In the crowded field of historians, Haddonfield’s Robert Strauss has carved out a niche by examining unlikely subjects. Last time around, it was James Buchanan (Worst. President. Ever.); this time, his subject is John Marshall, lawyer, politician and fourth chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court.
The title of Strauss’s new book, John Marshall: The Final Founder (Lyons Press), stems from Marshall’s signature achievement: the establishment of the court as an equal partner with the executive and legislative branches in the federal government. That, Strauss opines, was the end of the founding.
In telling Marshall’s story, Strauss (an occasional contributor to New Jersey Monthly) glides along the surface of Colonial life and the American Revolution, in which Marshall served as an officer under George Washington. He details Marshall’s role in ratifying the Constitution (he argued in favor of a strong central government) and his emergence as a national figure as secretary of state under John Adams, who, in 1801, nominated Marshall to be chief justice.
During his long tenure, Marshall established the principle of judicial review, giving teeth to the courts and, as Strauss explains, putting the brakes on executive and congressional power. In doing so, Strauss tells New Jersey Monthly, “he sort of saved the country.”
Strauss’s writing is chatty and detailed. He relates moments in history by reimagining the actual scenes as they may have played out. Marshall is characterized as honest and genial, yet sloppily dressed. Of the founders, Strauss says, “We forget that these were just people.”
Marshall, says Strauss, would not be shocked by today’s politicized Supreme Court. “He lived in a divisive time, no different from now.”