Today marks the 260th birthday of Virginia-born pioneering chief justice John Marshall. In celebration of his incredible life, take a look back with us to this 2001 feature by senior writer Harry Kollatz Jr., which depicts Marshall as a real man with real flaws, an unconquerable spirit and an astounding legacy.
John Marshall survived the killing cold of Valley Forge, graced the Virginia legislature, wrote the first major biography of George Washington, served as John Adams' secretary of state and pioneered constitutional law as the chief justice of the United States. (Artwork courtesy of the John Marshall House)
In Richmond, the city he called home, he played billiards with James Monroe, scrubbed floors alongside his slaves and earned the grudging respect of bitter rival Thomas Jefferson.
He displayed a fondness for gambling, games and wine. Once, he dispensed with his pants as he dispensed justice. Brilliant and inviting, he held rollicking dinners for fellow lawyers at his home, which still stands on the street that bears his name.
John Marshall survived the killing cold of Valley Forge, graced the Virginia legislature, wrote the first major biography of George Washington, served as John Adams’ secretary of state and pioneered constitutional law as chief justice of the United States.
Yet he seems the forgotten giant of Capitol Square. His one carved likeness doesn’t do the justice justice. How can a man of such monumental stature have no stand-alone statue in Richmond?
A Man, Not A Monument
One of the most important Richmonders ever to live in its storied precincts doesn’t have a free-standing statue here, although Marshall is among the famous Virginians encircling George Washington on horseback at the state Capitol.
Considering Marshall, he probably wouldn’t have minded. His respect for Washington was immense and Marshall, with his genuine lack of pretension, would likely have balked at the idea of a statue but accepted it gracefully.
Allen Goolsby, president of the John Marshall Foundation and an attorney for Hunton and Williams, says, “ If some kind of permanent public monument were raised to Marshall, then it might shift the focus of the city a little bit,” he says. A few degrees away, that is, from the Civil War that Marshall feared and sought to prevent.
John Marshall was appointed in 1801 to the U.S. Supreme Court, where he served 34 years — the longest term to date — as chief justice. He made the Supreme Court the impartial guardian of the Constitution and instrument of the people’s will. He managed to accomplish this nearly without giving offense to anyone, except his implacable political foe, Thomas Jefferson, and Jefferson’s allies.
Marshall spent more than half of his long life in a Richmond house he designed for himself and his beloved, delicate wife of 39 years, Mary Willis Ambler, whom he called Polly. The home stands at 818 E. Marshall St.
There, the Marshalls raised six surviving children and Marshall maintained his law office and hosted jolly “lawyers dinners.” At these monthly events, Marshall and his guests ate well and consumed great quantities of Madeira wine. Come weekends, he’d ride to Buchanan’s Spring, just outside of town, to join 30 pals (including the governor) in playing quoits. They called themselves the Richmond Quoits, or Barbecue Club.
Quoits is a version of horseshoes, using flat, doughnut-shaped discs. Marshall’s quoits were heavy, rough iron, and none of the other members could heft them like he could.
Discussion of politics or religion was forbidden. The members of the Richmond Quoits drank rum punch and mint juleps, then debated whose quoit got closest to the peg.
Come Into The House
Marshall’s enduring legal influence is felt in courtrooms throughout the world. Yet Richmond takes little official notice of the man who almost single-handedly defined the Constitution and, thus, the United States.
Virginia Supreme Court Chief Justice Harry L. Carrico, a great admirer of Marshall, explains Richmond’s aloof regard for him.
“It’s because he was a judge,” he says. “It’s rare that you can please both sides of a case. You start out with a losing proposition as far as popularity is concerned.
“He started with a clean slate,” Carrico explains Marshall’s influence. “He built the Supreme Court into what it is today and made it an equal member of government.”
He “invented American constitutional law,” wrote historian Charles F. Hobson in his book, “The Great Chief Justice.” Hobson further observes, “So commonplace has judicial interpretation and application of the Constitution become in our day that it is easy to miss the significance of its development.”
During crucial years after The Revolution when the young nation vociferously debated the methods of its governance, Marshall was one of Richmond’s most respected citizens and one of its most active, serving in various offices, including councilman and judge.
