Warren speech to Marshall-Wythe Blackstone Ceremony, Sept. 1954

  • All riseSupreme Court Chief Justice Earl Warren spoke at the College's Marshall-Wythe Blackstone Ceremony the September after the court's landmark ruling in Brown v. Board. It was his first public address following the ruling. Warren is pictured back, left in the mortar board.The address on the college's main campus in College Yard in the shadow of the historic Sir Christopher Wren Building. Photo courtesy College of William & Mary, Special Collection Research Center, Earl Gregg Swem Library

    All rise

These remarks are from a transcript of the address as it appeared in the April 20, 1955 issue of the Congressional Record. - Ed.                                                                                           Return to main story


Address by Earl Warren, Chief Justice of the United States, at Marshall-Wythe Blackstone Commemoration Ceremony, College of William & Mary, Williamsburg Virginia,
September 25, 1954


It is our pleasure today to honor great men of another day, men who have contributed much to our national life and to the civilization of which it is a part. We speak of them, of course, in gratitude, but we have another reason, even more personal to present-day Americans and in keeping with the necessities of our time. We meet her to strengthen our own convictions concerning government and law; to fortify our belief in a government of laws and not of men. We seek re-dedication to the cause of justice, between individuals, between citizens and their sovereign, and between the nations of the world. We reach for perfect justice, but we do not expect to grasp it, because history, both profane and-divine, teaches us that as long as time and human nature exist there will be issues to decide, causes to adjust. We learn from Holy Writ that even the angels quarreled and the Satan and his angels were banished to darkness for their wrongs. We know that the path of justice in every time and place has been rough, tortuous, and uphill. No nation has yet reached the summit. Exact justice has not been achieved. No mortal has embodied all its principles. We recognize however that civilizations of the past have advanced it; nations in all ages have made contributions to it, and individuals have either evolved or formulated or synthesized principles of justice in a way that has challenged the admiration and emulation of people in many lands -- people who are interested in that kind of government which is premised upon freedom and the dignity of the individual. We honor those nations for their accomplishments and revere the memories of such individuals for their contributions.

As Americans, we are proud of our system of government and our standards of justice, although we claim neither originality nor perfection for them. We, too, have had our great men who have made contributions to the sum total of human knowledge in the field of justice. We do not deify them like the sages of other countries, they were people, subject to all the limitations of human beings. As a nation, we make no pretense except to a passion for justice based upon the dignity and rights of the individual. We stake everything we have on our belief that only through this kind of justice can there be order and contentment within nations and peace between countries of the world. We believe this kind of justice is the rightful heritage of every human being and that it is his right and duty to achieve it.

Earl WarrenFor three and a half centuries Americans, using the experience and wisdom of older countries from which we or our forebears came, have endeavored to develop in this section of the world a system of government and a body of law that will accord justice to everyone. We have made mistakes- many of them. People have at times succeeded in using our system for selfish and even oppressive ends. We have often been required to wipe some things from the slate and start again. At times we have been close to failure but we have never failed in our climb toward the pinnacle of true justice. And we are climbing today to meet the test of Thomas Jefferson that, "The most sacred of the duties of a government is to do equal and impartial justice to all its citizens."

We do not assume that justice is indigenous only to our soil or in our own people. Waves of passion, prejudice and even hatreds have on occasions swept over us and almost engulfed us; as they have the people of other lands. In our efforts to guard against these things we have called upon the wisdom of the ages. We have accepted unblushingly the contribution of those intellects of other nations and ages who, in accordance with the circumstances under which they lived, have placed foundation stones in the temple of justice.

Our own symbol of justice, the home of the Supreme Court of the United States, honors great nations of lawgivers. It is of Grecian architecture of the Corinthian order so loved by the Romans and used by them in a countless number of their public buildings. In the courtroom itself, we give public recognition to the lawgivers of all ages. On the frieze of one wall are the figures of ancients who made their contribution before the birth of Christ: Menes, Hammurabi, Moses Solomon, Lycurgus, Solon, Draco, Confucius, and Octavian; and on the opposite wall the figures of those who came after him: Justinian Mohammed, Charlemagne, King John, St. Louis, Grotius, Blackstone, Marshall, and Napoleon. The most significant to us, of course, are the figures of those who expounded the two systems that are the most alike of any because premised on the affinity of lineage, language, concept, and emulation - the British and American. They stand side by side, William Blackstone and John Marshall. These men were contemporaries although not known personally to each other. The one had not been out of England; the other lived almost his entire life within a few miles of his beloved Virginia.

While Blackstone was writing his commentaries on the law of England, Marshall was studying the great events of history upon which the rights of Englishmen were predicated in order to establish here a comparable system of justice. At that time, he and his compatriots were concerned not so much with a better system of justice than the English system as they were with having the same rights as Englishmen. A few years later he fought with Washington at Monmouth Brandywine, and Valley Forge to establish here a Nation for, that purpose. Blackstone expounded the law of England as it had developed by tradition, charter statutes, and judicial interpretation for a thousand years. Marshall expounded our Constitution, a document of 5,000 words, only a dozen years old, but which had been designed to establish for all times a more perfect Union of States that had but recently achieved their Independence. That Constitution was an experiment in the science of government. Many people believed it to be a dangerous experiment. Many feared it and believed it would become another instrument of oppression, it was approved by the States only by the narrowest of margins. No one was certain if or how it would stand the test of-time. One of the signers of the Constitution said, "Constitutions are not the same on paper as in real life." It fell to the lot of John Marshall to translate our Constitution from paper into real life, to enable it to meet the problems of a new, poor, wax-tired, and divided country. To say that it took wisdom, foresight, patience, and courage to do this task is trite. But it is nonetheless, true and he did it for 34 years during the most formative and politically turbulent period of our national history, leaving at his death a greater imprint on our legal institutions than any American to this day has ever made. We honor him today at the beginning of the 200th year since his birth in testimony of the lasting and universal veneration in which his work is held.

