The Untold Story of Chief Justice John Marshall

With his latest book, Professor Joel Paul continues his deep dive into the compelling history of the Founding Fathers.

Professor Joel Paul’s previous book, Unlikely Allies (Riverhead, 2009), featured an unassuming shopkeeper, a mysterious cross-dressing spy, and a famous French playwright who changed the course of the American Revolution.

His newest book, Without Precedent: Chief Justice John Marshall and His Times (Riverhead, 2018), focuses on a self-taught man who grew up in poverty and ultimately transformed the Supreme Court from an institution without stature into a truly coequal branch of government. Intriguing supporting characters abound, including more spies and Barbary Coast pirates.

“People remember Marshall for a handful of his most famous opinions,” Paul said. “But those decisions really obscure his extraordinary contributions as a political leader, a statesman, a diplomat, and a secretary of state, in addition to his role as chief justice.”

The critical reception to Without Precedent has been resoundingly positive. The Wall Street Journal described the book as “deeply felt and penetrating,” and in a starred review Kirkus called the book “well-informed, perceptive, and absorbing.” Harvard Law Professor Laurence H. Tribe wrote, “In every chapter of this page-turning account of Marshall’s pivotal place in our nation’s history, even the expert will learn something new. … You owe it to yourself to read Joel Paul’s terrific book.”

Indeed, Marshall’s life was nothing less than a page-turner, as evidenced by his diplomatic mission to France in 1797 to negotiate the XYZ affair, his complex and deeply antagonistic relationship with his cousin Thomas Jefferson, and the surprising revelation that he likely suborned perjury in the seminal Marbury v. Madison case in 1803.

One of Marshall’s great and lasting achievements was that in the more than 1,100 cases he participated in during his 34-year tenure as chief justice, all but 35 were decided unanimously. In today’s increasingly politicized climate, such a statistic seems unfathomable. “Marshall told his fellow judges that we’re all going to live in the same rooming house, have meals together, and be together all the time. He hammered out compromise after compromise to get them to vote unanimously and to speak with one voice,” Paul said.

In addition, Paul recently adapted Unlikely Allies into a musical that will be workshopped in New York City this fall. He will then travel to London to teach for a semester and research his next book, which will focus on Daniel Webster and how, as secretary of state, he dealt with Britain in a conflict over the U.S.-Canada border. “It’s another improbable story of American diplomacy,” Paul said. And yes, it will feature another French spy.

C-SPAN Q&A with Joel Richard Paul