“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:

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.