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To the writer's mind the most perfect specimen of the American lawyer known to our history was John Marshall, of Virginia, Chief Justice of the United States. Profoundly learned in the law, irresistible in argument, and possessed of an eloquence which drew men in throngs to listen to him, he was also the soul of honor. Neither in his private nor professional life could the most malicious find an action open to reproach. Simple and earnest as a child, he was yet a tower of strength to the cause of justice. Occupying the highest place in our judiciary system, he was never unduly elated by his honors, and while gaining and awarding fortunes in the discharge of his professional duties, he was himself so true a man that the most brazen suitor would not have dared to offer him a bribe. He was in all things the simple, honest gentleman, the fearless advocate, the just judge, and the meek and earnest follower of his Saviour. Although belonging to a past generation, his story is presented here because I wish to offer to those who seek to follow him in his noble calling the purest and highest model our history affords.

John Marshall was born in Fauquier County, Virginia, on the 24th of September, 1755. He was the oldest of a family of fifteen children, and was the son of Colonel Thomas Marshall, a planter of moderate fortune. During the Revolution, Colonel Marshall commanded a regiment of Virginia troops, and won considerable distinction at the battles of the Great Bridge, Germantown, Brandywine, and Monmouth. At the Brandywine the regiment bore the brunt of the attack of the British army, led by Cornwallis in person.

John Marshall was born in a region so thinly settled as to be almost cut off from civilization. The people were plain and even rough in their habits, and the mode of life which prevailed in his native county doubtless did much to lay the foundation of those habits of simplicity for which he was noted in after life. Schools were almost unknown in this region, and such as were in operation were so rude in character that Colonel Marshall, who was a man of education and culture, decided not to attempt to train his children in them. Being unable to raise the means of sending them to better schools in other parts of the Colony, he determined to become their teacher himself, and applied himself to his task with a devotion which was signally rewarded by the brilliant career of his eldest son. He laid especial weight upon their acquiring a thorough knowledge of the English language and of history, and sought to cultivate in them a love for the poetry of their native tongue. Referring in after life to his father's devoted labors, Judge Marshall once said, with great feeling, "To him I owe the solid foundation of all my success in life." John Marshall did ample justice to his father's labors, and when only fourteen years old was thoroughly familiar with the writings of Shakespeare, Dryden, Milton, and Pope, and could repeat by heart nearly the whole of the "Essay on Man." These poets were always his favorites, and in mature life he would quote them with readiness and the keenest relish.

He showed such marked talent that his father determined to make an effort to secure him a better education than his private labors could impart to him, and accordingly sent him for a year to the school of the Rev. Mr. Campbell, in Westmoreland County, where he received a good drilling in English and Latin. At this school began his acquaintance with James Monroe, who was then one of Mr. Campbell's pupils. Returning home at the end of the year, he continued his studies under the Rev. Mr. Thompson.

He studied hard and was an industrious reader. Poetry and romance were his favorites, but he read history with the deepest interest. He was quiet and thoughtful in manner, and full of a dreamy, poetic enthusiasm. He loved to wander in the thick woods, and would pass many of his leisure hours in gazing at the beauties of nature. His constitution was a sound and vigorous one, and he was not only fond of manly and athletic sports, but excelled in them. He had no inclination toward dissipation, and the simple, healthful life of his home was calculated to develop his physical powers to the utmost. Colonel Marshall did not neglect the moral training of his children, but always impressed upon them the importance of Christianity as the basis of their characters, rearing them in that simple code of true gentility which was so dear to our fathers, but of which we of to-day are fast losing sight.

Being destined for the bar, young Marshall began his legal studies at the age of eighteen, but in two years they were interrupted by the troubles with Great Britain, which terminated in open hostilities. A volunteer company was raised in the neighborhood, and John Marshall promptly attached himself to it. He took a prominent part in the questions of the day, and expressed himself boldly in favor of resistance. In 1775 Patrick Henry made his memorable appeal for volunteers to drive the Loyalist Governor, Lord Dunmore, out of Virginia. Three companies were immediately organized in Marshall's neighborhood. Among these were the famous "Culpepper Minute Men." Marshall's father was elected major of the regiment, and he himself was chosen a lieutenant in the Minute Men. The force at once hastened to the lower counties, and bore a conspicuous part in the battle of Great Bridge. In July, 1776, Marshall's company was assigned to the Eleventh Virginia Regiment of the Continental Army, and sent North. In May, 1777, he was made captain of his company. He participated in the fight at Iron Hill, and in the battles of Germantown, Brandywine, and Monmouth, and shared the sufferings of the army at the memorable encampment of Valley Forge. Until the close of 1779 he was constantly in active service. He was always patient, cheerful, and hopeful. In the severest hardships to which the army was exposed his spirits never sank. One of his comrades said that he did more than any other man to keep alive the hopes of the army during the terrible winter at Valley Forge, and another has declared that "the officers of the Virginia line appeared to idolize him." His conduct attracted the attention of Washington, who conceived a warm friendship for him, and Marshall, on his part, returned the friendship of his chief with a feeling almost of worship. Washington frequently appointed him deputy judge advocate during the winter.

