Without Precedent

Chief Justice John Marshall and His Times
Narrated by: Fred Sanders
Length: 17 hrs and 11 mins
4.5 out of 5 stars (343 ratings)

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Publisher's Summary

The remarkable story of John Marshall who, as chief justice, statesman, and diplomat, played a pivotal role in the founding of the United States.

No member of America's founding generation had a greater impact on the Constitution and the Supreme Court than John Marshall, and no one did more to preserve the delicate unity of the fledgling United States. From the nation's founding in 1776 and for the next 40 years, Marshall was at the center of every political battle. As Chief Justice of the United States - the longest-serving in history - he established the independence of the judiciary and the supremacy of the federal Constitution and courts. As the leading Federalist in Virginia, he rivaled his cousin Thomas Jefferson in influence. As a diplomat and secretary of state, he defended American sovereignty against France and Britain, counseled President John Adams, and supervised the construction of the city of Washington, DC.

This is the astonishing true story of how a rough-cut frontiersman - born in Virginia in 1755 and with little formal education - invented himself as one of the nation's preeminent lawyers and politicians who then reinvented the Constitution to forge a stronger nation. Without Precedent is the engrossing account of the life and times of this exceptional man, who with cunning, imagination, and grace shaped America's future as he held together the Supreme Court, the Constitution, and the country itself.

©2018 Joel Richard Paul (P)2018 Penguin Audio

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Scholarly and Accessible

When I think about Founding Fathers, I usually only think about the Presidents plus Benjamin Franklin. It turns out John Marshall, Chief Justice of the Supreme Court from John Adams through Andrew Jackson (34 years--the record for Chief Justices) is as important as any of them in the forming of our nation.

This is the second book I have listened to about Marshall, and it far outshines the other (What Kind of Nation by James F Simon). First of all, it covers much more of Marshall's biography, providing more personal context for his political life. Second, Paul couches his statement and especially his judgments in historical fact and context, sharing the common narratives, both pro and con, about each topic he discusses. Third, Paul goes as far back as necessary to fully contextualize each important case or event he discusses so that the listener can understand the how we got here, what it means and where it leads us of each of the momentous decisions Marshall wrote. So I learned as much, well, more actually, about law as I did about Marshall himself.

Definitely worth listening to. Fascinating history that has implications up through today.

18 people found this helpful

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A Fascinating Biography

This is a major new biography of John Marshall (1755-1835). Marshall was President John Adams’ Secretary of State. As he was going out of office, Adams appointed John Marshall as the Chief of the Supreme Court. Even though Marshall was the fourth Chief Justice, he was the one that transformed the Court into its current role and one of the key balances of power in the government. Paul covers Marshall’s early life and reveals him as a man. Of course, he also goes into depth discussing his role on the Supreme Court. Marshall was the longest serving Chief Justice. More than any other biography of Marshall, Paul goes into detail about Marshall the man.

The book is well written and meticulously researched. Paul attempts to be unbiased as far as Marshall is concerned but not so for President Thomas Jefferson. The book is easy to read with a flowing narrative. Paul’s writing style makes complex legal cases easy to understand for the layman. I found this to be one of the best biographies on Marshall that I have read to date. If one is interested in the Supreme Court, this is a must-read book.

Joel Richard Paul is a Professor of International Economic Law and Constitutional Law at the University of California Hastings Law School in San Francisco, California.

The book is just over seventeen hours. Fred Sanders does a good job narrating the book. Sanders is a stage and film actor as well as an audiobook narrator.

6 people found this helpful

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Worthwhile introduction to Marshall

In my opinion this is a "popular" work, not a scholarly one. If moves fast and does not go into any part of Marshall's life in great detail. I think most listeners would find the material easy to follow. Unfortunately, with these audio books you don't get to see the footnotes and source documentation, which would be useful with a biography like this. This is my first book on John Marshall, so it was nice to have something that gave me a general overview of his life. The book necessarily covers only a small number of the many cases heard by the Marshall court.

My take away from this is I had no idea how influential this one man was in the evolution of the original union of thirteen North American colonies into the tragic behemoth the United States is today. Marshall invented the legal and philosophical foundation by which the federal government usurped the rights and powers of the sovereign state governments that created it. He thereby gave birth to the nation we have today in which all power resides in Washington, D.C. Not surprisingly, there were contemporaries of Marshall who predicted the long-term consequences of his actions, but apparently Marshall was blinded by his fear of a disintegration of the union. Thus he was willing to deny others the self-evident truths (rights) for which he fought as an officer in the American Revolution in order to establish and preserve the supremacy of the new Federal government. Marshall did not seek to strike a balance between the powers of the State and Federal governments, rather he sought to establish the unassailable supremacy of the Federal government that plagues us today.

But Marshall appears to have been a person whose company we all would have enjoyed socially. And he also appears to have been a man of high personal integrity. However, the author does seem to have a bias in favor of Marshall, so maybe he paints a more flattering picture than is warranted. It was refreshing to hear the author's comments on Jefferson, who is worshiped like a deity where I live in central Virginia, yet is dripping with hypocrisy and vanity.

