“I watch myself, & resolve every day that I will be moderate but I cannot keep my resolution.”

On February 26, 1821, John Marshall wrote a letter in D.C. to his wife, Polly, who had been in Richmond and at the “plantation” at Chiccahominy. The letter reveals a bit about Marshall’s life in D.C. at the time, as well as Polly’s in Richmond and Chiccahominy. Marshall misdated the letter March 26, but his reference to the “noisy rejoicings of the 22d” refer to the celebration of Washington’s birthday a few days earlier. Here’s the letter.

Washington March 26, 1821

My dearest Polly

I had the pleasure to day of receiving a letter from James of the 24th. informing me of your return from Chiccahominy. I am very glad to hear that you have passed safely through the noisy rejoicings of the 22d & are as well as usual. I hope care was taken to keep every thing quiet while you were at the plantation & that you slept better than you did at christmas. James informs me that you heard the drum distinctly & that the Cannon shook the house. Of course your mornings nap was interrupted but I hope you slept through the night.

Judge Washington still continues unwell at Alexandria & I have no hope of his joining us during the court. We continue very busy & have as much rain as heart could wish. We dine out too frequently & I think eating such late & hearty dinners disagrees with me. I watch myself, & resolve every day that I will be moderate but I cannot keep my resolution.

Washington is still very gay. There are continual parties but I make a point not to go to them. Farewell my dearest Polly, I am your ever affectionate.

One detail of this letters worth new attention in the light of Paul Finkelman’s recent book, Supreme Injustice: Slavery in the Nation’s Highest Court, is Marshall’s description of the farm at Chiccahominy (also spelled Chickhamony) as a “plantation.”

This farm, a few miles outside of Richmond, shows up in Marshall biographies as a kind of country retreat for the Marshall family, as well as a working farm. Marshall’s use of the term “plantation,” though, signals that it was something more than a cozy little getaway.  There are not complete records of Marshall’s slaveholding at this farm, but Finkelman’s research has uncovered that the 1830 census recorded over sixty enslaved people at Marshall’s Chickahominy property. See Finkelman at 41 (“In 1830 the U.S. Census recorded sixty-two slaves at Chicakahominy.”).

Here is a screenshot of the records available at the source cited by Finkelman:

Letter from Philadelphia Bar committee to John Marshall’s children on his death

John Marshall died in Philadelphia,to which he had traveled from his home in Richmond for medical treatment, on July 6, 1835. The next day, the Bar of Philadelphia met and adopted resolutions honoring Marshall. The group appointed Peter DuPonceau and Charles Smith to communicate the bar resolutions to Marshall’s children. Here is the letter they wrote:

Philadelphia, 8th July 1835


With feelings that you are too well able to appreciate, we beg leave, in the name and on behalf of the Bar of Philadelphia, to offer you this expression of their condolence for the immeasurable loss which not only yourselves and the other members of the family of the illustrious deceased, but the whole American nation & particularly those on whose behalf we have the honor to address you, have experienced by the death of your never to be forgotten parent—John Marshall.

The enclosed resolutions which we have been ordered to communicate to you, express the feelings of the Philadelphia Bar, better than we could do ourselves, and yet there is at the bottom of our hearts, that which pen cannot express, & which you will but understand, by the feelings of your own.

We beg that you will be pleased to communicate this letter & the Resolutions enclosed to the other members of your family.

We have the honor to be

With great consideration & respect
Your most obedient humble Servants

The Chairman and Secretary of the meeting of the Philadelphia Bar, held on the occasion of the death of the illustrious John Marshall,

Peter S. DuPonceau
Charles Smith

Robert E. Lee on what the Constitution left unsettled, as casus belli

In a remarkable and wide-ranging interview with Thomas M. Cook of the New York Herald, Robert E. Lee identified the failure of the Constitution to settle “the question of defining the relative powers of the States, and their relation to the General Government” as giving rise to legitimate casus belli:

On the question of State sovereignty, the General contends that there exists a legitimate casus belli. In the convention that formed the organic law of the land, the question of defining the relative powers of the States, and their relation to the General Government, was raised, but after much discussion was dropped and unsettled. It has remained so unsettled until the present time. This war is destined to set it at rest. It was unfortunate that it was not settled at the outset; but as it was not settled then, and had to be settled at some time, the war raised on this issue cannot be considered treason. If the South is forced to submission in this contest, it of course can only be looked upon as the triumph of Federal power over State rights, and the forced annihilation of the latter.


