Biography: John Marshall: The Chief Justice who Saved the Nation by Harlow Giles Unger

One gets the feeling that Harlow Giles Unger gets material for new book topics while researching still other books. What else could explain this prolificacy? Unger has delivered truly stellar biographies year after year on such diverse characters as John Quincy Adams and George Washington, to name just two.

While Unger is not the only biographer dealing with material steeped in American history these days, he is certainly in the very top tier of those who do. Not only that, despite a publishing schedule that has seen Unger produce more than 20 books, his work remains highly readable and even interesting. As anyone who has read historical non-fiction will tell you, that’s a tall order. Even for someone not publishing as frequently as this author does.

In John Marshall: The Chief Justice Who Saved a Nation (Da Capo), Unger puts his laser sights on the fourth Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States, John Marshall, who served in that position from 1801 to 1835. As Unger’s subtitle suggests, some of Marshall’s decisions were pivotal… though mostly unpopular and he remains the longest serving Chief Justice in American history.

Unger looks at the whole of Marshall’s life and concludes that some of the decisions he made on the bench would have far-reaching effects. Some of them impacting us even today. Beyond his work on the bench, Marshall made other contributions to society.  He was an officer in the Revolutionary War and distinguished himself mightily. He was a member of Virginia’s constitutional convention, a lawyer, a congressman, diplomat and was for a tim U.S. Secretary of State.

Unger’s book is a fair, lucid and highly readable look at the life of a quietly remarkable man. ◊

Aaron Blanton is a contributing editor to January Magazine. He’s currently working on a book based on his experiences as an American living abroad.

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