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Setting the Stage


During the eight-year administration of President George Washington (1789-1797), rival political parties formed to contest the policies and development of the federal government launched under the Constitution of the United States. One party, the Democratic-Republicans, was led by Thomas Jefferson. The other party, the Federalists, was led by Alexander Hamilton.

The Jeffersonian Republicans, as they often were called, stood for a strict construction or interpretation of the Constitution, which would limit the federal government to the powers specifically granted to it. They tended to oppose expansion of federal government power at the expense of the powers and rights of the state governments. By contrast the Federalist party of Hamilton favored a loose or broad construction of the Constitution, which would allow the expansion of federal government power to meet important needs of national scope.

John Marshall, a successful lawyer and local political leader in Virginia, was a staunch supporter of the new federal government. In 1801 he was appointed chief justice of the Supreme Court by the outgoing Federalist president, John Adams. During Marshall’s 34 years as chief justice, he transformed the Supreme Court into a powerful and revered institution. He wrote and presided over many Supreme Court decisions that used broad interpretation of the Constitution to support the federal government’s power in its relationship to the states of the federal union. Some of the Marshall Court’s decisions infuriated his cousin Thomas Jefferson, who served as president of the United States from 1801-1809.

 

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