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The Great Decision: Jefferson, Adams, Marshall, and the Battle for the Supreme Court Hardcover – Feb 10 2009

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 288 pages
  • Publisher: Public Affairs; 1 edition (Feb. 10 2009)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1586484265
  • ISBN-13: 978-1586484262
  • Product Dimensions: 24.2 x 16.6 x 2.6 cm
  • Shipping Weight: 476 g
  • Average Customer Review: Be the first to review this item
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: #2,469,144 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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Product Description


Kirkus, December 15, 2008
“Former Supreme Court clerk and Slate publisher Sloan and veteran political aide McKean bring to life one of the most important legal cases in American history…. Sloan and McKean supply Marbury’s historical context and unravel the complex fabric of personalities, politics and law that animated the case…. The authors’ enthusiasm and clear prose vivify the contention that, as Marshall said, ‘It is emphatically the province and duty of the judicial department to say what the law is.’ A crisp, color examination of the case that established the formidable power of the federal judiciary.”

Walter Isaacson, author of Benjamin Franklin: An American Life
“The Supreme Court case of Marbury v. Madison is the most important key to understanding the separation of power in American government. The Great Decision makes the tale come alive. It’s filled with intrigue, colorful personalities, and political maneuvers that seem astonishingly relevant to our world today.”

Douglas Brinkley, Professor of History at Rice University
“What a deeply intelligent and well written analysis of the Madison v. Marbury case. Anyone interested in constitutional law must read this fine book by Cliff Sloan and David McKean.”

Laurence H. Tribe, Carl M. Loeb University Professor, Harvard Law School
“As our nation emerges from a dark decade of disrespect for the Constitution, nothing could be more fitting than a new picture of the great decision that made the rule of law a living part of the American legacy. Forests have been felled writing about that decision as a legal landmark, but its place in the turbulent politics and psychology of the time has never been painted in colors more vivid than those with which Sloan and McKean created this historic portrait.”

Ken Burns, Filmmaker
“Cliff Sloan and David McKean have taken the story of Marbury v. Madison and revealed it to be what it always was: a drama of the first order—superbly and fluidly rendered here—and a decision that would cement the power of the third and most neglected leg of the tripod that still to this day supports us all."

Booklist, 3/1
“In this highly accessible book, the authors skillfully build suspense and tension around an outcome readers may already know.”

Jan Crawford Greenburg, ABC’s Legal Correspondent,, February 25, 2009
“Whoever thought that Marbury v Madison could be a page turner? Landmark constitutional law, yes, but a nail-biting drama crafted in dimly lit hotel rooms in Washington? Filled with memorable players such as "Old Bacon Face" Justice Samuel Chase and a slovenly Thomas Jefferson? Cliff Sloan and David McKean's new book, The Great Decision, tells a wonderful tale of how the decision -- which established that the Supreme Court had the power to declare an act of Congress unconstitutional -- came to be. To produce this impressive and gripping narrative, they culled newspaper accounts and diaries and conducted a wide-ranging array of interviews, including with Justice John Paul Stevens, who went back and analyzed his law school notes -- which he apparently has kept all these years.”

Library Journal, 3/1
“A lucid and compelling account of the well-known but seldom understood court battle that secured the place of the judiciary as a coordinate branch of the federal government…. Sloan and McKean have given generalists and academics alike a fascinating, straightforward narrative.”

About the Author

Cliff Sloan is a former Supreme Court clerk and former publisher of Slate Magazine. He has written about the Supreme Court for many publications, including Newsweek, The Washington Post, and Slate, and frequently appears on television and radio to discuss the Court. He lives in Virginia.

David McKean is a top-level Senate aide and a veteran political strategist, and the author of Friends in High Places and Tommy the Cork. He lives in Washington, D.C.

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on (beta) HASH(0xa541d9cc) out of 5 stars 29 reviews
31 of 31 people found the following review helpful
HASH(0xa40b7b58) out of 5 stars A Worthy Read March 5 2009
By CSW - Published on
Format: Hardcover
Attempting to shed light on one of the most important judicial decisions, "The Great Decision" is an easy read for those looking to gain a better understanding of early 19th century American politics. My biggest complaint, if you will, is that the coverage of the book wasn't exactly what the title depicted.

The authors spend most (at least 2/3) of their time discussing the election of 1800 and the tumultuous political atmosphere that followed. Marbury v. Madison was certainly an integral part of this early stage in American history, but the authors seem to focus upon the thoughts and actions of Jefferson, Adams, and--to some extent--Marshall. As the authors jumped from tangent to tangent, I often found myself wondering how a each interlude fit within the bigger picture. Sure, these were interesting anecdotes and somewhat entertaining, but I wondered if they were included only to fill up the 190 pages of the narrative, as they did little but reinforce what the authors already discussed.

The portions of the book that discussed the Marbury's trial, the decision-making process, and the actual decision, are EXCELLENT--this is what I was after in reading the book! The authors provide great organization and commentary of Marshall's opinion and provide a succinct and useful analysis of the decision's impact. The analysis included a few comments from current Justices, which provided a nice and relevant touch.