At the close of 1779 he went to Virginia to take command of a new corps which the Legislature was about to raise. The project remaining under discussion for some months, he passed the time in attendance upon a course of lectures on law, delivered by George Wythe, and a course of lectures on natural philosophy, delivered by the Rev. Dr. Madison, afterward Bishop of Virginia, at William and Mary College, in Williamsburg. The next summer he received his license to practice law. Meanwhile, the project for raising troops had taken the shape of a definite failure, and he now set out to rejoin the army. Too poor to pay his passage to the North, he walked the entire distance from Williamsburg, Virginia, to Philadelphia, upon reaching which city he was so travel-worn and shabby in appearance, that the landlord of the hotel at which he wished to stop refused him admittance. He joined the army in due time, and remained with it until the spring of 1781, when he resigned his commission, a few months before the close of the war.

With the return of peace the courts were again thrown open, and Marshall began that brilliant legal career which has made him one of the most famous men in our history. His success was marked from the first, as his professional talents were such as to make themselves felt anywhere, and his personal popularity aided him greatly in overcoming the difficulties which lie in the path of a young aspirant to legal honors. In 1782, the people of Fauquier elected him to the House of Delegates in the General Assembly of the Commonwealth, and in the fall of that year he was appointed one of the Council of State. In January, 1783, he was married to Miss Mary Willis Ambler, with whom he lived in the most perfect happiness for over fifty years. His bride was a woman of great personal beauty, and in every respect a fitting helpmate for such a man—than which no higher tribute could be paid her. About this time, Mr. Marshall decided not to return to Fauquier, but to locate himself permanently in Richmond, where he could enjoy many more professional advantages. In spite of this, however, his old friends in Fauquier re-elected him to the Legislature, and in 1787 he sat in that body as representative from the county of Henrico.

He was very plain and even careless in his personal attire, and this often led to amusing occurrences. Soon after he began the practice of his profession in Richmond, he was strolling through the streets one morning, dressed in a plain linen suit and a straw hat. The hat was held under his arm, and was filled with cherries, of which he ate as he walked. In passing the Eagle Hotel, he stopped to exchange salutations with the landlord, and then continued his walk. Sitting near the landlord, on the hotel porch, was a Mr. P——, an elderly gentleman from the country, who had come to the city to engage counsel in an important case which was to be tried in a day or two. The landlord referred him to Marshall as the best lawyer in the city; but the old gentleman was so much prejudiced against the young advocate, by his careless appearance, that he refused to engage him. On entering court, Mr. P—— was a second time referred to Marshall by the clerk of the court, and a second time he refused to employ him. At this moment entered Mr. V——, a venerable-looking legal gentleman, in a powdered wig and black coat, whose dignified appearance produced such an impression on Mr. P—— that he engaged him at once. In the first case which came on, Marshall and Mr. V—— each addressed the court. "The vast inferiority of his advocate was so apparent that at the close of the case Mr. P—— introduced himself to young Marshall, frankly stated the prejudice which had caused him, in opposition to advice, to employ Mr. V——; that he extremely regretted the error, but knew not how to remedy it. He had come to the city with one hundred dollars as his lawyer's fee, which he had paid, and had but five left, which, if Marshall chose, he would cheerfully give him for assisting in the case. Marshall, pleased with the incident, accepted the offer, not, however, without passing a sly joke at the omnipotence of a powdered wig and black coat."

In 1788, Mr. Marshall was elected to the Virginia Convention which met in June of that year for the purpose of considering the question of the adoption or rejection of the Federal Constitution. The debates in this body were among the most brilliant in history. Marshall took a decided stand in favor of the Constitution, and is believed to have done more than any other man, save Mr. Madison, to secure its adoption. He added greatly to his reputation by his labors in this body, and the close of the session found his practice very much enlarged. He was anxious to devote himself entirely to his professional duties; but he was urged so vehemently to accept a seat in the Legislature from the city of Richmond, that he was forced to consent. He sat in that body from 1789 to 1791, and in those sessions which were marked by the brilliant contests between the Federalists and Republicans took a decided stand with the former, and sustained his position by an array of arguments against which his opponents were powerless. The struggle was one of great bitterness, but Marshall, although victorious in it, made no enemies among his antagonists.

