Without Precedent: Chief Justice John Marshall and His Times

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 forty 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. D.C.

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.

Reviews & Praise

Praise for Joel Richard Paul’s WITHOUT PRECEDENT

“I would have predicted that there was nothing worth saying about John Marshall that hadn’t already been said. I would’ve been so wrong. In every chapter of this page-turning account of Marshall’s pivotal place in our nation’s history, even the expert will learn something new. How did Joel Paul figure out, for instance, that the great Chief Justice probably suborned perjury on his brother’s part during the bizarre Marbury v. Madison trial? You owe it to yourself to read Joel Paul’s terrific book to find out.”  ---- Laurence H. Tribe, Carl M. Loeb University Professor and Professor of Constitutional Law, Harvard Law School

“Who was John Marshall, really? Thousands meet him anew each year solely through his published opinions. But finally, Joel Richard Paul gives us this captivating, indispensable account, painting a fascinating picture of the frontiersman, soldier, illusionist, strategist,  diplomat and international lawyer who became not just the man behind Marbury, but so much more.”Harold Hongju Koh, Sterling Professor of International Law and former Dean, Yale Law School

Anyone interested in the law and our country’s Founders will find this book revealing and enjoyable.”  Jill Abramson, former executive editor of the New York Times and co-author, Strange Justice.

"Joel Richard Paul has written a fascinating and deeply authoritative biography of one of the most overlooked but important members of the founding generation. John Marshall was a lawyer, justice, and statesman, who as much as anyone else helped shape the nation's court system and left a lasting imprint on our legal principles – and much more. Here, in Without Precedent, Marshall gets the attention he so justly deserves."  Jay Winik, author, The Great Upheaval and 1944

"You don't have to be a constitutional law scholar to enjoy this lively, wonderfully engaging account of the life and times of Chief Justice John Marshall."  William Taubman, Pulitzer Prize-winning author, Khrushchev: The Man and His Era, and Gorbachev: His Life and Times.

“John Marshall (1755-1835) was no patrician. The eldest of 15 children born to an impoverished Virginia farmer, he had only a few months of formal education but served as a foot soldier at Valley Forge, a commissioner to France during the XYZ Affair, secretary of state to John Adams, and finally chief justice, a post to which Adams appointed him to resist the partisans of incoming president Thomas Jefferson. As Paul (Constitutional and International Law/Univ. of California Hastings Law School; Unlikely Allies: How a Merchant, a Playwright, and a Spy Saved the American Revolution, 2008) notes, Marshall took over a court that "was regarded as nothing more than a constitutional afterthought [with]…few cases, little dignity, and no genuine authority." He bolstered the court's prestige by inventing the majority decision and produced more than 1,000 unanimous decisions during his tenure, a testimony to his skills of persuasion and compromise. Often employing a form of political judo, Marshall expanded the authority of his court and the central government by establishing fundamental constitutional principles like judicial review, taken for granted today but hotly contested in that era, to the impotent rage of his partisan opponents. In his conduct of the 1807 treason trial of Aaron Burr, Marshall infuriated Jefferson but arguably "did more to secure free expression and prevent tyranny than any other court in our history." Much of the story necessarily focuses on abstruse issues in constitutional law, but the author turns this potential narrative problem into a strength by emphasizing the politics and personal stories underlying the court's landmark cases. He cheerfully draws readers into the factual and legal complexities involved, employing an easygoing prose style that neither condescends nor bogs down in legalese. As much as Paul admires Marshall, he doesn't shrink from exposing holes in his reasoning, occasional ethically dodgy procedure, and a sometimes dismayingly amoral approach to the law. A well-informed, perceptive, and absorbing biography of a titan of American history.” -- Kirkus starred review

Paul (Unlikely Allies, 2009) brings to life the turbulent early years of the American Republic through the life of a lesser-known but long-lasting Founding Father. John Marshall was present from the beginning of the Revolution and held many roles before that of chief justice and the last of the great Federalists to serve in the federal government. Paul pays special attention to the intense partisanship and political polarization of the era, especially the feud between Marshall and his cousin Thomas Jefferson. Paul challenges the popular understanding of Marshall as a conservative roadblock and holdover from a bygone ideology at great length, describing the chief justice’s decisions from the beginning of Jefferson’s presidency and well into the administration of Andrew Jackson as central to our modern understanding of law, the political state, and foundation of the economy. This very human story should be of great interest to almost all readers. Well written and drawing on rich primary sources, WITHOUT PRECEDENT lives up to its title and will be an excellent addition to American-history collections.  — James Pekoll for Booklist

