Skip directly to content

Justified and the Lawmen of the U.S. Marshal Service

on Sat, 04/23/2011 - 00:00

“I’m stuck with a man who’s a lousy marshal but a good lawman,” Art Mullen tells Raylan Givens during the second season of the FX drama Justified. To truly appreciate the underlying meaning of Mullen’s words, one must first have an understanding of the original principles on which the Marshal Service was created at the birth of the United States itself. The Constitution on which the nation was forged, for instance, empowered Congress to craft a federal judiciary system. Because of the inherent difficulties in not only building a unified country made up of independent states but establishing a central authority as well, the US Marshals were founded in conjunction with the courts as a means to assist the three branches of government in the execution of the laws of the land.

Historian Frederick S. Calhoun was commissioned to author the official biography of the US Marshals to coincide with the organization’s bicentennial in 1989. Ironically enough—given Art Mullen’s comment—the tome is simply entitled The Lawmen (Smithsonian Institution Press, 1989) and offers a comprehensive narrative of the first 200 years of the Marshal Service. Due to the nature of the ideals upon which the United States was founded and the necessity of ensuring that those principles were upheld, Calhoun used the phrase with a slightly different connotation than Mullen’s observation. “In the government of laws, not men, they were the lawmen,” Calhoun wrote.

It is obviously a much stricter interpretation of “lawman” than the mythical western gunslinger of yore but sums up the function of the US Marshals in a way that Art Mullen would appreciate. According to Calhoun, a marshal’s job in regards to upholding the “rule of law” not only included supporting the federal courts by serving subpoenas and warrants, making arrests and escorting prisoners but representing the government at the local level. They were thus equally responsible for enforcing the edicts of the presidential and legislative branches as much as the judicial, and had to do so out of respect for the law rather than any idealistic belief in brandishing justice.

A mere two years after being created, for instance, President George Washington relied on Marshal David Lenox to deliver warrants to those residents of Western Pennsylvania who refused to comply with a whiskey surcharge designed to raise funds for the newly-established nation. Never mind that a major reason for the break with England and the Revolutionary War was the issue of taxation, it was the law and thus the duty of the US Marshal Service to uphold it. During the years that followed, marshals were called upon to both track down and capture escaped slaves in pre-Civil War America, and then to protect newly freed slaves afterwards. Personal convictions and moral considerations did not matter, only the law.

Art Mullen of Justified, meanwhile, oversees the Lexington, Kentucky, office of the US Marshals in a similar fashion. “Here everybody does everything,” he explains in the pilot episode. “Fugitives, witness relocations, judicial protection, forfeitures, prisoner transport.” It is the same scope of jurisdiction as those on which the service was initially created in 1789.

When Art Mullen thus calls Raylan Givens a “lawman,” he is not using the same definition as historian Frederick Calhoun but is referring to the marshals of the Old West along the likes of Seth Bullock, Wyatt Earp and James “Wild Bill” Hickok. Those marshals not only upheld the law but enforced their own brand of justice in the process. Justified casts the character of Raylan Givens in the same mode as such legendary figures during the opening sequence of the series when Givens follows through on killing a Miami cartel gun thug after giving him 24 hours to leave town or risk the consequences. The preferred dress code of Raylan Givens—cowboy boots and hat with a gun conspicuously holstered around his waist—likewise resembles the lawmen of the “frontier days” as opposed to the contemporary marshal of today.

The evolution of the western section of the country from mere territory to actual statehood was initially defined by the Articles of Confederation. When that centralized government proved ineffective and the United States of America was later formed via the US Constitution, the provisions remained the same. In the early stage of populating such regions, the federal government assumed total jurisdiction over the territory. It was only after an established number of white males had settled in an area that they were able to form their own laws and government. “In the unorganized territories the marshals were the only lawmen,” Frederick Calhoun writes in his biography of the US Marshal Service. “They pursued all outlaws because all criminal activities were by definition a violation of federal law.”

As the process of self-rule and eventual statehood continued, territories often created the position of sheriff for their local communities. More often than not, however, the men who served in these positions were US Marshals as well, giving them a wider assortment of power and authority—and in effect redefining the role of a “lawman” in the process. It was Marshal Frank A. Hadsell who chased Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid out of Wyoming, for instance, while other marshals were at the forefront in the effort to capture Frank and Jesse James.

“You ever heard of the O.K. Corral?” Raylan Givens asked the dimwitted ex-convict Dewey Crowe during season one of Justified. “Weren’t none of those men walking with Wyatt Earp deputized before that moment? Not the day before, not the hour before. He deputized them right then and there and they did their job.”

“They died!” Crowe replies back.

Although the gunfight at the O.K. Corral is arguably the most famous event in the evolution of the Old West, Raylan Givens in actuality had his facts wrong during his brief conversation with Dewey Crowe. It was Virgil Earp, not Wyatt, who deputized the men in Tombstone, Arizona, and he did so as marshal of the town, not in conjunction with his authority as a federal marshal. The comments of Raylan Givens demonstrate his appreciation for such mythical lawmen nonetheless, as well as the bloody nature of enforcing the law during a time of true lawlessness.

The apprehension of outlaw “Arkansas Tom” Jones in the Oklahoma Territory during August of 1893, for instance, led to the death of three deputy marshals. The presiding judge at the subsequent trial, Frank Dale, was appalled by the events that occurred in the small town of Ingalls and remarked afterwards to Marshal E. D. Nix, “I have reached the conclusion that the only good outlaw is a dead one. I hope you will instruct your deputies in the future to bring them in dead.”

During the course of Justified, Raylan Givens has often appeared to be following the edict of Judge Dale as many of the fictitious Deputy Marshal’s encounters with the criminal element have resulted in their deaths. Although his actions have been “justified” given the circumstances, Raylan Givens obviously has no moral qualms of enforcing a different brand of justice than the one advocated by his boss Art Mullen and outlined in the original inception of the US Marshal Service. There is a fine line between respecting the law and upholding it, and while Givens may believe in both, he has often had difficulty seeing the difference—making him, in the mind of Art Mullen at least, “a lousy marshal but a good lawman” at the very least.

Anthony Letizia

Follow Geek Pittsburgh: Facebook - Twitter - RSS Feed