American Portraits

A Deep Stain on the American Character: John Marshall and Justice for Native Americans

In this lesson, students will learn about the actions of John Marshall concerning the Cherokee nation. They will explore how his actions helped to advance justice and, through his example, learn how they can advance justice in their own lives.

Founding Principles

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Equal Protection

The principle of equal justice under law means that every individual is equal to every other person in regards to natural rights and treatment before the law. There are no individuals or groups who are born with the right to rule over others.

Rule of Law image

Rule of Law

Government and citizens all abide by the same laws regardless of political power. Those laws respect individual rights, are transparently enacted, are justly applied, and are stable.


In March 1831, Chief Justice of the Supreme Court John Marshall had several reasons to be despondent. Physically, he was seventy-six years old and feeling his age as it was becoming increasingly difficult to take his morning walk before he started his long day of judicial work. He was in constant pain and doctors diagnosed him with bladder stones, which made walking even more difficult and riding in a carriage nearly impossible. Politically, Marshall opposed the presidency of Andrew Jackson. Jackson was a Democrat who opposed the Bank of the United States and using federal funds for internal improvements on roads and canals. Instead, Jackson believed that the national government had no authority on these issues and thought the states should handle them. Marshall wished to retire from the Supreme Court but did not want President Jackson to appoint his successor. Another key issue on which Marshall disagreed with the president was the treatment of Native Americans….

Narrative PDF

Compelling Question

How can John Marshall’s pursuit of justice inspire us to follow his example?

Virtue Defined

Justice is the capacity to determine and preserve our common rights.

Lesson Overview

In this lesson, students will learn about the actions of John Marshall concerning the Cherokee nation. They will explore how his actions helped to advance justice and, through his example, learn how they can advance justice in their own lives.


  • Students will analyze the actions of John Marshall and his advancement of justice.
  • Students will understand how advancing justice can affect their purpose and integrity.
  • Students will apply this knowledge to the pursuit of justice in their own lives.


In the 1820s and 1830s, Native Americans were being pushed out of their native lands by force and by treaty to settle beyond the Mississippi River in Oklahoma. In Georgia, this coercion targeted the Cherokee people. Initially, white settlers wanted to take over Cherokee lands to raise cotton. Later, after gold was discovered in Cherokee lands in the 1820s, American’s desire for the land dramatically increased. However, the Cherokees resisted. In 1823, the Council of Chiefs asserted, “It is the fixed and unalterable determination of this nation never to cede one foot more of our land.” The Cherokees had adopted many aspects of American culture, including agriculture, urban living, clothing, written language, a written constitution, education, and the ownership of slaves. They expected their sovereign treaty rights to be respected.

In December 1828, the Georgia legislature asserted that state laws and authority would extend over the Cherokee Nation despite previous federal treaties and guarantees. Georgia found a sympathetic ear in the federal government when Andrew Jackson was elected president in 1828. He stated that the federal government would not protect the Native Americans in the states and warned that they should submit to state laws or sell their lands and move beyond the Mississippi. Jackson also authored the Indian Removal Bill to buy Native lands and relocate them out West. Congress passed the bill in 1830, and Jackson signed it into law.

The Cherokees and their white missionary allies took two cases to the Supreme Court. In the first, Cherokee Nation v. Georgia (1831), the Court decided that the Natives were a “domestic dependent nation,” while in the second, Worcester v. Georgia (1832), the Court decided that they were “distinct, independent political communities.”


  • Coercion
  • Sovereignty
  • Antipathy
  • Bank of the United States
  • Intercede
  • Defy
  • Cowed
  • Repugnant
  • Immemorial

Introduce Text

Have students read the background and narrative, keeping the Compelling Question in mind as they read. Then have them answer the remaining questions below.

For more robust lesson treatment, check out our partners at the Character Formation Project

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Walk-In-The-Shoes Questions
As you read, imagine you are the protagonist.

  • What challenges are you facing?
  • What fears or concerns might you have?
  • What may prevent you from acting in the way you ought?

Observation Questions

  • Who was John Marshall?
  • What was John Marshall’s role concerning the Cherokee Nation?
  • How is John Marshall’s identity consistent with justice?

Discussion Questions
Discuss the following questions with your students.

  • What is the historical context of the narrative?
  • What historical circumstances presented a challenge to the protagonist?
  • How and why did the individual exhibit a moral and/or civic virtue in facing and overcoming the challenge?
  • How did the exercise of the virtue benefit civil society?
  • How might exercise of the virtue benefit the protagonist?
  • What might the exercise of the virtue cost the protagonist?
  • Would you react the same under similar circumstances? Why or why not?
  • How can you act similarly in your own life? What obstacles must you overcome in order to do so?

Additional Resources

  • Hobson, Charles F. The Great Chief Justice: John Marshall and the Rule of Law. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1996.
  • Howe, David Walker. What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of America, 1815-1846. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007.
  • Smith, Jean Edward. John Marshall: Defender of a Nation. New York: Henry Holt, 1996.
  • Stites, Francis N. John Marshall: Defender of the Constitution. Boston: Little, Brown, 1981.
  • Worcester v. Georgia (1832). The Oyez Project at IIT Chicago-Kent College of Law,

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