The context of the Court is important: The whole bit was preceded by a legendary struggle between republican Jeffersonian democrats and the Hamilitonian Federalists.
The Federalists were an elitist party (later the "Whigs" and finally the current "Republicans")... consider the following:
The Federalists wanted a strong central government and had little interest in states' rights. The new party advocated a loose interpretation of the United States Constitution based on the "Necessary-and-proper clause" also known as the Elastic Clause that Hamilton used against Jefferson in arguments over the issue of a national bank. It believed that rule by a well-educated elite would serve all interests, and appealed to merchants, bankers, lawyers, editors, landowners, and industrialists; one of John Jay's favorite maxims was, "The people who own the country ought to govern it". Its most powerful leader was Hamilton and his hero was George Washington. The Party built a network of newspapers and had substantial support from religious leaders, especially in New England. Unlike the opposition Democratic-Republicans, it paid little attention to grass roots organizing.
With the elections of 1800, the Federalists were routed from power. With a lame duck Congress, the Federalists made one last attempt at a power-grab. They sought to appoint Federalist judges wherever they could.
The Marshall Court: John Marshall was the longest serving Chief Justice of the Supreme Court in American History, (1801-1836).
He was a Federalist appointed by Federalist President John Adams as part of his effort to pack the Supreme Court with federalist judges before turning over the Presidency to Thomas Jefferson, a staunch republican and anti-Federalist (the infamous "Midnight Judges").
While Marshall presided over a multitude of small cases, there are several cases in which he laid the groundwork for the strong-central government envisioned by the then diposed Federalists.
1. Marbury v. Madison (1803) gave the Court the power of judicial review.
2. U.S. v. Peters (1809) established the Court's right to coerce a state legislature
3. Martin v. Hunter's Lessee (1816) confirmed the Court's right to overrule a state court
4. Cohens v. Virginia (1821). States were no longer sovereign in all respects since they had ratified the Constitution. State courts must submit to federal jurisdiction.
5. McCullough v. Maryland (1819) upheld the right of Congress to charter a national bank, thus putting into national law the doctrine of implied powers.
6. Gibbons v. Ogden (1824) gave the national government undisputed control over interstate commerce by ruling invalid a steamboat monopoly chartered by New York state. This freed internal transportation from state restraint.
7. Fletcher v. Peck (1810) established the principle that state laws were invalid when in conflict with the Constitution
In his written opinions, Marshall typically relied on the power of logic and his own forceful eloquence, rather than citing law. This approach was noted by Associate Justice Joseph Story: "When I examine a question, I go from headland to headland, from case to case. Marshall has a compass, puts out to sea, and goes directly to the result."
Two of these cases stand above the rest: Marbury v. Madison and McCullough v. Maryland.
Marbury vs. Madison in 1803 established the Supreme Court as the final arbiter of the constitutionality of federal law. A later ruling expanded it to include state law as well. The Constitution itself is silent on the question of who determines what is or is not constitutional. And it does not provide for any means to override a Supreme Court decision other than by Constitutional amendment.
Some proponents have stated that "the legal basis and concept of judicial review predate the case, and that Marbury merely formalized it. For example, Saikrishna Prakash and John Yoo point out, with respect to the ratification of the Constitution, that "no scholar to date has identified even one participant in the ratification fight who argued that the Constitution did not authorize judicial review of Federal statutes. This silence in the face of the numerous comments on the other side is revealing." However, lack of recorded debate does not intent/law make. It is important to note that nothing in the text of the Constitution explicitly authorized the power of judicial review, despite persistent fears voiced by Anti-federalists over the power of the new Federal court system. Indeed, there is nothing in the ratification debates that cite the supremacy of the US Constitution over state law.
A second ruling of the Marshall court in 1819, (McCulloch vs. Maryland) introduced the concept of a "living constitution" and reversed the doctrine of "enumerated powers". Under enumerated powers the federal government could only exercise powers specifically given it by the Constitution. All others were reserved to the states and to the people under the Tenth Amendment. The Marshall court reversed this giving the government all power not specifically prohibited by the Constitution.
These decisions were controversial because the alternate position advanced that the states had not surrendered sovereignty upon ratification of the US Constitution. Indeed, several states included secession clauses in their ratification acts. The idea was that the Constitution set to limit the federal government. That, the Bill of Rights, was meant to specifically restrict the federal government's interactions with the various States and their citizens. Not, that the Constitution was ratified with the intent that it be supreme over state law.
Consider the import of the other cases that he presided over, they constitute a Federalist (elitist) wishlist.
"IT IS, EMPHATICALLY, THE PROVINCE AND DUTY OF THE JUDICIAL DEPARTMENT TO SAY WHAT THE LAW IS." -JOHN MARSHALL