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[74] vs. Madison is the most famous, because in that decision the Supreme Court exercised, for the first time, the power to declare an act of Congress unconstitutional. The principle on which Marshall gave the decision had been stated several times before, for the state courts had announced it when declaring statutes void and, among others, Hamilton had clearly set forth the doctrine in The Federalist. Moreover, modem scholars are not altogether content with the method of approach which Marshall followed in reaching his conclusion that a court had the right to declare a law void. Withal, however, the case is of signal importance and there would be considerable difficulty in presenting the power of the court with more simplicity and cogency.

In the decade after the War of 1812, Marshall rendered a series of opinions of the first importance. Thoroughly permeated with the conviction that the states of the Union must be kept within their proper bounds, he gave to the task of interpreting the Constitution and maintaining the authority of the national government his greatest power. Possibly his ablest decision, certainly the one most elaborately wrought out, is Cohens vs. Virginia, in which the question arose as to the right of the Supreme Court to exercise its appellate jurisdiction over the judgment of a state court involving the validity of state legislation. The contention of the counsel for the state struck at the very root of the judicial system of the Union, with its authority to review state decisions which involved the binding effect of the Federal Constitution and laws: and so to the discussion of this fundamental question Marshall brought his heaviest artillery. In a series of powerful paragraphs he proclaimed the principle of nationalism and the existence of a real union resting on the will and determination of the people:

‘That the United States,’ he said, ‘form, for many, and for most important purposes, a single nation, has not yet been denied. In war, we are one people. In making peace, we are one people. In all commercial regulations, we are one and the same people. In many other respects, the American people are one; and the government which is alone capable of controlling and managing their interests in all these respects, is the government of the Union. It is their government, and in that character they have no other. America ’

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