But the city does not proclaim him. The late Chief Justice Warren Burger observed the lack of public recognition of Marshall’s contributions. Carrico says that Burger felt that Marshall’s house is his monument. Considering Marshall’s fondness for entertaining and his manner of treating practically everyone he met as a friend, keeping his house open for visitors seems entirely appropriate.
Three Great Loves And One Rival
The three great loves of Marshall’s life were his wife, the U.S. Constitution and his home and social life. His great rival and political opposite came in the form of his third cousin, once removed — Thomas Jefferson.
Marshall stood 6 feet, robust but gangly. His eyes were large and dark, and his hair — until his mid-40s — was jet black. Marshall was negligent in his dress and forgetful of where he placed important papers, for which Polly was constantly hunting. His speaking style, according to contemporaries, was dry and singsong.
As an intellectual, his equals were few.
U.S. Attorney General William Wirt in 1828 wrote to a friend that Marshall’s mind was on “a scale of an Atlantic Ocean” while the minds around him “were mere ponds in comparison. To hear that man in full stretch is to feel annihilated.”
Jefferson said, “So great is his sophistry you must never give him an affirmative answer or you will be forced to grant his conclusion. Why, if he were to ask me if it were daylight or not, I’d reply, ‘Sir, I don’t know, I can’t tell.’”
“He was a joiner and builder his entire life,” observes Mark Greenough of Living History Associates, who as a young person gave tours at the Marshall House and now occasionally portrays the Chief Justice.
Marshall started or participated in the Richmond Volunteer Fire Department; the Amicable Society, a travelers’ aid group; and the Virginia Historical and Philosophical Society, which later became the Virginia Historical Society. He sold stocks for the James River and Kanawha Canal Co.
Marshall worked hard, played hard (critics called him indolent) and often did his own household chores, even occasionally scrubbing the floors alongside his slaves.
“Jefferson said he was of the people, but Marshall truly was,” Greenough observes. “Jefferson talked the talk, Marshall walked the walk.”
John Marshall biographer Jean Edward Smith says, “The thing that annoyed Jefferson the most was that Marshall was well-liked, and he wasn’t.”
Jefferson, author of the Declaration of Independence and the influential Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, Virginia governor and third U.S. president, was described by Marshall as “the great Lama of the mountains.”
Marshall thought of Jefferson sitting in his unfinished mansion of Monticello, writing vituperative letters and memoirs while consciously working to shape his considerable legacy. In Marshall’s view, the greatest public figure yet produced by the United States was George Washington and Jefferson was no Washington.
Jefferson strove to keep government small and the states independent. Marshall, who’d experienced first-hand the disorganization of the squabbling 13 Colonies when fighting The Revolution, believed in a strong central government and a Constitution to assure individual freedoms and rights.
Historian Hobson says, “Marshall sincerely believed that Jefferson was hostile to the idea of an independent judiciary. Jefferson believed that Marshall and his brethren were a ‘subtle corps of sappers and miners constantly working under ground to undermine the foundations of our confederated fabric.’”
Nothing Portends More Calamity
The sometimes-rancorous debate between distant cousins ultimately erupted into four awful years of fratricidal bloodshed in the American Civil War.
Marshall regarded slavery as evil but believed its dismantling couldn’t occur in haste due to the South’s dependence on a chattel work force. The ramifications of sudden emancipation would alter the country in ways nobody could predict. Marshall owned at least 20 slaves, many of them domestic workers. He treated them as he apparently treated everyone else: with deference and respect.
In an 1826 letter to Massachusetts friend Thomas Pickering, Marshall observed that “nothing portends more calamity and mischief to the Southern states than their slave population; yet they cherish the evil & view with immovable prejudice & dislike every thing which may tend to diminish it. I do not wonder that they should resist any attempt to interfere with the rights of property, but they have a feverish jealousy of measures which may do good without the hazard of harm that is, I think, very unwise.”
The question of slavery’s legality never came before his court, but sharp tangents of its consequences occasionally appeared on the docket. In those situations, Marshall ruled against slave traffickers and masters.
Historian David Robarge writes that Marshall sought to keep “the Court out of an insoluble issue” while “maintaining social peace, and preserving the Union overrode his moral reservations about slavery and his belief that it violated natural law.”
