9 of 10 people found the following review helpful
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I liked this book and thought the authors were skillful in making an otherwise dry topic interesting and compelling. There are some flaws in the book, however, which caused me to rate it with only three stars.
On the plus side, the authors did a lot of primary research from the leading political papers at that time, which helps the reader keep a pulse on the rivalry and political infighting of the time. The polarizing politics of our modern era almost pale in comparison to the early 19th century. As the authors point out, the newspapers at that time, such as the Federalist Gazette and the Aurora, were openly political, picking sides and sticking to their guns. There was no pretense of impartiality. Some politicians, in fact, were not so openly partisan, such as Thomas Jefferson, and used the press to advance their agendas.
The book also does an excellent job of painting the characters of these historic figures, who took their politics very personally. I had read before about the mutual dislike between Jefferson and his cousin John Marshall, but never quite understood why. The book sheds light on this by suggesting family feuds as well as political differences.
The writers stray from the storyline occasionally, which I found distracting. In chapter nine, which deals with the trial, they devote a long paragraph -- almost an entire page -- to newspaper advertisements of health remedies for worms and other ailments, with no relation at all to the trial. It bears no relation to the previous or following paragraphs; it's just plopped down for us to behold and scratch our heads. It's likely that this is for filler, because the book is longer than it needs to be. The writing could be much tighter without sacrificing anything, and the book suffers for it occasionally, losing momentum and dragging. At the end of the book the entire decision of Marbury v. Madison is printed, as well as the shorter Stuart v. Laird, which is completely unnecessary as the book is not a detailed exegesis of these opinions. Anybody interested in reading the entire opinions can look them up online.
I was also disappointed in the book's treatment of the immediate aftermath of Marbury v. Madison. While it refers to how some individuals and newspapers reacted to it, I'm left wondering how the Supreme Court got away with invalidating an act of Congress, particularly since it was a court of Federalists pitted against a Republican Congress. Was there no serious debate, no caucusing by the Republicans to declare the Supreme Court as arrogating power it didn't have? Did Congress just accept this with a whimper? It's hard for me to believe that they did and, if so, why they did. This is the stuff of a Constitutional crisis. The book makes clear there would have been had the court found for Marbury, as President Jefferson may have defied the writ of mandamus. Why did the Congress not defy this? There has to be some insight one way or another.
Some of the book's more serious flaws stem from errors and inaccuracies, some minor and some major. These start from the very beginning of the book in the Prologue, where, for example, reference is made to the two large paintings in the Rotunda of the National Archives. The book wrongly asserts that the two depict the signing of Declaration of Independence. The two paintings -- murals, actually -- depict two different events. One is of the presentation (not signing) of the Declaration of Independence and the other of presentation of the Constitution.
The Prologue also refers to "an original copy" of the Declaration of Independence, and likewise for the Constitution and Bill of Rights, which suggests that there are other "originals." The fact is, these are the originals, singly and exclusively. Some of these errors may not cause any reader to flunk a history test, but we should expect better powers of observation on the part of the writers.
More serious errors emerge later. On page 29 the book says, "Secretary of State Marshall wrote to the defeated vice-presidential candidate Charles Pinckney...," whereas it was actually Charles Cotesworth Pinckney who was the vice-presidential candidate. This is not splitting hairs over a middle name, because Charles Pinckney was an equally prominent political figure of that time -- a Republican senator from South Carolina who helped defeat John Adams and Charles Cotesworth Pinckney in their bid for the White House. The two Pinckneys were cousins. Similarly, on page 33 it says that "Marshall confided to Charles Pinckney...," whereas it was Charles Cotesworth Pinckney. It is critical to differentiate between these two Pinckneys, and the way they did it and historians do this is by using Cotesworth.
On pages 70-71 it says that Jefferson "entrusted the letters to fellow Virginian John Dickinson," but Dickinson was not a Virginian. He was born in Talbot County, Maryland. He later lived in Pennsylvania and then Delaware, but never in Virginia. On page 105, the book refers to the Senate majority leader as "Stevens Thomas Mason," whereas his name was Stevens Thomson Mason.
The book suffers from poor editing. For example, on page 20 it reads, "While the Philadelphia Aurora...was the Republican standard-bearer...," while on the very next page it reads, "One leading Republican newspaper, the Aurora...," as if we need reminding just three paragraphs later. Chapter 10 is named "Deliberation," but the headers on the odd-numbered pages read "The Decision." Chapter 11 is named "Decision," but the headers on the odd-numbered pages read "The Great Decision." And, again, a good editor would have tightened up the writing and kept the authors from straying from the storyline.
Overall, and despite its shortcomings, The Great Decision is a good read and I recommend it.