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Marbury v. Madison

John Marshall, head-and-shoulders portrait, right profile
John Marshall, head-and-shoulders portrait, right profile.
Saint-Mémin, Charles Balthazar Julien Fevret de, 1770-1852, artist.
Richmond : 1808.
1 print : engraving.
Prints & Photographs Division.
Reproduction Number:

The U.S. Supreme Court case Marbury v. Madison (1803) established the principle of judicial reviewthe power of the federal courts to declare legislative and executive acts unconstitutional. The unanimous opinion was written by Chief Justice John Marshall.

President John Adams named William Marbury as one of forty-two justices of the peace on March 2, 1801. The Senate confirmed the nominations the following day, March 3, which was Adams's last full day in office. However, acting Secretary of State John Marshall failed to deliver four of the commissions, including Marbury’s. When Thomas Jefferson took office on March 4, he ordered that the four remaining commissions be withheld. Marbury sued the new secretary of state, James Madison, in order to obtain his commission. The Supreme Court issued its opinion on February 24, 1803.

Library of Congress Web Site | External Web Sites | Selected Bibliography

Digital Collections

A Century of Lawmaking for a New Nation: U.S. Congressional Documents and Debates, 1774-1875

This collection contains congressional publications from 1774 to 1875, including debates, bills, laws, and journals.

The following references to William Marbury can be found in the Annals of Congress and the Senate Executive Journal.

  • March 2, 1801 - President John Adams submitted forty-two judicial appointments to the Senate, including William Marbury to be justices of the peace in the District of Columbia. Marbury's name was misspelled as Marberry in the Senate Executive Journal.
  • March 3, 1801 - The Senate confirmed all forty-two judicial appointments submitted by Adams the previous day, including Marbury's.
  • January 28, 1803 - The petition of William Marbury, Robert Townsend Hooe, and Dennis Ramsay "praying that the Secretary of the Senate may be directed to deliver them a certified copy of their nominations to be justices of the peace for the counties of Washington and Alexandria" was presented and read by the Senate.
  • January 31, 1803 - The Senate took into consideration the motion made on January 28th, "That the Secretary of the Senate be directed to give an attested copy of the proceedings of the Senate of the 2d and 3d of March, 1801, so far as they relate to the nomination and appointment of William Marbury, Robert T. Hooe, and Dennis Ramsay, as justices of the peace for the counties of Washington and Alexandria, in the territory of Columbia, on the application of them or either of them."
  • January 31, 1803 - The Senate denied Marbury's petition by a vote of 13 yeas and 15 nays.

Thomas Jefferson Papers, 1606 to 1827

The complete Thomas Jefferson Papers from the Manuscript Division at the Library of Congress consists of approximately 27,000 documents.

A selection of references to Marbury v. Madison and judicial review includes:

  • Thomas Jefferson to Henry Knox, March 27, 1801, " the class of removals however I do not rank the new appointments which mr A. crouded in with whip & spur from the 12th. of Dec. when the event of the election was known, (and consequently that he was making appointments, not for himself, but his successor) until 9. aclock of the night, at 12. aclock of which he was to go out of office. this outrage on decency, shall not have it’s affect, except in the life appointments which are irremoveable. but as to the others I consider the nominations as nullities & will not view the persons appointed as even candidates for their office, much less as possessing it by any title meriting respect." [Transcription]
  • Thomas Jefferson to Abigail Smith Adams, September 11, 1804, "but the opinion which gives to the judges the right to decide what laws are constitutional, and what not, not only for themselves in their own sphere of action, but for the legislature & executive also in their spheres, would make the judiciary a despotic branch." [Transcription]
  • Thomas Jefferson to George Hay, June 2, 1807, "I observe that the case of Marbury v. Madison has been cited, and I think it material to stop at the threshold the citing that case as authority & to have it denied to be law..." [and] "I have long wished for a proper occasion to have the gratuitous opinion in Marbury v. Madison brought before the public & denounced as not law." [Transcription]
  • Thomas Jefferson to James Madison, May 25, 1810, "His twistifications in the case of Marbury, in that of Burr, & the late Yazoo case, shew how dexterously he can reconcile law to his personal biasses." [Transcription]
  • Thomas Jefferson to W. H. Torrance, June 11, 1815, "The 2d question whether the judges are invested with exclusive authority to decide on the constitutionality of a law, has been heretofore a subject of consideration with me in the exercise of official duties. certainly there is not a word in the constitution which has given that power to them more than to the Executive or Legislative branches." [Transcription]
  • Thomas Jefferson to Spencer Roane, September 6, 1819, "In the case of Marbury and Madison, the federal judges declared that commissions, signed and sealed by the President, were valid, altho’ not delivered. I deemed delivery essential to compleat a deed, which, as long as it remains in the hands of the party, is as yet no deed, it is in posse only, but not in esse, and I withheld delivery of the Commissions." [Transcription]
  • Thomas Jefferson to William Johnson, June 12, 1823, "...among the midnight appointments of mr Adams’ were commissions to some federal justices of the peace for Alexandria. these were signed and sealed by him, but not delivered. I found them on the table of the department of State, on my entry into office, and I forbade their delivery....and in this case was actually in my hands, because, when I countermanded them, there was as yet no Secretary of state. yet this case of Marbury and Madison is continually cited by bench and bar, as if it were, settled, law, without any animadversion on it’s being merely an obiter dissertation of the Chief Justice." [Transcription]