Notably, the authors provide a summary of the five core criticisms of the decision. This brief discussion opened my eyes to a new way of analyzing the decision; I only wish the authors would have spent a little more time discussing the critiques.

This book is certainly worth the read, but the first half (at least) seems to read like a more generic historical narrative of the "Revolution of 1800." With that said, I certainly appreciate the effort the authors gave in highlighting a case that, in my humble opinion, is far too under-appreciated.
10 of 11 people found the following review helpful
HASH(0xa43611d4) out of 5 stars History Lite -- with a few problems -- but still a good read Nov. 22 2009
By TCinDC - Published on
Format: Hardcover
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.
10 of 12 people found the following review helpful
HASH(0xa4375018) out of 5 stars A great book on the battle for the Supreme Court April 2 2009
By Jonathan Hayes - Published on
Format: Hardcover
This is a great book if you love the Supreme Court and the history of our country. It is an entire book on Marbury v. Madison. I had no idea how close we came to making the Supreme Court a weak sister to Congress and the Executive Branch. The book details the Judiciary Act of 1801 which created a whole bunch of new judgeships (and Circuit Courts of Appeal) by the Federalist Congress right before John Adams left the presidency filling the new positions on his way out. The Republicans took over Congress and Thomas Jefferson, resenting the fact that the Federalists would control the judiciary for a long time, exhorted the now Republican Congress to repeal the Judiciary Act of 1801 and pitch out most of the so-called midnight judges. In the meantime, William Marbury sued the Secretary of State, James Madison, demanding that he be ordered to deliver the judicial commission. The suit was filed by Marbury in the Supreme Court because the Judiciary Act of 1791 authorized certain suits to be filed directly with the Supreme Court. Worrying about the courts getting too strong, Congress did repeal the Judiciary Act of 1801 and changed the Supreme Court "sessions" so that Marbury v. Madison could not be heard until Feb 1803. In the meantime, Stuart v. Laird was filed challenging the power of Congress to repeal the act which in effect removed 16 or so judges who had been appointed "for life" under the Act.

Given the incredible atmosphere, Marshall crafted an incredible decision striking down the portion of the 1791 Act giving the Supreme Court original jursidiction over certain actions. A few days later the Supreme Court, without Marshall who had recused himself since he was the trial judge (on Circuit) in the Stuart v. Laird trial, agreed with the Marshall lower court ruling that Congress had the power to repeal its act.

The book is easy to read and fascinating and I highly recommend it. I am a student of John Marshall and most books on him and the era are so heavily slanted to the constitutional law scholar that I wind up skimming much of the book. If you wants lots of heavy legal analysis, there are lots of law review articles you can read. If you want a sense of what was going on at the time, who the players were and how they interacted with each other in 200 pages, this is the book.

Jon Hayes [...]
9 of 11 people found the following review helpful
HASH(0xa3f0f3c0) out of 5 stars A Capsule of Con Law's Birth Sept. 12 2009
By J. A. Walsh - Published on
Format: Hardcover
I am not a big fan of the catalogue-style of early American history. Sloan and McKean do a great job of grounding a lot of trivial (first occupant of the White House?), big picture (Republicans versus Federalists and national debt), and personal (Hamilton versus Burr; Jefferson and Adams; Marshal) historical info of the Founders and early post-confederacy days in this story of the case that created Con Law.

If you have already read the case annd understand its significance to the creation of the doctrine of judicial review, this book is a great sort of behind-the-curtain glimpse at the personalities and politics that the case played out against. Sometimes it gets a little too deep down into the weeds: Dolly Madison and Abigail Adams get a little too much time for my tastes; but, all in all its a quick-reading quasi-intellectual pop history of a critical case and pivotal time in American law and politics.

I agree with several of the other reviews in that this is not a rigorous look at Marbury v Madison, what it means and what might have been. But, I don't think that was the intention, so you cannot mark down too much for the failure to meet that mark.
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
HASH(0xa4071300) out of 5 stars How the Supreme Court Became the Supreme Court July 19 2009
By charles peterson - Published on
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Most of us who think about it know that the Supreme Court is the final word on whether or not laws or government actions are Constitutional. Most of us also figure that it was always that way.

Well....not quite!! Prior to the Marbury v. Madison decision, it was presumed that each branch of government would determine the Constitutionality of their own actions. Also, prior to the Marbury decision, the Supreme Court was a weak sister to the Executive and Legislative branches both in power and prestige.

This book does a terrific job of explaining the case and the implications of the decision. It also does a superb job of describing the politics and the personalities of the young government circa 1800.

The authors bring the times and the decision to life. John Marshall's role and genius are clearly in focus. The other players--Jefferson, Adams, Burr, Madison, Jay, et al--all appear and their roles are explained.

Although clear and well written, readers not already familiar with the era should probably begin with other books about the period. "Scandalmonger," Joseph Ellis' books, McCullough's "John Adams," or the like would be good places to start. But this is an excellent book for readers with an interest in early American politics.