic sweep of the history it encompassed."
Working from primary sources, Jean Edward Smith has drawn an elegant portrait of a remarkable man. Lawyer, jurist, scholars; soldier, comrade, friend; and, most especially, lover of fine Madeira, good food, and animated table talk: the Marshall who emerges from these pages is noteworthy for his very human qualities as for his piercing intellect, and, perhaps most extraordinary, for his talents as a leader of men and a molder of consensus. A man of many parts, a true son of the Enlightenment, John Marshall did much for his country, and John Marshall: Definer of a Nation demonstrates this on every page.
The most famous chief justice of the U. S. has been dead for 161 years, but his life and work continue to fascinate legal scholars, political scientists and biographers. Smith, a University of Toronto political scientist, is the most recent devotee. His endnotes and bibliography mention at least a dozen previous books about Marshall. It would be helpful to the lay reader if Smith explained why he believed another book, especially such a massive one, was needed. Like the recently published The Great Chief Justice: John Marshall and the Rule of Law by Charles F. Hobson (Forecasts, July 29), Smith's version of the life is both respectful and a revision of the revisionism. He acknowledges his debt to Hobson, editor of the Marshall papers, just as Hobson alerted readers to Smith's upcoming tome. While Hobson focused on Marshall's mind, Smith focuses on the externals of Marshall's life. This is essentially a chronological account of a life lived fully. There are few flourishes--for example, Marshall's death is handled matter-of-factly in two pages. The 151 pages of endnotes are frequently livelier, more interpretive and more informative than the matching portions of the text. The pedestrian nature of the text stems mainly from Smith's decision to let Marshall speak for himself. The biography is almost devoid of interpretation and speculation. Sound scholarship, yes; lively lifetelling, only occasionally.