In the meantime, Marshall worked to send free blacks to the colony of Liberia in Africa. He didn’t see this as a solution but as a way to do something, anything, to ease tensions.
Formation of a Man
Marshall, though methodical, could be a gambler.
He demonstrated a typical Virginia predilection for the gaming tables (losing more than he won) and a great appreciation for Madeira wine imported from England. He ordered it by the pipe, each containing 132 gallons.
Marshall cultivated a relaxed image of idleness and lassitude. “But the fact is, he was superbly disciplined. He rose well before dawn every day; by noon he’d done a full day’s work and was free for more informal activities,” Smith says.
Marshall’s personal warmth and amiability, merged with a great intellectual acuity and a profound sense of civility, were often remarked upon by all who knew him, even his rivals. Marshall’s friendliness and self-effacement, as Robarge writes, which concealed a resolute will and deep self-confidence, made him, as if by nature designed, to ascend to the chief justice’s bench.
Marshall was born in 1755 in Germantown, Va., then a part of Prince William County, soon incorporated into the newly formed Fauquier County. Marshall was the grandson of a clergyman and the eldest of 15 children born to industrious backwoodsman Thomas Marshall and his able, religious and intelligent wife, Mary Randolph Keith.
Marshall’s education before The Revolution was of just two years duration, one at a school in Westmoreland County and one with a Scottish tutor at home. Thomas Marshall kept books around and his son gained access to others. Young John read the Roman classics of Horace and Livy but was particularly affected by Alexander Pope and his “Rights of Man.” Marshall absorbed Pope’s masterful manner of compressing complex thoughts and vividly expressing them
Throughout his life, Marshall was an avid reader. His favorite writers included Shakespeare, Sir Walter Scott and Jane Austen.
Marshall was persuaded to write a biography of Washington, by his nephew Bushrod Washington. Accustomed to reports and judicial opinions, usually written on tight deadlines, Marshall instead wrote five volumes that together are essentially the country’s first nationalist history. He spent the rest of his life tinkering with it. For decades, “The Life of George Washington” became a standard history of the Colonial and Revolutionary periods and is today invaluable source material.
Marshall so annoyed Jefferson with his accounting of the republic’s early days, and his dim view of Jefferson’s role, that in rebuttal Jefferson composed the “Anas,” a hodgepodge collection of letters and rambling, conspiratorial assertions.
Marshall was a soldier in the Continental Army, fighting through defeats and victories and surviving the horrendous winter quarters at Valley Forge. He shared the suffering of many men from different states —3,000 of whom died that winter due to disease and deprivation — sealing Marshall “in the habit of considering America my country, and Congress my government. I had imbibed these sentiments so thoroughly that they constituted a part of my being.”
The future justice never complained of the awful Valley Forge time or his personal experiences. If the war burned psychological wounds in him, it isn’t apparent in his words or deeds. The experience, however, molded his character. Later in his career, Marshall was never too busy to write lengthy letters to the secretary of war attesting to the pension claims of Virginia veterans and legally assisting them in land settlements of acreage promised them for their service.
“I was greatly pleased with her”
Marshall’s father was Yorktown’s ranking officer in 1780. His status afforded him quarters next to the tenement apartments of the Ambler family. Before The Revolution, the Amblers were among Virginia’s wealthiest families but the war reversed their circumstances.
Thomas Marshall frequently visited Jaquelin and Rebecca Burwell Ambler and their two daughters, extroverted Eliza and incredibly shy Mary, also known as Polly. He often shared John’s letters with them. The exploits of young Capt. Marshall, off at the front with Gen. Washington, inflamed the imaginations of the Ambler girls.
In the spring of 1780, when 24-year-old Marshall ambled into their lives, the two young women were taken aback by his disheveled frontiersman appearance and underwhelming lack of dash. Eliza chose to do nothing to impress him. Marshall was enchanted by the petite qualities of Polly.
Probably not more than 5 feet, 1 inch tall, she was striking, inheriting a darkness from the French Huguenot side of her family. Her curly brown hair, arched brows, prominent patrician nose, high cheekbones and thin mouth worked their magic.