It is appropriate that this recognition should be given him in his beloved Virginia where he lived all his life and in whose service he offered his life for the new Nation he envisioned, in whose legislature he labored for the Constitutional Convention, where he worked for ratification of the Constitution, and which State he represented in the Congress. It is also fitting that this ceremony should be held at beautiful and historic College of William and Mary where he received his only formal education under the benign tutelage of George Wythe, then occupying the first chair of law in this country. John Marshall was not an orthodox student. Born in the wilderness he learned from his parents and from an occasional tutor, but largely from the life of his time and from the great men of Virginia in the causes for which men struggled in those days. What men he encountered in his native State -- Washington, Jefferson, Madison, Patrick Henry, Mason, Monroe and a host of other immortals in United States history. Whether these men agreed in politics or not, they all had great minds, were passionately devoted to their own political philosophy and each sharpened the minds of the others either through friendly intercourse or political contention. Marshall was the beneficiary of these associations as much as any American of those days, whether it stemmed from the adoration he had for his beloved chief, George Washington, or from his almost life-long political strife with his kinsman, Thomas Jefferson.

We are most fortunate that we can have with us on this occasion Dr. Goodhart, master of University College, Oxford, where English law was first taught and where Sir William Blackstone taught and wrote his commentaries. And how greatly we are honored by having with us on this occasion the Lord Chief Justice of England whose historic position makes him the guardian of the rights of all Englishmen as those rights have come down to them from Magna Carta, the Petition of Right, the Bill of Rights, and the Acts of Parliament. It gives us a sense of comradeship in a very troubled world.

John Marshall has rightly been called the "expounder of the Constitution." It was new to the point of being without precedent when he became Chief Justice January 6, 1801. The Nation was poor as a result of the years of warfare. Means of communication between the States were sadly lacking; there was no national economy; our standing among the nations of the world was deplorable; the States were divided in interests and politics; men held passionate views concerning the relationships between the three branches of Government and between the Federal and State governments. The leaders were men of powerful intellect and passionate convictions. There were those who would center most power in the Federal Government. There were those who would leave practically all power in the States. It was Marshall's mission in life to pursue a course somewhere between those two extreme positions through the construction of the new Constitution in a myriad of cases that arose during his 34 years as Chief Justice. He had spent a horrible winter at Valley Forge with Washington, and the weakness of the Government under the Articles of Confederation had seared his soul. He believed in a strong, central government - Federal supremacy in all matters. Within the domain of the Federal Government, he believed the Constitution should be construed liberally to accomplish that end and he confirmed the power of Congress to do so in these historic words:

"Let the end be legitimate, 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."

He believed that if we were to remain a nation we must have a national economy, and that any strong economy must be based upon the scrupulous performance of contracts, and the orderly regulation by the central government of commerce among the States and with other nations. He realized that if we were to command the respect of the world, we must meticulously fulfill our international obligations and honor the treaties we make. All of these desired results he achieved through decision after decision until they became embedded in our law.

But perhaps the greatest contribution he made to our system of jurisprudence was the establishment of an independent judiciary through the principle of judicial review. In a case instituted the first year of his incumbency, he rooted this fundamental principle in American constitutional law as our original contribution to the science of law.

This and many other of his decisions aroused a storm of protest as being beyond the words and intent of the Constitution, but for 34 years in accordance with his belief, stone by stone, he built the foundation of our constitutional structure, and he constructed it sufficiently strong to support everything we have since built upon it. In those 34 years of his incumbency he wrote 519 of the 1,106 opinions handed down by his Court.

He did not go with the tide of public opinion or the course of politics. Often his opinions were contrary to both, but he continued to build, patiently, logically, courageously. His sense of duty is epitomized at the time of the trial of Aaron Burr, which he conducted fearlessly in spite of the intense feeling of the public and the national administration against the defendant. In the conduct of that case, as a circuit justice, he said:

"That this court dares not usurp power is most true. That this court dare not shrink from its duty is not less true. No man is desirous of becoming the peculiar subject of calumny. No man, might he let the bitter cup pass from him without self-reproach, would drain it to the bottom."

And he did his duty in that case, unpopular though it was.

He lived with this conviction throughout his long career. When his work was done and he passed away in Philadelphia on July 6, 1835, in the 80th year of his life and the 35th of his Chief Justiceship, he was acclaimed by friend and foe alike as a man of virtue and great accomplishment.

His long-time friend and illustrious associate, Joseph Story, said of him:

"Chief Justice Marshall was the growth of the century. Providence grants such men to the human family only on great occasions to accomplish its own great end. Such men are found only when our need is the greatest. His proudest epitaph may be written in a line - 'Here lies the expounder of the Constitution.'"

The people of Philadelphia accorded him a hero's farewell, and as his body was borne along the streets to the dock for transmittal to his beloved Virginia, the Liberty Bell tolled from the belfry of Independence Hall. Then a strange thing happened. A great cleft appeared in the side of the bell, and like Marshall's voice, it too became still forever. It was taken down and placed in the Hall. It remains there today for all to see - the symbol of our liberty- while the memory of John Marshall abides with all of us as that of "the great Chief Justice," and "the expounder of our Constitution."

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