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John Marshall


Chief Justice John Marshall (September 24-1755-July 6, 1835) helped to shape the American nation, was an early explorer of West Virginia, and left his name on a major educational institution.

Born at the foot of the Blue Ridge Mountains, Marshall grew up on the Virginia frontier. At the age of 20, he joined the Continental Army to fight for American independence. He later entered the practice of law in Richmond, and by 1790 had become the leading appellate lawyer in Virginia. Marshall served in the House of Delegates, the state executive council, and as a delegate to the Virginia convention that ratified the U.S. Constitution. In 1797, President John Adams induced Marshall to go to Paris as American emissary, and he returned to a hero’s welcome. He was elected to Congress in 1799, and appointed secretary of state in 1800. The following year, Adams named him chief justice.

Marshall’s great decisions established the basis of American constitutional law and established the authority of the Supreme Court. They include Marbury v. Madison, McCulloch v. Maryland, and Gibbons v. Ogden.

In 1812, Chief Justice Marshall led a 20-man survey party mapping the route across Western Virginia between the James River and the Ohio. The Marshall group traveled down the New River Gorge in wooden boats, and the cliffs at Hawks Nest were known for many years as Marshall’s Pillars. The path he laid out became the route of the James River & Kanawha Turnpike, the Chesapeake & Ohio Railroad, and Interstate 64.

Marshall’s most enduring link to West Virginia resulted from the Virginia Constitutional Convention of 1829–1830. Marshall, then 74, made an extraordinary impression. John Laidley, a delegate from Cabell County, returned home and founded a small institution that he called Marshall Academy in honor of the great chief justice. Over the years Marshall Academy became Marshall University. John Marshall died in Philadelphia, where he had traveled for medical care. Legend has it that the Liberty Bell cracked tolling his death.

View an exhibit about John Marshall’s 1812 expedition

Written by Jean Edward Smith


  1. Smith, Jean Edward. John Marshall: Definer of a Nation. New York: Henry Holt & Co., 1996.