John Marshall, an American in Paris, to Polly, on amusement, dissipation, and how hard it is to find a friend in Paris

While in Paris on a diplomatic mission, John Marshall had a lot of time on his hands because the French foreign minister refused to treat directly with the Americans. Marshall was impressed, but not taken in, by Paris. His account of the city as an “American in Paris” is characteristic of the response many Americans would have, I think:

Oh God, how much time & how much happiness have I thrown away! Paris presents one incessant round of amusement & dissipation but very little I believe even for its inhabitants of that society which interests the heart. Every day you may see something new magnificent & beautiful, every night you may see a spectacle which astonishes & enchants the imagination. The most lively fancy aided by the strongest description cannot equal the reality of the opera. All that you can conceive & a great deal more than you can conceive in the line of amusement is to be found in this gay metropolis but I suspect it would not be easy to find a friend.

I would not live in Paris, [if I could] … be among the wealthiest of its citizens.

John Marshall to Polly Marshall, November 27, 1797.

John Marshall to Henry Lee on Jefferson’s non-infallibility

This letter from John Marshall to Henry Lee is notable for many reasons. It is evidence of the long-lasting and deep-rooted enmity between Marshall and Jefferson, to be sure. But it is also evidence of Marshall’s appreciation for the difference between unjust asperity in political discourse and legitimate criticism.

Had anyone before, or has anyone since, spoken similarly of “the rights of political war”?

October 25th. 1830

Dear Sir

Your letter of the 25th. of July reached me a few days past. I am not surprized at the feeling with which you received the vote of the senate on your nomination. Although a serious perhaps successful opposition was looked for, the actual ⟨vote⟩ was not I beleive anticipated out of doors. Your mission however would I presume be now terminated, had your nomination been confirmed.

I have read, I need not say with astonishment and deep felt disgust, the correspondence of Mr. Jefferson published by his Grandson. Such a posthumous work was, I beleive, never before given to the world. The deep rooted prejudices of the American people in his favor and against those who supported the administration of General Washington would not be more fully illustrated than by the manner in which this work has been received. It has been said, I know not how truely, that the papers were selected by himself for publication.

However Mr. Jefferson may have wished to impress on the public a conviction that his charges on the federalists are the result “of his matured judgement,” I never have nor do I entertain that opinion. Mr. Jefferson cannot have been himself the dupe, in his quiet retirement, of those excitements which might have imposed upon his judgement while struggling for power. A great portion of the calumny heaped upon the federalists was founded on the fact that they supported their own government against the aggressions and insults of France. This he ascribed to hostility to republicanism and a desire to introduce a monarchy on the British model. That this opinion was fallacious, that he was wrong and the federalists right on this subject of the French revolution was surely demonstrated long before his death.

I had noticed the unjust, I cannot say peculiar asperity with which he speaks of your Father. To his eminence as the supporter of the Washington administration in Virginia, this may perhaps in a considerable degree be ascribed. Those Virginians who opposed the opinions and political views of Mr. Jefferson seem to be have been considered as rebellious subjects than legitimate enemies entitled to the rights of political war. To this may probably be added the part he took in the affair of Mrs. Walker. These causes may in some measure account for the bitterness ⟨dis⟩played with respect to him. The first cause operated against him and myself in common. I am certainly not regardless of the repeated unwarrantable aspersions on myself. In the first moments after perusing them, I meditated taking some notice of them and repelling them. But I have become indolent, and age has blunted my feelings. The impression made at first is in some degree worn out, and I do not renew it by reperusing the work. The parts of my conduct which form the subject of his most malignant censure are in possession of the public, and every fair mind must perceive in them a refutation of the calumnies uttered against me. To unfair minds any thing I could urge would be unavailing and probably unread. Nothing is unknown or can be misunderstood by intelligent men unless it be the motives which compelled the court to give its opinion at large on the case of Marbury vs Madison.

