Skip to Main Content

What Kind of Nation

Thomas Jefferson, John Marshall, and the Epic Stru

LIST PRICE $18.99
PRICE MAY VARY BY RETAILER

What Kind of Nation is a riveting account of the bitter and protracted struggle between two titans of the early republic over the power of the presidency and the independence of the judiciary.

The clash between fellow Virginians (and second cousins) Thomas Jefferson and John Marshall remains the most decisive confrontation between a president and a chief justice in American history. Fought in private as well as in full public view, their struggle defined basic constitutional relationships in the early days of the republic and resonates still in debates over the role of the federal government vis-à-vis the states and the authority of the Supreme Court to interpret laws.

Jefferson was a strong advocate of states' rights who distrusted the power of the federal government. He believed that the Constitution defined federal authority narrowly and left most governmental powers to the states. He was suspicious of the Federalist-dominated Supreme Court, whose members he viewed as partisan promoters of their political views at the expense of Jefferson's Republicans. When he became president, Jefferson attempted to correct the Court's bias by appointing Republicans to the Court. He also supported an unsuccessful impeachment of Federalist Supreme Court Justice Samuel Chase.

Marshall believed in a strong federal government and was convinced that an independent judiciary offered the best protection for the Constitution and the nation. After he was appointed by Federalist President John Adams to be chief justice in 1801 (only a few weeks before Jefferson succeeded Adams), he issued one far-reaching opinion after another. Beginning with the landmark decision Marbury v. Madison in 1803, and through many cases involving states' rights, impeachment, treason, and executive privilege, Marshall established the Court as the final arbiter of the Constitution and the authoritative voice for the constitutional supremacy of the federal government over the states.

As Marshall's views prevailed, Jefferson became increasingly bitter, certain that the Court was suffocating the popular will. But Marshall's carefully reasoned rulings endowed the Court with constitutional authority even as they expanded the power of the federal government, paving the way for later Court decisions sanctioning many pivotal laws of the modern era, such as those of the New Deal, the Great Society, and the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

In a fascinating description of the treason trial of Jefferson's former vice president, Aaron Burr, James F. Simon shows how Marshall rebuffed President Jefferson's claim of executive privilege. That decision served as precedent for a modern Supreme Court ruling rejecting President Nixon's claim that he did not have to hand over the Watergate tapes.

More than 150 years after Jefferson's and Marshall's deaths, their words and achievements still reverberate in constitutional debate and political battle. What Kind of Nation is a dramatic rendering of a bitter struggle between two shrewd politicians and powerful statesmen that helped create a United States.

Photo by Marcia L. Simon

James F. Simon is the Martin Professor of Law and Dean Emeritus at New York Law School. He is the author of seven previous books on American history, law, and politics. His books have won the American Bar Association’s Silver Gavel Award and twice been named New York Times Notable Books. He lives with his wife in West Nyack, New York.

Joseph J. Ellis The New York Times Book Review A study of the political and legal struggle between these icons of American history...A major contribution...A model of narrative history written by someone who knows the law.

A. J. Langguth author of Patriots: The Men Who Started the American Revolution and Our Vietnam James Simon has written a legal suspense story, with John Marshall trying to wrench the Supreme Court from a cramped room in the Capitol building to its rightful place under the Constitution while a suspicious President Jefferson fights him bitterly from behind the scenes. What Kind of Nation helps us to understand the court battles that go on today, no less partisan, no less urgent.

The Washington Post James Simon adds a patina of freshness and telling detail to this familiar story. He carefully traces the origins of the rivalry...but is at his best when he gets around to the great cases, not merely Marbury but others, especially the Burr treason trial...What Kind of Nation is a fine read.

The American Prospect James Simon retells this splendid story in clear and elegant prose. For once the publisher's subtitle is not exaggeration -- the result is, at least in legal terms, an epic of the founding, featuring fascinating antagonists, enormous consequences, and alternating episodes of nobility and treachery.

More books from this author: James F. Simon