The narrator does an adequate job. I do recommend this book for those with an interest in the subject or period.

5 people found this helpful

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Great book, good narration

I'd give this book 5-stars but the anti-Jefferson sentiment was heavy and by the end of the book it became quite annoying. That aside, the book is wonderful.

2 people found this helpful

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Excellent book highlighting early SCOTUS history

Look at our first great Supreme Court Chief Justice, John Marshall. Marshall essentially establishes the concept of “judicial review” that makes SCOTUS the arbitrator of constitutionally in law. SOME of the readings of court got a little dry at times, but otherwise a fascinating, well written and performed book.

2 people found this helpful

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An amazing and important Historical story.

A biography that should be required reading in every Civic class. Also, it is the story of our early formation of laws that are still relevant in today's political and civil upheaval.

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Thoroughly Mediocre Biography of a Great Man

This book is fine as a retelling of historical fact, but fails to make Marshall come alive in the way Kearns-Goodwin or Caro did for Lincoln and LBJ respectively. There are a few personal anecdotes sprinkled here and there, but by the end Marshall still felt more like a distant historical figure than an actual man.

Paul also falls into the biographer’s trap of taking on his subject’s antagonisms - resulting in an entirely negative depiction of Jefferson and Madison (to a lesser extent). This wasn’t limited to their differences in philosophies, the author clearly thinks Marshall was the better man - at one point arguing that Marshall’s ownership of slaves was less morally repugnant than Jefferson’s because Marshall regularly interacted with his slaves around the house, while Jefferson used a dumb waiter to avoid the presence of slaves while he was eating.

It’s also worth noting that only the last third of the book is about Marshall’s time on the Court. These chapters are organized episodically with each one devoted to the background and implications of a landmark case. Again, this was fine as a retelling of historical facts but left a lot to be desired in terms of narrative.

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John Marshall, Constitution Hero



I greatly admire John Marshall and his dedication to American jurisprudence. His thoughtfulness and creativity helped design our modern laws and he exemplified what the Supreme Court should be.

The author did a good job describing Marshall’s life and decisions. He gave the Chief Justice the honors he deserved without falling prey to the “halo effect” as many biographers do.

I did detect the author’s political biases at times. There was no “Republican” party during Marshall’s time, yet we repeatedly hear of negative actions the “Republicans” took. This leaves a casual reader with false impressions.

Overall I enjoyed the book and learned a great deal. It leaves me with a desire to learn more about Marshall. This is a good thing, not a failing by the author to be complete. Who doesn’t wistfully desire for a good story to continue?

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A great popular-style biography

I'm sure there are any number of people who, like me, started learning more American history, inspired by interest in the Hamilton musical and biography. I'm a generally educated person, but by no means a historian, so John Marshall was probably the Founding Father about whom I knew the least among the first several presidents, Hamilton, etc.

This biography is half the length of recent popular tomes on Washington, Adams, Hamilton, etc., so necessarily it is somewhat less complete. However, it is extremely satisfying to someone like me. It is well written and very well read. I particularly enjoyed learning more detail about the Tallyrand/XYZ affair and that part is very well told. Enough detail is given on the course cases that Paul covers to understand the issues without getting too bogged down. After all, some of the actual topics of the cases that were so important to his reading of the Constitution ultimately were about some pretty dull property matters. If you are already well acquainted with Marshall's jurisprudence and are looking for a very detailed parsing of the cases, this is not the book for you. If you want to understand the ideas and compromises that Marshall made, you're in the right place.

It is true (having looked at some of the other reviews) that the author generally sides with Marshall over Jefferson, and points out with some disdain some of the crap that Jefferson pulled. Someone with a high school version of Jefferson in his/her mind (i.e., pretty much hagiographic thoughts about the D of I and Louisiana) is going to react badly to this dismissive treatment of TJ. Again, I am no serious historian, but having recently read/listened to several related biographies, I thought the treatment of TJ was not out of line, particularly given the perspective that the story is being told about Marshall. The final chapter does address the compare/contrast directly. Similarly, it's useful to be pretty well acquainted with XYZ and the quasi-war with France. Because of this, I'd recommend at least having gotten through Washington/Adams/Jefferson before Marshall if you, like me, are perusing this history.

In short, this was thoroughly enjoyable for me and very instructive...but it's not for people who are looking for a serious academic treatment.

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Excellent Perspective and SCOTUS Case Review

John Marshall is best known for his tremendous work in creating an unmatched body of precedent case law. His background and experience as an American Revolution veteran, diplomat, and cabinet member all provide an excellent view of what made the most extraordinary chief justice tick. A master of building consensus and navigating the dangerous political waters that the Supreme Court was forced to sail, Marshall set the course of American Jurisprudence that is still being referred to and relied on today.