Christian Science Monitor features WITHOUT PRECEDENT in its round-up of the “Best Books of February 2018,” raving: “Law professor Joel Richard Paul brings exactly the kind of perspective that a legal scholar can best provide to this engaging biography of US Supreme Court Justice John Marshall. The book’s narrative is especially strong when relating the turbulent legal and political infighting of Marshall’s years as chief justice.”

Paul (law, Univ. of California, Hastings Coll. Of the Law; Unlikely Allies) teaches constitutional linens international law, but his passion for history renders this book particularly unique and informative. As promised in the subtitle, this biography portrays Founding Father and Supreme Court Chief Justice John Marshall (1755-1835) in historical context. Consequently, Marshall’s career as a jurist is but a portion of his life, and here readers gain a larger understanding of the man who played a fundamental role in the formation and early history of our country as well as his myriad roles as soldier, lawyer, politician, statesman, jurist, and husband. Beginning with Marshall’s service under General Washington at Valley Forge during the Revolutionary War and delving into every major facet of his life and career, this eminently readable book provides a comprehensive exploration of Marshall and the culture surrounding him.  In addition, Paul explicates Marshall’s major decisions as chief justice, so landmark opinions such as Marbury v. Madison and McCullouch v. Maryland receive appropriate attention and analysis. VERDICT. This masterly work elucidates the indelible imprint that Marshall made on the U.S. Constitution and its subsequent interpretation. Perfect for readers of Jean Edward Smith’s John Marshall: Definer of a Nation – Lynne Maxwell, West Virginia Univ. Coll.of Law Lib., Morgantown,  Library Journal Review Feb. 15, 2018. 

"In WITHOUT PRECDENT " Joel Richard Paul has crafted a scholarly but highly readable and often entertaining chronicle that embeds Marshall among the leading  lights of the nation's founding generation, humanizing him along the way...(Marshall's) lasting achievements are ably served by Mr. Paul's deeply felt and penetrating biography" -- from the Wall Street Journal Feb., 17, 2018 review by Fergus M. Bordewich.   

"...engrossing new biography..." -- Weekly Standard February 20, 2018 review by Gerald Russello

"Joel Richard Paul, a professor of constitutional and international law at UC Hastings College of the Law, has added a well-written and admiring biography to the long line of Marshall scholarship. The first sentence of “Without Precedent” establishes the stakes: “None of the founding generation of American leaders had a greater impact on the American Constitution than John Marshall, and no one did more than Marshall to preserve the delicate unity of the fledgling republic.” -- Kate Gailbraith, SF Chronicle, March 7, 2017

Printable version of the "Praise" for Joel Richard Paul's WITHOUT PRECEDENT
CSpan video clip from Fraunces Tavern

Click here to see Joel Richard Paul at the Frances Tavern in New City.  Video from CSpan



How a Merchant, a Playwright, and a Spy Saved the American Revolution


UNLIKELY ALLIES is the untold true story of the secret diplomacy that won the American Revolution. In 1775, Benjamin Franklin decides to send Silas Deane—a shopkeeper who has never left Connecticut in his life and can’t speak a word of French—on a secret mission to persuade the French king to arm the Americans. Franklin thinks Deane is such an improbable secret agent that the British spies will never suspect him. Hounded by spies, betrayed by his own colleagues, and besieged by privateers, Deane succeeds with the help of Beaumarchais, a French playwright, and the Chevalier d’Eon, the French ambassador to London. The sexually ambiguous d’Eon, a military hero, French spy, and cross-dresser provides the catalyst that persuades Louis XVI to aid the Americans. Full of political intrigue, betrayal, and espionage, UNLIKELY ALLIES is a bold reinterpretation of the struggle for Independence that exposes the complexity of human motivation and the accidental path of history.

Reviews & Praise

“One of the best books of 2009”
The Washington Post

“Like it or not, the American Revolution is the gift that keeps on giving. Just when you thought no author could possibly say more on the subject, along comes a book that proves you wrong.