For the next three years he devoted himself industriously to his profession, appearing in public only to defend with masterly eloquence the course of President Washington with reference to the insolent conduct of Citizen Genet, the French Agent. In 1795, he was again elected to the Legislature, "not only without his approbation, but against his known wishes;" but yielding to the desires of his friends he took his seat in that body. The great question of the day was the adoption of "Jay's Treaty" with Great Britain. In Virginia, a bitter opposition assailed the treaty, and the entire State rang with denunciations of it. Even the influence of Washington was powerless to stay the tide of popular passion excited against the treaty and those who upheld it. Meetings were held in Richmond, and the treaty was fiercely denounced. Marshall now came to the rescue, and before a meeting of the citizens of that place made such an unanswerable argument in favor of the treaty, that the men who had been foremost in assailing it now united in the adoption of resolutions indorsing the policy of the Administration. In the Legislature his efforts were equally successful, and the opponents of the Administration were forced to abandon their constitutional objections to the treaty, and to content themselves with a simple denial of the expediency of the measure at that time. President Washington attached so much importance to these services that he offered to his old friend and comrade the position of Attorney-General of the United States, but Marshall declined the offer, as he wished to devote himself to his practice, which had now become very lucrative. He continued to sit in the Legislature, which did not interfere with his private business, and remained the constant and vigilant friend of Washington's Administration. In 1796, he was offered the post of Minister to France, as Mr. Monroe's successor, but he declined it for the same reason which had made him refuse the Attorney-Generalship. In 1797, when the offer was repeated, this time by President Adams, Marshall yielded to the entreaties of Washington, and went to France with Pinckney and Gerry, as Envoy Extraordinary. The object of the mission was to remove the obstructions placed by France in the way of American commerce. The Envoys were unsuccessful, but a correspondence took place between Marshall and Talleyrand, which was a source of great satisfaction to American publicists, and raised Marshall still higher in their esteem and confidence. Upon his return home in 1798, he was given a public reception in New York by the citizens, and a public dinner by the two Houses of Congress, "as an evidence of affection for his person, and of their grateful approbation of the patriotic firmness with which he had sustained the dignity of his country during his important mission." He subsequently took a prominent part in support of the measures of retaliation directed against France by the Administration, which were sharply assailed by the opposition. He resumed his practice in Richmond, but was again drawn from it by a message from Washington, who requested him to visit him at Mt. Vernon. He did so, and the result was that he yielded to the solicitations of his old chieftain, and consented to accept a seat in Congress. He was elected to the Lower House of that body in 1799. During the canvass, President Adams offered him a seat in the Supreme Court of the United States, but he declined it.

His career in Congress was brief, but brilliant. The Federalist party was hard pressed by the Republicans, and he promptly arrayed himself on the side of the former, as the champion of the Administration of John Adams. The excitement over the "Alien and Sedition Laws" was intense, but he boldly and triumphantly defended the course of the Administration. Mr. Binney says of him that, in the debates on the great constitutional questions, "he was confessedly the first man in the House. When he discussed them, he exhausted them; nothing more remained to be said; and the impression of his argument effaced that of every one else."

His great triumph was his speech in the Jonathan Robbins affair. Robbins had committed a murder on board an English ship-of-war, and had sought refuge from punishment in the United States. In accordance with one of the provisions of Jay's Treaty, his surrender had been demanded by the British Minister, on the ground that he was a British subject, and he had been surrendered by President Adams. The opposition in Congress made this act a pretext for a famous assault upon the Administration, and a resolution was introduced into the House of Representatives by Mr. Livingston, censuring the President for his course in the matter. This resolution produced an extended debate in the House, in the course of which Marshall defended the President in a speech of great force and eloquence. Judge Story has said of this speech, that "it was rêponse sans réplique—an answer so irresistible that it admitted of no reply. It silenced opposition, and settled then and forever the points of national law upon which the controversy hinged."

In May, 1800, Mr. Adams offered Marshall a seat in his Cabinet as Secretary of War, but before he could enter upon the duties of that office he was made Secretary of State, in which capacity he acted for a short while, conducting several important negotiations during that time, and leaving behind him several of the most magnificent state papers to be found in our archives. During his occupancy of this position, it became necessary to appoint a Chief Justice of the United States, and Marshall took advantage of the occasion to urge upon the President the propriety of tendering the place to a distinguished gentleman who had been a faithful friend to the Administration; but Mr. Adams quietly informed him that he had made up his mind to confer the honor upon the man best suited to it, and that he had sent to the Senate the name of John Marshall, of Virginia. This appointment, which came to him entirely unsolicited, was made on the 31st of January, 1801, and was unanimously confirmed by the Senate.