There is one paragraph in your letter from which I dissent entirely. You say “I must in fairness declare that I believe Mr. Jeffersons theoretical opinions on government are those most in accordance with the freedom and happiness of society that have ever been given to the world.”

On what, let me ask is this declaration founded? Not surely on his opinions that all political power originally resides in and must be derived from the people by their free consent, and ought to be exercised for their happiness; not from his opinions that rulers are accountable to the people for their conduct. These are common to all the people and statesmen of America. Mr. Jeffersons opinions on these subjects, though “in accordance with the freedom and happiness of society” are not more so than “have been given to the world” by every patriot of The United States. The preeminence you bestow on him then must be sustained by something else, by something peculiar to himself not possessed in common with all his country men.

What is this something?

Is his opinion, so frequently repeated and earnestly sustained, that all obligations and contracts civil and political expire of themselves at intervals of about (as well as I recollect) seventeen years, that to which you allude? Or is it the opinion, also frequently advanced, that a rebellion once in ten or twelve years, is a wholesome medicine for the body politic, tending to reinvigorate it? Or do you found this preeminence on his letter to Mr. Kerchival v 4th. p 285, ⟨in⟩ which, after a long and ingenious disquisition on the constitution of Virginia, he says “The sum of these amendments is 1. General suffrage, 2 Equal representation in the legislature. 3 An Executive ⟨chosen⟩ by the people. 4 Judges elective or amovable. 5 Justices, Jurors, and Sheriffs elective. 6 Ward divisions. And 7 Periodical amendments of the constitution.” These are I believe, some of them, among the peculiar opinions of Mr. Jefferson. Do they entitle him to the superiority you assign to him?

In truth I have been a skeptic on this subject from the time I became acquainted with Mr. Jefferson as Secretary of State. I have never beleived firmly in his infallibility. I have never thought him a particularly wise sound and practical statesman; nor have I ever thought those opinions which were peculiar to himself “most in accordinance with the freedom and happiness of society that have ever been given to the world.” I have not changed this mode of thinking. I am dear Sir with great regard your Obedt

J Marshall

You astonish me by your account of the treasure acquired with Algiers.

Joseph Story’s “Inscription for a Cenotaph” honoring John Marshall

In February 1836, Justice Joseph Story composed the following inscription for a cenotaph honoring his colleague and friend John Marshall who had died in July 1835:

To Marshall reared–the great, the good, the wise;
Born for all ages, honored in all skies;
His was the fame to mortals rarely given,
Begun on earth, but fixed in aim on heaven.
Genius, and learning, and consummate skill,
Moulding each thought, obedient to the will;
Affections pure, as e’er warmed human breast,
And love, in blessing others, doubly blest;
Virtue unspotted, uncorrupted truth,
Gentle in age, and beautiful in youth;–
These were his bright possessions. These had power
To charm through life and cheer his dying hour.
Are these all perished? No! but snatched from time,
To bloom afresh in yonder sphere sublime.
Kind was the doom (the fruit was ripe) to die,
Mortal is clothed with immortality.

John Marshall to John Adams on incurring “odium & calumny” for offending the dominant party by writing historical truth

On July 6, 1806, John Marshall wrote to John Adams about including in his forthcoming Volume 5 of Marshall’s Life of Washington portions of letters that President Adams wrote to George Washington offering him command of the army in 1798. (See pp. 750-55.) In this letter, Marshall expresses empathy toward Adams for the criticism he had received. Marshall also reveals his own awareness of the public criticism from opponents of Washington that would be coming Marshall’s way for recounting his sympathetic-to-Washington account of “a most turbulent & factious period.” Marshall knows some of what he writes will offend the dominant party, but he refuses “a cowardly abandonment or concealment of truth.”