Oftener than not, these books repackage the lives of founding fathers or present the dramatic wartime career of some forgotten white chap relegated to the sidelines by Adams, Jefferson, and Washington. Joel Richard Paul, a professor at the University of California Hastings College of Law, aims higher and achieves something new in Unlikely Allies. …

… Unlikely Allies possesses the menacing atmospherics of an Allen Furst novel, and the intellectual verve for which Furst’s spy thrillers are justly admired. And Paul’s blessedly short chapters and razor-sharp prose make the book an ideal read for a distracted century. That is no small achievement, especially for an author who must balance, as Paul does so brilliantly, character development and historical analysis.

…Paul’s three intertwined lives tell us much about the power of personality, the complexity of human emotions, and as he put it best, “the accidental path of history.”
Chicago Tribune

“…wildly entertaining history …  “Unlikely Allies” is a nonfiction account, but it reads like a Monty Python movie… The wonder is, our great country came out of such undignified scheming.”
Washington Post

“The American Revolution was more than Minutemen and declarations. “Unlikely Allies” tells the jaw-dropping story of three remarkable but flawed players in our nation’s founding.

… this is solid, groundbreaking history, well researched and with a narrative arc that guides you through the labyrinths of Louis XV’s court, colonial insurrections and British intransigence.”
Minneapolis Star Tribune

“Paul’s fast-paced, engaging narrative fills a gap in the historiography of the American Revolution and is essential reading for students of revolutionary diplomacy as well as general devotees of the age.”
Library Journal

“A rip-roaring account of the American Revolution, told from a fresh, and undeniably offbeat, perspective.”

“A tantalizing review of early American foreign policy.”
Kirkus Review

“Here comes rebel Joel Richard Paul, a professor of international and constitutional law, wieldingUnlikely Allies, a shadier version of the forging of the French-American alliance without which the United States might not exist.”

“Paul gleefully unfurl his story like a suspense thriller, dropping hints, angling cliffhangers,…Unlikely Allies is quick and fun, offering up a fresh take on a period which needs a little shaking up.”
Sacramento Book Review, Mar 10, 2010

“Unlikely Allies is an astonishing look at the sometimes seedy side of our country’s founding-a side in which a good man doing an impossible job would be painted with the brush of “traitor,” losing his fortune, his family, his sacred honor and at last his life in service to the land he loved. Paul tells the story with the skill of a novelist, crafting a compelling tale with engaging characters, intriguing twists and a surprise ending, without having to make anything up. Now that is history!”

“An engaging and entertaining account of three of the most colorful characters involved in the American Revolution. It is hard to believe that their story is true, but it is.”
—Gordon Wood, Pulitzer Prize winner, The Radicalism of the American Revolution, and Professor Emeritus, Brown University.

“Ever tire of worshipful accounts of the Founding Fathers’ wisdom and fortitude? Then try this wonderful book about how an American businessman and two Frenchmen, a dramatist and a cross-dressing spy, came to their aid. A rollicking romp as well as a serious history, it reminds us of the role of duplicity, hypocrisy and corruption, and of human frailty and chance, in safeguarding the American Revolution.”
—William Taubman, Pulitzer Prize winner, Khrushchev: The Man and His Era, and Bertrand Snell Professor of Political Science, Amherst College

Unlikely Allies is an amazing story compellingly told. I kept turning the pages in eagerness to find out what would happen next. Conspiracies abounded, and hardly anyone was what he or she seemed. If the eighteenth century in Europe was an era of Enlightenment, it was also an Age of Deception. Yet, thanks to Joel Paul’s sympathetic portrayal, Silas Deane emerges as an unsung hero of the American Revolution.”
—Robert Gross, Bancroft Prize winner, The Minutemen and their World and James L. and Shirley A. Draper Professor of Early American History, University of Connecticut

“Rollicking and surprising, this is history as it really happened—as it was made by all-too-human actors. Unlikely Allies is a lively read and an important counterpoint to Founder hagiography.”
—Evan Thomas, bestselling author, Sea of Thunder: Four Naval Commanders and the Last Sea War, and Assistant Managing Editor of Newsweek.

Q and A with Joel Richard Paul for UNLIKELY ALLIES

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