History nerds will geek out over this in depth but surprisingly readable biography of famous Supreme Court Chief Justice John Marshall by historian and biographer Richard Brookhiser. As someone who loved history in school but has since pursued mostly other interests, this was a good foray back into the world and reminded me a lot about why I like reading about our founding. Hidden among the importance of Constitutional battles, court decisions, and spectacular men and women were scandals, juicy gossip, and lots of arguing.
This biography is set up in the typical chronological style, tough we quickly fly through Marshall’s early family years, his parents role in his life for example, and into him fighting in the Revolution, entering politics, marrying, and ultimately pursuing law full time. Brookhiser provides a great focus on what Marshall was working on during his life and easily ties it to the greater national issues like banks and contracts and land disputes and Native-American relations.
While this is a biography of Marshall first and foremost, and he is certainly the central character and the one you will close this book feeling like you have studied deeply, it is hard to not call this a biography of early America as well. Marshall was so instrumental in the early years of the Court as well as the early years of America, and happening alongside his tenure on the Court were some crazy things in politics. I loved finding the little nuggets of history in this book that I had forgotten learning about–like Aaron Burr being tried to treason, the Steamboat/Claremont, all of the stuff I reveled over in APUSH back in the day. But I also loved diving into the rich history that Brookhiser painted. He’s a good storyteller and as dry as a book about a lifelong lawyer in early America could be, Brookhiser works to imbue it with a sense of life and a little beat of a heartbeat. You know how it ends–how all biographies of long dead people end–but you actually enjoy the nearly three pages leading up to it.
This book hasn’t made me want to change course and become a historian, but I’m definitely interested in picking up books on more modern justices (O’Connor and Gorsuch come to mind) and seeing how we are telling their stories so shortly after their stories began.
If you like this book and want to read other books about Supreme Court Justices, check out the following:
- First: Sandra Day O’Connor by Evan Thomas
- The Chief: The Life and Turbulent Times of Chief Justice John Roberts by Joan Biskupic
- Oliver Wendell Holmes: A Life in War, Law, and Ideas by Stephen Budiansky
- The Making of a Justice: Reflections on My First 94 Years by John Paul Stevens
- A Republic, If You Can Keep It by Neil Gorsuch
- Scalia Speaks: Reflections on Law, Faith, and Life Well Lived by Antonin Scalia
- My Own Words by Ruth Bader Ginsburg
- My Beloved World by Sonia Sotomayor
- Justice for All: Earl Warren and the Nation He Made by Jim Newton