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.

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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.

In which old man John Marshall exhibits unexpected theological brilliance at a public house in Winchester

Another folk story handed down about old man John Marshall has him, identity unknown to his listeners, schooling the younger generation on Christian theology. Whereas “The Dandy and His Turkey” almost certainly happened just about as told, this story about Marshall’s theological disquisition when passing the evening at a public house in Winchester is more doubtful.

Three secondary sources that include this story are Ebenezer Porter’s Rhetorical Reader (1841, see pp. 176-78), Henry Howe’s Historical Collections of Virginia (1845, see pp. 275-76), and Richard G. Parker’s & J. Madison Watson’s National Fourth Reader (1861, see pp. 147-49). According to Porter and Howe, the story first appeared in The Winchester Republican. Howe identifies the “public house” in the story as “McGuire’s Hotel.”

Here’s the version from Porter’s Rhetorical Reader:

Exercise 55.

Anecdote of Judge Marshall–Winchester Republican

It is not long since a gentleman was travelling in one of the counties of Virginia, and about the close of the day stopped at a public house, to obtain refreshment and spend the night. He had been there but a short time, before an old man alighted from his gig, with the apparent intention of becoming his fellow guest, at the same house. As the old man drove up, he observed that both the shafts of his gig were broken, and that they were held together by withes formed from the bark of a hickory sapling.–Our traveller observed further, that he was plainly clad, that his kneebuckles were loosened and that something like negligence pervaded his dress. Conceiving him to be one of the honest yeomanry of our land, the courtesies of strangers passed between them, and they entered the tavern. It was about the same time that an addition of three or four young gentlemen was made to their number–most, if not all of them of the legal profession. As soon as they became conveniently accommodated, the conversation was turned by one of the latter upon an eloquent harangue which had that day been displayed at the bar. It was replied by the other, that he had witnessed the same day, a degree of eloquence, no doubt equal, but that it was from the pulpit. Something like a sarcastic rejoinder was made to the eloquence of the pulpit; and a warm and able altercation ensued, in which the merits of the Christian religion became the subject of discussion.–From six o’clock, until eleven, the young champions wielded the sword of argument, adducing with ingenuity and ability every thing that could be said pro and con. During this protracted period, the old gentleman listened with all the meekness and modesty of a child; as if he were adding new information to the stores of his own mind; or perhaps he was observing with philosophic eye the faculties of the youthful mind, and how new energies are evolved by repeated action; or, perhaps, with patriotic emotion, he was reflecting upon the future destinies of his country, and on the rising generation upon whom these future destinies must devolve; or, most probably, with a sentiment of moral and religious feeling, he was collecting an argument which, (characteristic of himself) no art would be “able to elude, and no force to resist.” Our traveller remained a spectator, and took no part in what was said.

At last, one of the young men, remarking that it was impossible to combat with long and established prejudices, wheeled around, and with some familiarity, exclaimed, “Well, my old gentleman, what think you of these things?” If, said the traveller, a streak of vivid lightning had at that moment crossed the room, their amazement could not have been greater than it was with what followed. The most eloquent and unanswerable appeal was made for nearly an hour, by the old gentleman, that he ever heard or read. So perfect was his recollection, that every argument urged against the Christian religion was met in the order in which it was advanced. Hume’s sophistry on the subject of miracles, was, if possible, more perfectly answered, than it had already been done by Campbell. And in the whole lecture there was so much simplicity and energy, pathos and sublimity, that not another word was uttered. An attempt to describe it, said the traveller, would be an attempt to paint the sunbeams. It was now a matter of curiosity and inquiry, who the old gentleman was. The traveller concluded that it was the preacher from whom the pulpit eloquence was heard–but no–it was the CHIEF JUSTICE OF THE UNITED STATES.

John Marshall, “The Dandy and His Turkey,” and true greatness

One of the folk stories passed around about Chief Justice Marshall later in his life eventually made its way into nineteenth-century readers under the titles “Chief Justice Marshall and the Dandy” and “The Dandy and His Turkey.” This is a story about Marshall, who liked to do his own shopping at market in Richmond, carrying home a turkey for a young man. It wasn’t until the old man had departed that the “young dandy” realized that the old man who helped him out was the Chief Justice of the United States.

Two readers that printed a version of this story were Sanders’ The School Reader: Third Book and Burleigh’s The Thinker, A Moral Reader. There are minor variations between the two, but the moral of the story is to impress upon readers the importance of taking care of their own business.

From Sanders:

Lesson LXXX.
“Chief Justice Marshall and the Dandy.”

  1. Chief Justice Marshall was in the habit of going to market himself, and carrying home his purchases. As early as sunrise, he was frequently seen, with poultry in one hand and vegetables in the other.
  2. On one of these occasions, a fashionable young man, who had removed to Richmond, was looking for some one to carry home his turkey.
  3. Mr. Marshall stepped up to him, and asked where he lived. On being told, he said: “That is on my way, and I will take it for you.”
  4. When he came to the house, the young man inquired: “What shall I pay you?” “Nothing,” said the Chief Justice; “you are welcome; it was on my way and no trouble.”
  5. “What was that polite old gentleman that brought home my turkey for me?” inquired the young man of a by-stander. “That,” replied he, “is John Marshall, Chief Justice of the United States.”
  6. “Why did he bring home my turkey?” he asked. “To give you a severe reprimand, and teach you to attend to your own business,” was the reply.
  7. True greatness never feels above doing any thing that is useful; but especially the truly great man will never feel above helping himself. His own independence of character depends on his being able to administer to his own necessities.
  8. Dr. Franklin, when he first established himself in business, in Philadelphia, took home upon a wheel-barrow, with his own hands, the paper which he purchased for the printing office.

QUESTIONS.–1. What was Chief Justice Marshall in the habit of doing? 2. What did he do for the young dandy? 3. How did a by-stander answer the young man? 4. What is said of true greatness? 5. What of Dr. Franklin? 6. Where did Chief Justice Marshall reside?

From Burleigh:

Lesson XXVIII.

The Dandy and His Turkey.

§ 1. Chief Justice Marshall was in the habit of going to market himself, and carrying home his purchases.

§ 2. Frequently he would be seen at sunrise, with poultry in one hand and vegetables in the other.

§ 3. On one of those occasions, a fashionable young man was swearing violently, because he could find no one to carry home his turkey.

§ 4. The Chief Justice stepped up and said to him: “This is on my way, and I will take it for you.” When he came to the house, the young man inquired. “What shall I pay you?”

§ 5. “O nothing,” said the Chief Justice, “it was on my way home, and no trouble.”

§ 6. “Who was that polite old man through home my turkey?” inquired he of a bystander.

§ 7. “That,” replied he, “is John Marshall, Chief Justice of the U.S.” “Why did he bring home my turkey?” asked the young man

§ 8. To give you a severe reprimand, and teach you to attend to your own business, was the reply.

§ 9. True, genuine greatness never feels above doing anything that is useful. The truly great man will never feel above helping himself.

§ 10. My dear young friends, may the noble examples of the illustrious dead be constantly followed by you. May you never shrink from the performance of your duty.