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 eveningĀ 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 asĀ “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.