George Washington may have been the Father of Our Country, but his friend John Marshall defined for the new nation what it meant to be united and to live under the rule of law.

Confirmed as the fourth chief justice of the Supreme Court in 1801, Marshall inherited a bench which had yet to make its voice clear. It was considered by many to be a paper tiger, unable to enforce what rulings it issued, and unclear as to its role in the new government. Throughout his 34-year term as the nation's highest magistrate, Marshall not only gave the court this voice, but positioned the judicial branch as a non-partisan member in the tripartite of American checks and balances. In so doing, he did more than just establish the institution, the writer and legal scholar Anthony Lewis tells LIFE, but he established the national government. If America was to be ruled by law and not by monarchs, the military, or the whim of states, then the constitution, argued Marshall, must be the supreme law.

The Marshall court's first major decision came amidst partisan bickering between Thomas Jefferson's Republicans and John Adams's Federalists. In the case of Marbury v. Madison--the Court was being asked, essentially, to sanction the Judiciary Act of 1789, an act of Congress--Marshall drew a line in the sand. It is a proposition too plain to be contested, read Marshall from his court's unanimous opinion, that the constitution controls any legislative act repugnant to it. No matter that the representatives sitting in Congress spoke for their states when the Judiciary Act was passed. To allow any legislation to wield more power than justice itself, reduces to nothing what we have deemed the greatest improvement on political institutions, said Marshall, --a written constitution. Marshall's decision did have its detractors at the time, but the court had spoken with one, clear voice. The Supreme Court's power of judicial review, first used in Marbury, is today assumed. John Marshall's decision in Marbury v. Madison was one of civilization's finest hours, writes biographer Leonard Baker, one of mankind's greatest acIf it was clear, after that decision, what influence the Supreme Court could bring to the newly set table of checks and balances, the national government was still viewed by many as beholden to the will of the states. The argument went that the states, which had ratified the constitution, should hold power over the government they had certified. Marshall, who had served his country in the snows of Valley Forge during the brutal winter of 1777-78, believed that the constitution represented the people, not the states, in their more perfect Union. In McCulloch v. Maryland the Marshall court unanimously declared that the Union is, emphatically and truly, a government of the people. In form and substance it emanates from them, and for their benefit. As to the power held by the national government? Let the end be legitimate, said Marshall, let it be within the scope of the constitution, and all means which are appropriate, which are plainly adapted to that end, which are not prohibited, but consist with the letter and spirit of the constitution, are constitutional.

Marshall then, in just two decisions, had solidified not only the Supreme Court but the nation as well. His career would be noted also for decisions that recognized the sanctity of contracts and private corporations, enabling the American economy to grow into the powerhouse that it is today. It is hard to imagine what course the nation would have followed without the mind of Marshall at the helm. For it was his mind, his power of reason and understanding of the new form of government which his peers had created, that still stands the test of time by the adherence to precedents he set. His biographer, Jean Edward Smith, fully aware of the Founding Fathers he alluded to, states that Marshall possessed the best-organized mind of his generation. Thomas Jefferson too, though often at odds with Marshall, conceded that you must never give him an affirmative answer or you will be forced to grant his conclusion. Why, if he were to ask me if it were daylight or not, I'd reply, 'Sir, I don't know, I can't tell.'