Marshall reminisced, “I saw her the first week she attained the age of fourteen, and was greatly pleased with her.” Marshall described Polly as “cheerful, mild, benevolent, serious, humane, bent on self-improvement” and deeply religious.
Meanwhile, Thomas Marshall was sent by then-Gov. Jefferson to survey Kentucky, which was then part of Virginia. At the age of 53, Thomas Marshall led a new wave of settlement in the Kentucky Territory and established the foundation of the Marshall family’s wealth.
In February 1781, after five years of frontline combat and with the war far from won, John Marshall resigned his captain’s commission. The short-term enlistments had run out, recruits weren’t coming, and he was without a command. A possibility also exists of his disappointment with Baron Friedrich von Steuben, who second only to Washington, saved the army at Valley Forge but whose temperament later caused difficulties in the army.
My Dearest Polly
Marshall undertook courses in law at the College of William and Mary under the tutelage of the great George Wythe, Jefferson’s mentor. Despite how badly Marshall maintained his papers, he kept a notebook, running for 238 pages on more than 70 subjects pertaining to law. The book was not only a practical device for a jurist who had not attended extensive law classes, but also an emotional reminder of his passions for both the law and a woman. Polly Ambler’s name, with variations, is often scribbled in the margins.
Marshall is said to have declared, “I would have had my wife if I had had to climb Alleghenys of skulls and swim Atlantics of blood.”
He followed the Amblers to Richmond, where Jefferson moved the state capital. Marshall became a member of the Virginia bar but the war effort closed the courts. Marshall bided his time between Richmond and his father’s Fauquier house, Oak Hill.
Marshall’s courting of Polly consisted of dances and pleasantries including reading poetry aloud together, especially Alexander Pope. Marshall cultivated an attitude toward women that was advanced for his day. He considered women equals, valued their views on the world and life and — when in the company of men — didn’t approve of jokes at women’s expense. Marshall emerges from the precious few personal writings that survive as a man who loved women but who really loved only one.
It came time to ask Polly to wed. Marshall needed to act, for there were suitors lining up, “one in the parlor and two on the doorstep.” On the fateful day, Marshall put the question to Polly who, in her youthful nervousness, refused him. Marshall bade her farewell, got on his horse and started a long ride back to Fauquier.
Polly immediately began to weep hysterically. She held her breath to stop her tears but nearly suffocated. What happened next depends on the teller or how much one thinks the couple knew of Pope’s “The Rape of the Lock.” Either her cousin John Ambler, or Polly herself, snatched a lock of hair from her head, then John rode after Marshall, with the hair, to demonstrate that when Polly said no, she meant yes.
Polly then placed the hair into a locket, which she wore around her neck the remainder of her life, which was fraught with physical ailments and a nervous condition.
Marshall served on Richmond City Council, was repeatedly elected to the House of Delegates and participated in the Constitution ratification debates of 1787-88, pitted against such old lions as Patrick Henry. He defended President Washington when criticism of him was more vindictive than warranted. He constantly refused federal appointments because his law practice was more prestigious and profitable.
At last, Marshall was drawn into federal service, in part because he needed cash flow to resolve Fauquier County property claims. He accepted a government mission from President John Adams. He became one of three “envoys extraordinary,” with Charles Cotesworth Pinckney and Elbridge Gerry, sent to Paris to settle differences with the revolutionary government of France.
Marshall’s straightforward dispatches to Adams reported how the commissioners wouldn’t yield to the duplicity, intrigue and demand of bribes by the crafty, veteran French foreign minister Talleyrand and his agents. Adams rendered them anonymous as “X,” “Y” and “Z.”
Unknown to Marshall, his dispatches were published in every major newspaper. The XYZ Affair caused considerable consternation in the United States. Marshall became famous and attractive to the Federalists as an officeholder. Still, it took the considerable persuasions of Washington to get Marshall into Congress.
“I Must Nominate You”
In the U.S. House of Representatives, Marshall was an able defender of President John Adams. The two men, intelligent and straight talking, became allies. Adams appointed him secretary of state.
He also became Adams’s confidential adviser, speechwriter and approved of judicial appointments in the waning days of the Adams administration, after Adams lost the deadlocked election to Jefferson, decided through 36 separate ballots in the House of Representatives.
