Tag Archives: this day in history

The 215th anniversary of Marbury v. Madison

Marbury v. Madison, decided February 24, 1803. Maybe you dimly recall this Supreme Court decision from high school history classes. Maybe you know it’s important. But why is it important, and how did it come about?

Federalist John Adams was so annoyed with Jefferson succeeding him that he left town rather than attend Jefferson’s inauguration.

For those who think of the Founding Fathers as high-minded individuals, it may be a bit of a shock to realize they could act from clearly partisan motives. The Federalists had been defeated by Thomas Jefferson and the Democratic-Republican Party in the election of 1800. Wanting to assure continued Federalist control of the judiciary, the Federalists passed a new law to create many new judicial positions, and proceeded to fill them with their allies.

However, not all the commissions had been handed out to the new judges when the Democratic-Republicans took over. And the new Jefferson Administration refused to give the commissions to the judges in question, which meant they could not serve as judges.

Don’t recognize him? It’s William Marbury. I wouldn’t have known him, either.

William Marbury was one such disappointed individual. To get his commission, he sued James Madison, who as Secretary of State was responsible for issuing the commission, demanding it be issued to him.

Now, the justices on the Supreme Court were all Federalist appointees. If they ruled in favor of Marbury, Jefferson could claim they were part of a partisan Federalist plot against the people. If against, well, the Federalists would at least have been deprived of a judgeship. Jefferson must have felt he couldn’t lose either way.

He was in for a surprise. The Court decided 4-0 against Marbury. But in his opinion, Chief Justice John Marshall ruled that the reason Marbury’s case failed was because he sued under an unconstitutional law, and that it was the right and duty of the Supreme Court to judge the constitutionality of laws under the provisions of United States Constitution. This became known as the doctrine of judicial review, and is a fundamental component of the Supreme Court’s role to this day.

Chief Justice John Marshall, and don’t mess with my opinions, sir!

Jefferson was dismayed. True, Madison wouldn’t have to release all those Federalist judicial commissions. But this decision made it clear that Federalist judges would use their power as a check on Democratic-Republicans. And from a nobler, less partisan perspective, Jefferson feared such a powerful judiciary would become a group of unchecked oligarchs.

The Supreme Court hasn’t been the only body to claim the right to determine the constitutionality of laws. Presidents from Washington to the present have done so. The states did so from the era of the Virginia and Kentucky resolutions (1798-99) until the Civil War . . . and not seriously since. Nor has the Supreme Court’s ability to enforce its judgments been unchallenged. But the doctrine of judicial review has survived.

Today, if constitutional issues are involved in a legal case, we expect that the Supreme Court will decide how the Constitution will be read and how it applies to the issues in question. That is why Marbury v. Madison is important.


On this day in history, February 22

1371 – Think of marrying the boss’s daughter? Can’t aim much higher than Walter Stewart, who married the Scottish King Robert the Bruce’s daughter. Their son Robert becomes king of Scotland on this day.

1651 – As many as 15,000 people along the coast of the North Sea are killed by “Saint Peter’s Flood,” because some saints are mean, I guess. (OK, it’s because it was a St. Peter’s feast day; but it’s still a stupid idea to name it that way.)

The War of the Austrian Succession also involved the Hungarian succession. Confused? So were contemporaries.

The War of the Austrian Succession also involved the Hungarian succession. Confused? So were contemporaries.

1722 – It is actually February 11 in Virginia when George Washington is born; the American colonies don’t change over to the Gregorian calendar until 1752, at which point George objected to having a birthday 11 days too early, and switched to the 22nd. We celebrate George Washington’s birthday today as a holiday which NEVER falls on his birthday.

1744- The Battle of Toulon marks a turning point in the War of the Austrian Succession, not to be confused with the wars over the Spanish, Polish, or Bavarian successions, all of which you distinctly remember from your European history course.

1819 – The United States buys Florida from Spain for $5 million, which is about what the state will be worth after global warming gets through with it.

1821 – Alexander Ypsilantis begins the Greek War of Independence by invading what is now Romania. No, he did not have a bad GPS system in his dashboard. He was trying to get all the Christians in the Ottoman Empire to revolt.

1848 – The French Revolution of 1848 leads to the Second French Republic which promptly elects Napoleon’s nephew as President, who overthrows the republic and proclaims the Second Empire in 1851. Even Karl Marx made fun of this episode in history.

