The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
VOLUME XVI. Early National Literature, Part II; Later National Literature, Part I.

XV. Publicists and Orators, 1800–1850.

§ 8. Cohens vs. Virginia.

In the decade after the War of 1812, Marshall rendered a series of opinions of the first importance. Thoroughly permeated with the conviction that the states of the Union must be kept within their proper bounds, he gave to the task of interpreting the Constitution and maintaining the authority of the national government his greatest power. Possibly his ablest decision, certainly the one most elaborately wrought out, is Cohens vs. Virginia, in which the question arose as to the right of the Supreme Court to exercise its appellate jurisdiction over the judgment of a state court involving the validity of state legislation. The contention of the counsel for the state struck at the very root of the judicial system of the Union, with its authority to review state decisions which involved the binding effect of the Federal Constitution and laws: and so to the discussion of this fundamental question Marshall brought his heaviest artillery. In a series of powerful paragraphs he proclaimed the principle of nationalism and the existence of a real union resting on the will and determination of the people:
“That the United States,” he said, “from, for many, and for most important purposes, a single nation, has not yet been denied. In war, we are one people. In making peace, we are one people. In all commercial regulations, we are one and the same people. In many other respects, the American people are one; and the government which is alone capable of controlling and managing their interests in all these respects, is the government of the Union. It is their government, and in that character they have no other. America has chosen to be, in many respects, and to many purposes, a nation; and for all these purposes, her government is complete; to all these objects, it is competent.”
These words give us some idea of the simplicity of the style, the evidence of power and confidence, the eloquence which can raise a judicial opinion into the realm of literature. This decision, emphatically maintaining the appellate authority of the Court and the supremacy of the national law when the law is consonant with the Constitution, left no further ground for legal discussion, though the men of Virginia, fretting under the authority of the Court, poured out their wrath in many words. 1 

Note 1. See William E. Dodd, Chief Justice Marshall and Virginia, in American Historical Review, XII (1907), 776–787. [ back ]