U.S. Reports

United States Reports is a series of bound case reporters that are the official reports of decisions for the United States Supreme Court. This collection spans 1754-2003 or volumes 1 through 542.

Constitution of the United States of America: Analysis and Interpretation

The Constitution of the United States of America: Analysis and Interpretation (popularly known as the Constitution Annotated) contains legal analysis and interpretation of the United States Constitution, based primarily on Supreme Court case law. This regularly updated resource is especially useful when researching the constitutional implications of a specific issue or topic. The chapter on Article III discusses Marbury v. Madison.

Guide to Law Online

The Guide to Law Online, prepared by the Law Library of Congress Public Services Division, is an annotated guide to sources of information on government and law available online. It provides a compilation of Web sites for the United States Judiciary, including links to the Supreme Court and other Federal courts.

External Web Sites

To James Madison from William Marbury, 16 December 1801, Founders Online

Landmark Cases of the U.S. Supreme Court: Marbury v. Madison (1803), External Link Street Law and The Supreme Court Historical Society

Draft of Motion Rule for Marbury v. Madison, National Archives and Records Administration

Judicial Review and Legislative Power: Marbury v. Madison, External Link CQ Press

Lesson Plan: John Marshall, Marbury v. Madison, and Judicial Review—How the Court Became Supreme, EDSITEment

Marbury v. Madison (5 U.S. 137), External Link Cornell Legal Information Institute

Marbury v. Madison (1803), External Link PBS

Marbury V. Madison - The Case of the "Missing" Commissions, External Link American Heritage

Marbury v. Madison: The Supreme Court Claims its Power, External Link National Constitution Center

Our Documents, Marbury v. Madison (1803), National Archives and Records Administration

Supreme Court Landmark Case Marbury v. Madison, External Link C-SPAN

Selected Bibliography

Clinton, Robert Lowry. Marbury v. Madison and Judicial Review. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1989. [Catalog Record]

Dewey, Donald O. Marshall Versus Jefferson: The Political Background of Marbury Vs. Madison. New York: Knopf, 1970. [Catalog Record]

Graberm Mark A., and Michael Perhac, eds. Marbury Versus Madison: Documents and Commentary. Washington, D.C.: CQ Press, 2002. [Catalog Record]

Nelson, William Edward. Marbury v. Madison: The Origins and Legacy of Judicial Review. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2000. [Catalog Record]

Sloan, Cliff, and David McKean. The Great Decision: Jefferson, Adams, Marshall, and the Battle for the Supreme Court. New York: PublicAffairs, 2009. [Catalog Record]

Tushnet, Mark, ed. Arguing Marbury v. Madison. Stanford: Stanford Law and Politics, 2005. [Catalog Record]

Younger Readers

DeVillers, David. Marbury v. Madison: Powers of the Supreme Court. Springfield, N.J.: Enslow Publishers, 1998. [Catalog Record]

Mountjoy, Shane. Marbury v. Madison: Establishing Supreme Court Power. New York: Chelsea House, 2007. [Catalog Record]

Naden, Corinne J., and Rose Blue. Marbury v. Madison: The Court's Foundation. Tarrytown, N.Y.: Benchmark Books, 2005. [Catalog Record]

Randolph, Ryan P. Marbury v. Madison: The New Supreme Court Gets More Power. New York: Rosen Publishing Group, 2004. [Catalog Record]

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  March 14, 2018
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