Here’s an excerpt:

Beleive me, sir, no man has felt more sincerely than myself the malignant, unjust, & intolerant spirit which has been exhibited with respect to you. I trust its bitterness is diminishing. With respect to myself, I have reason to fear that the imprudent task I have just executed will draw upon me a degree of odium & calumny which I might perhaps otherwise have escaped. I should never have undertaken it but in the hope, certainly a very fallacious one, that the author would forever remain totally unknown. But having undertaken it I have endeavoured to detail the events of a most turbulent & factious perioud without unnecessarily wounding the dominant party, but without a cowardly abandonment or concealment of truth. What may be the consequences of having ventured to offend those whom truth however moderately related must offend, it is not difficult to divine.

“Character of John Marshall” (William Wirt, The Letters of the British Spy)

William Wirt, in The Letters of the British Spy (1803), provided the American public with one of the earliest and most widespread character sketches of John Marshall. Wirt’s book went through several editions, and his sketch of Marshall was also picked up by commonplace books, such as Dickinson’s Columbian Reader (1815) and Cheever’s American Common-Place Book of Prose (1839).

Here’s the excerpt from The Columbian Reader:

The Chief Justice of the United States, is in his person, tall, meagre, emaciated; his muscles relaxed, and his joints so loosely connected, as not only to disqualify him, apparently, for any vigorous exertion of body, but to destroy every thing like elegance and harmony in his air and movement. Indeed in his whole appearance, and demeanor; dress, attitude, gesture; sitting, standing, or walking; he is as far removed from the idolized graces of Lord Chesterfield, as any other gentleman on earth. To continue the portrait–his head and face are small in proportion to his height; his complexion swarthy; the muscles of his face, being relaxed, give him the appearance of a man of fifty years of age, nor can he be much younger; his countenance has a faithful expression of great good humor and hilarity; while his black eyes, that unerring index, possess an irradiating spirit, which proclaims the imperial powers of the mind that sits enthroned within.

Continue reading ““Character of John Marshall” (William Wirt, The Letters of the British Spy)”

John Marshall, suspicious of “wild and enthusiastic democracy”

In 1827, responding to a request from his “partial and highly valued friend” Joseph Story, John Marshall wrote an autobiographical letter describing some of the main events of his life between his birth in 1755 and becoming Chief Justice of the United States in 1801.

Today, our focus from this letter will be on his description of supporting ratification of the new U.S. Constitution in Virginia. One of the attractive features he singles out for praise is Article I, Section 10, which contains restrictions on state legislatures.

It was while serving in the continental army that Marshall “was confirmed in the habit of considering America as my country, and Congress as my government.” This army experience shaped his perceptions of state politics. Marshall saw in the state legislature “the causes which had been chiefly instrumental in augmenting [the] sufferings” of the continental army. He also observed that questions “perpetually recurring in the state legislatures … brought annually into doubt principles which [he] thought most sacred,” such as the obligation of debtors to creditors.

Here is an extended excerpt:

In April 1787, I was elected into the legislature for the county in which Richmond stands; and though devoted to my profession, entered with a good deal of spirit into the politics of the state. The topics of the day were paper money, the collection of taxes, the preservation of public faith, and the administration of justice. Parties were nearly equally divided on all these interesting subjects; and the contest concerning them was continually renewed. The state of the Confederacy was also a subject of deep solicitude to our statesmen. Mr. James Madison had been for two or three years a leading member of the House of Delegates, and was the parent of the resolution for appointing members to a general Convention to be held at Philadelphia for the purpose of revising the confederation. The question whether a continuance of the Union or a separation of the states was most to be desired was sometimes discussed; and either side of the question was supported without reproach. Mr. Madison was the enlightened advocate of the Union and of an efficient federal government; but was not a member of the legislature when the plan of the constitution was proposed to the states by the general Convention. It was at first favorably received; but Mr. P. Henry, Mr. G Mason, and several other gentlemen of great influence were much opposed to it, and permitted no opportunity to escape of inveighing against it and of communicating their prejudices to others. In addition to state jealousy and state pride, which operated powerfully in all the large states, there were some unacknowledged motives of no inconsiderable influence in Virginia. In the course of the session, the unceasing efforts of the enemies of the constitution made a deep impression; and before its close, a great majority showed a decided hostility to it. I took an active part in the debates on this question and was uniform in support of the proposed constitution.