In January 1801, Adams needed to appoint a chief justice, due to the resignation of Oliver Ellsworth. He considered several nominees but none were viable, due to health, age and political relationships. Adams wasn’t certain, either, that his appointment would go through confirmation before a law took effect reducing by one the number of justices. Time was running out.
On Jan. 19, 1801, Marshall delivered John Jay’s rejection letter to Adams. He wrote, some 25 years later, of what next transpired.
“Who shall I nominate now?” Adams ruminated aloud.
Marshall replied he had no other ideas.
After a moment’s hesitation, Adams said, “I believe I must nominate you.”
The suggestion surprised and pleased Marshall. He had not considered himself for the job. Although he bowed silently to signify his acquiescence, Marshall took two weeks to write his official acceptance.
The Circuit Rider
When he was appointed chief justice, Marshall expected to be spared the burden of circuit duty. The laborious practice, in force since 1789, was repealed in 1801 when an Adams administration act, passed by a lame-duck Congress, eliminated circuit riding by Supreme Court justices and created 18 federal, circuit-court judgeships. A year later, the Republican-controlled Congress repealed the law.
Marshall thought the repeal unconstitutional, but his fellow brethren approved it and Marshall complied. His judicial traveling consisted of two trips a year to Raleigh, N.C., and the annual trip to Washington for the Supreme Court term. Residing in Richmond, Marshall could hold his Virginia circuit near his house, often at City Hall.
During his first circuit to Raleigh, Marshall forgot to pack extra breeches. When the ones he was wearing ripped, Marshall wore his robe over his clothes and dispensed justice without his pants.
The Most Extraordinary Man
Marshall remained in remarkably good health his entire life and was fond of daily three-mile walks using the quick step drilled into him on the snowy parade ground of Valley Forge.
In the summer of 1831, following episodes of harsh pain, Marshall, age 76, was operated on for gallstones by Philadelphia surgeon Philip Syng Physick; 1,000 small stones were removed. Marshall wasn’t expected to live. But within a few days, he was back on his feet and ready to ride his court circuits again.
Marshall’s health was restored but Polly’s worsened. For years, she rarely left the house, usually to attend Monumental Church on Communion Sunday. Her grandchildren remembered her as a thin, often ill woman, in whose presence they were instructed to whisper and walk on tiptoe.
By late 1831, Polly Marshall was bedridden and dying. On the day before Christmas, she lifted the locket from her neck and placed it around her husband’s. The next day, three months from her sixty-sixth birthday, she died.
Polly’s passing devastated Marshall. His great admirer, Associate Justice Joseph Story, recalled two weeks later that he called upon Marshall and found him weeping for his wife. Story wrote, “She must have been an extraordinary woman to have attached him and I think he is the most extraordinary man I ever saw, for the depth and tenderness of his feelings.”
The next Christmas, Marshall composed a wrenching epitaph for her: “I have lost her! And with her I have lost the solace of my life! Yet she remains still the companion of my retired hours — still occupies my inmost bosom.”
While walking from his Richmond house to visit Polly’s Shockoe Cemetery grave, Marshall collapsed and was sent to Physick for treatment. This time, the culprit was a rotten liver, displacing his stomach. Physick could do nothing.
John Marshall died at 6 p.m. on July 6, 1835, apparently lucid and gracious to the end. While tolling his death, the Liberty Bell in Independence Hall cracked.
Marshall prepared a simple inscription, one that could belong to almost anyone, for his Shockoe Cemetery tombstone:
son of Thomas and Mary Marshall
was born the 24th of September 1755
Intermarried with Mary Willis Ambler
the 3rd of January 1783
Departed this life
the sixth day of July 1835
While Marshall does not have an impressive gravestone or a free-standing statue in Richmond, he does have an enduring memorial: John Marshall’s real monument is the Supreme Court and the Union, which still stand.
The John Marshall Foundation will host a celebration of Marshall's life and the anniversary of his 260th birthday tonight starting at 6:30 p.m. at The Virginia Historical Society (428 N. Boulevard). Donald W. Lemons, Chief Justice, Virginia Supreme Court, will provide the keynote address. For ticket information, click here.