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
Richmond

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.

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.

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.

John Marshall to Charles Cotesworth Pinckney on Jefferson’s inauguration: at least he’s not a terrorist

On March 4, 1801, Chief Justice John Marshall administered the oath of office to Thomas Jefferson, the third President of the United States. This marked the first transfer of power to a new political power base in the early Republic.

That day, Marshall wrote a letter to a friend, Charles Cotesworth Pinckney. He started the letter before swearing in Jefferson and ended it after. Here’s what he wrote:

Washington March 4th. 1801

Dear Sir

I had the pleasure of receiving a few days past your letter of the 11th. Feb.

For your friendly expressions on my late appointment I am infinitely obligd to you. Of the importance of the judiciary at all times, but more especially the present I am very fully impressd & I shall endeavor in the new office to which I am calld not to disappoint my friends.

Before I receivd your letter Judge Bay had left us with the intention of visiting the Mississipi territory. It was not in my power to be otherwise useful to him than by giving him letters to the governor & secretary of that country who will I hope facilitate his enquiries concerning his property.

To day the new political year commences—The new order of things begins. Mr. Adams I believe left the city at 4 OClock in the morning & Mr. Jefferson will be inaugurated at 12. There are some appearances which surprize me. I wish however more than I hope that the public prosperity & happiness may sustain no diminution under democratic guidance. The democrats are divided into speculative theorists & absolute terrorists: With the latter I am not disposd to class Mr. Jefferson. If he arranges himself with them it is not difficult to foresee that much calamity is in store for our country—if he does not they will soon become his enemies & calumniators.

4 OClock

I have administerd the oath to the President. You will before this reaches you see his inauguration speech. It is in the general well judgd & conciliatory. It is in direct terms giving the lie to the violent party declamation which has elected him; but it is strongly characteristic of the general cast of his political theory.

With great & sincere esteem, I am dear Sir your Obedt

J Marshall

John Marshall on James Madison, Patrick Henry, and the distinction between convincing and persuading

Patrick Henry has often been depicted as a stirring orator who operated primarily on the emotions or passions. He certainly did know how to move men’s souls and stir them to action. But overemphasis on his “jury appeal” risks under-appreciation of his skills of logical argument and rational persuasion. This excerpt from William Wirt Henry’s life of Patrick Henry shows how John Marshall appreciated Henry as an accurate thinker and profound reasoner as well as a great orator. In comparing Madison to Henry, Marshall draws a distinction between convincing and persuading. Perhaps the distinction is worth trying to understand:

The poorly reported speeches of Mr. Henry attest the powers of reasoning he displayed [during the Virginia ratification convention], but in addition we have the testimony of one of his ablest opponents, one who certainly was a judge of logic, and had ample opportunity of seeing him in deliberative bodies and at the bar.

John Marshall, after he had achieved his great reputation as Chief Justice of the United States, upon a visit to Warrenton, Va., was asked his opinion of Wirt’s “Life of Henry.” He replied that “he did not think it did full justice to its subject. That while the popular idea of Mr. Henry, gathered from Mr. Wirt’s book, was that of a great orator, he was that and much more, a learned lawyer, a most accurate thinker, and a profound reasoner.” And proceeding to compare him with Madison: “If I were called upon,” said he, “to say who of all men I have known had the greatest power to convince, I should perhaps say Mr. Madison, while Mr. Henry had without doubt the greatest power to persuade.”

William Wirt Henry, 2 Patrick Henry: Life, correspondence, speeches 376 (relying on Judge James Keith of Warrenton, Va., for this statement of Marshall’s, which he obtained from a memorandum of the conversation made by Judge John Scott).