When I recollect the wild and enthusiastic democracy with which my political opinions of that day were tinctured, I am disposed to ascribe my devotion to the union, and to a government competent to its preservation, at least as much to casual circumstances as to judgment. I had grown up at a time when a love of union and resistance to the claims of Great Britain were the inseparable inmates of the same bosom; when patriotism and a strong fellow feeling with our suffering fellow citizens of Boston were identical; when the maxim “united we stand, divided we fall” was the maxim of every orthodox American; and I had imbibed these sentiments so thoughroughly that they constituted a part of my being. I carried them with me into the army where I found myself associated with brave men from different states who were risking life and every thing valuable in a common cause beleived by all to be most precious; and where I was confirmed in the habit of considering America as my country, and Congress as my government. I partook largely of the sufferings and feelings of the army, and brought with me into civil life an ardent devotion to its interests. My immediate entrance into the state legislature opened to my view the causes which had been chiefly instrumental in augmenting those sufferings, and the general tendency of state politics convinced me that no safe and permanent remedy could be found but in a more efficient and better organized general government. The questions too which were perpetually recurring in the state legislatures, and which brought annually into doubt principles which I thought most sacred, which proved that everything was afloat, and that we had no safe anchorage ground, gave a high value in my estimation to that article in the constitution which imposes restrictions on the states. I was consequently a determined advocate for its adoption, and became a candidate for the convention to which it was to be submitted.

John Marshall as a “Transparent Hero” in the Goethals & Allison taxonomy

University of Richmond professors Al Goethals and Scott Allison have collaborated over the past years on a number of projects relating to heroes. Their Heroes blog is a superb resource for insights into who heroes are and why we need them. Today, though, we look at something a little heavier … their 2012 book chapter from Advances in Experimental Social Psychology: “Making Heroes: The Construction of Courage, Competence, and Virtue.” In this chapter, Goethals & Allison offer a taxonomy of different kinds of heroes. One of their categories is the “transcendent hero,” who satisfies the criteria for multiple categories. A case can be made for John Marshall as transcendent hero. But rather than make that case now, consider how Marshall might be seen to fit the hero category shaping next year’s exhibit at the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia (on Marshall as “Hidden Hero of American Self-Government”). That is the category of “Transparent Hero.” Here’s what Goethals & Allison say about transparent heroes:

We next turn to an important category of people who quietly perform heroic deeds behind the scenes, outside the public spotlight. We call them transparent heroes. They are our parents who made great sacrifices for us. They are the teachers who molded our minds, the coaches who taught us discipline and hard work, the healthcare workers who healed us, emergency first responders who saved us, and military personnel who protect us. These heroes are quite possibly the most under-appreciated members of our society. They may also be the most abundant, and to test this idea, we asked participants to estimate the prevalence of the hero subtypes in our taxonomy. The results showed that participants estimated that 65% of all heroes are transparent–the invisible individuals among us whose heroic work often goes unnoticed. No other category of heroes came close to matching this percentage; the next highest percentage was 13% for traditional heroes, whom we describe next. Transparent heroes may be our most unsung heroes, but they are judged to be the most prevalent in our society.

Why consider Marshall as a transparent hero? Consider how his relative obscurity (relative, that is, to Washington, Lincoln, & Jefferson, for instance) is a function of his heroic accomplishments relating to the law. Marshall succeeded by pulling something of a disappearing act: He identified himself with the Court, the Court with the Constitution, and the Constitution with the People.