1862 – Jefferson Davis is inaugurated as President of the Confederate States of American for a six-year term. Too bad for him the Confederacy didn’t last much more than three.

I also assisted in getting Darwin and Wallace to cooperate in announcing evolution together

I also assisted in getting Darwin and Wallace to cooperate in announcing evolution together

1875 – Charles Lyell dies at age 77. Don’t recognize the name? You should. This is the man who made the case that geological processes proved the Earth was millions of years old. Without him, Charles Darwin probably wouldn’t have been able to come up with the theory of evolution. (Ironically, Lyell himself never fully accepted Darwin’s theory.) Queen Victoria made Lyell a baronet, and probably thought she was honoring him, but no title could give him more honor than his role as a man of science.

1921 – A rogue anti-Boshevik Russian military leader of Baltic German descent restores a Buddhist religious figure to the throne of Outer Mongolia. Truth is stranger than Game of Thrones.

1924 – Calvin Coolidge becomes the first President to make a radio broadcast from the White House. Legends that John Cage was inspired by this event are not true.

1980 – Just as Saint Peter flooded the Dutch coast, God takes a hand this time to give the United States Olympic hockey team a victory over the Soviets, the “Miracle on Ice.”

I was so famous I became a taxidermist's project (Credit: Wikipedia/Mike Pennington)

I was so famous I became a taxidermist’s project
(Credit: Wikipedia/Mike Pennington)

1983 – The play “Moose Murders” opens and closes on Broadway. One would like to think that PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) was responsible for the closing, though its non-existent equivalent, PETH (People for the Ethical Treatment of Humans) would have had a stronger case.

1997 – Scottish scientists announce the cloning of a sheep named Dolly. Scotland . . . sheep . . . why am I not surprised?

This day MISremembered in History: December 7

You all know about Pearl Harbor, but other notable events happened on December 7.

574 – The Byzantine Emperor Justin II abdicates due to recurring insanity brought on by waging too many wars in the Middle East.

Darnley and the Queen

Darnley and the Queen, before his “accident”

1545 – Lord Darnley is born. He marries Mary, Queen of Scots in 1565. He has Mary’s secretary and rumored lover killed in 1566. He is killed in an explosion in 1567, probably planned by the man who would become Mary’s next husband. Game of Thrones, you ain’t got nothin’ on the Scots.

1672 – Richard Bellingham, former Governor of Massachusetts Bay Colony, dies. Lawsuits over his estate were blamed for the delays in Boston’s Big Dig project (1982 – 2038?).

1787 – Delaware ratifies the U.S. Constitution. 2,643 firms immediately incorporate there to avoid taxes.

Bligh in one of his cheerier moments

Bligh in one of his cheerier moments

1817 – William Bligh dies. It’s a shame he’s remembered only as the failed captain of the HMS Bounty. He was also the failed Governor of New South Wales as well.

1862 – The Battle of Prairie Grove, the only Civil War battle fought by armies of prairie dogs, ends when all the prairie dogs jump off a cliff and drown.

1869 – A misunderstanding over an illegible withdrawal slip leads to Jesse James’s first bank robbery.

1902 – Thomas Nast dies. He popularized the Republican elephant, the Democratic donkey, Uncle Sam, the modern Santa Claus, and Donald Trump’s hair style.

1905 – Gerard Kuiper is born. His belt size increased so much that it now circles the Solar System beyond Neptune.

1917 – The United States Congress declares war on the Austro-Hungarian Empire after debating for six days whether it really exists.

1930 – The worst disaster in United States history: the first television commercial is broadcast.

Every taxi ride deserves a sequel

Every taxi ride deserves a sequel

1942 – Harry Chapin is born. They tell us he died, but I think he’s still driving a taxi.

1965 – The Pope and the Patriarch of Constantinople say they were just kidding when they excommunicated each other more than nine centuries earlier.

1972 – Apollo 17, which the U.S. Government would have you believe was the last manned moon mission, is launched. Either it was all a fake and we never landed on the moon, or it was just the preliminary steps for Apollo 18 setting up a permanent base on the dark side of the moon to defeat the Nazis there; possibly both.

(N.B.: Not to be used to prepare for a history test, to write a history paper, or to drive a taxi.)