He held the position of Chief Justice for more than thirty-four years, and this period is justly regarded as the most brilliant portion of the history of our highest court, a court of which a famous judge has said:

"The decisions of the Supreme Court of the United States have raised the renown of the country not less than they have confirmed the Constitution. In all parts of the world its judgments are spoken of with respect. Its adjudications of prize law are a code for all future time. Upon commercial law it has brought us nearly to one system, befitting the probity of a great commercial nation. Over its whole path, learning and intelligence and integrity have shed their combined luster."

Although holding so high a post in the General Government, he continued to take a warm interest in the affairs of his native State, and in 1828 was a delegate to the Charlottesville Convention, which met for the purpose of recommending to the Legislature a system of internal improvements best suited to the needs of the State. In 1829, he was a member of the Convention which met in Richmond for the purpose of revising the Constitution of the State. Though now quite old and feeble, he took an active part in the debates of the Convention, and was mainly instrumental in effecting the settlement of the disputes between the eastern and western sections of the State.

In 1805, Judge Marshall published, in five volumes, his "Life of Washington." The first volume was devoted to the history of the Colonies, from their settlement to the commencement of the Revolution. This work has always held the first position in our Revolutionary annals, and won for its author a place in the front rank of American writers. It is, all in all, the best biography of Washington in existence.

Sterling honesty was exemplified in Judge Marshall's whole career. His word was indeed as good as his bond. He would never argue in behalf of a cause which he had reason to think unjust, and he scorned to take a legal advantage at the expense of moral honesty. He once indorsed a bond to the amount of several thousand dollars. The drawer failed, and Marshall paid it, although he knew he could avoid it, as the holder had forfeited his claim in law by requiring more than legal interest.

He was generous to a fault. Once, as he passed through Culpepper County, he met with Captain S——, one of his old comrades in the Revolution. In the course of the conversation which ensued, S—— told him that his estate was burdened with a mortgage for $3,000, which was about to fall due, and that, as he was unable to pay it, he saw nothing but ruin in store for him. At his departure, Marshall handed a note to the servant who brought his horse to the door, and told him to give it to his master. This was done as Marshall was riding away, and upon opening the note Mr. S—- found that it contained a check for the amount of the mortgage. Mounting his horse, he soon overtook Marshall, and, though he thanked him warmly for his generosity, refused to accept it. Marshall strenuously urged its acceptance, but the other persistently refused. Finally, the former suggested a compromise. Marshall took up the mortgage, and thus satisfied the first claim, but as his friend was never prosperous, he never asked for the payment of the debt.

William Wirt has left us the following description of his personal appearance: "He is tall, meager, 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 harmony in his air or movements. Indeed, in his whole appearance and demeanor,—dress, attitudes, gesture, sitting, standing, or walking,—he is as far removed from the idolized graces of Lord Chesterfield as any other gentleman on earth."

"In spite, however, of this ungainly person," says a writer, "no one was a greater social favorite than the Chief Justice. The people of Richmond regarded his eccentric figure with strong personal affection as well as respect. The black eyes, under their bushy gray brows, beamed with good nature, and the lips were habitually smiling. The courtesy of the Judge was one of his most beautiful traits. It was the spontaneous exhibition of the simple and kindly emotions of his heart. Pure benevolence and philanthropy displayed itself in every word which he uttered. He gave his hand to the plain yeoman clad in homespun as courteously and sincerely as to the greatest personage in the country. He had the same simple smile and good-humored jest for both, and seemed to recognize no difference between them. It was instructive to estimate in the good Chief Justice the basis and character of true politeness. John Randolph, one of the most fastidious and aristocratic of men, left his opinion that Marshall's manner was perfect good breeding. In dress and bearing, it would be difficult to imagine any one more simple than Judge Marshall. He presented the appearance of a plain countryman, rather than a Chief Justice of the United States. He had a farm in Fauquier County, and another near Richmond, and he would often return from the latter to take his seat on the bench with burrs sticking to his clothes. His great passion was the game of quoits, and he was a member of the club which met, as it still meets, at Buchanan's Spring, near the city, to play at this game. Here the Governor of Virginia, the Chief Justice, and the most eminent lawyers of the Court of Appeals, were found by a French gentleman, Baron Quinet, with their coats off, gayly pitching quoits, with the ardor of a party of urchins. In these simple amusements passed the hours of leisure which Judge Marshall could steal from his exhausting judicial toil. At such times he seemed to become a boy again, and to forget the ermine. His fondness for other social enjoyments was great. He was the center of a brilliant circle of men, many of whom were famous, and the tradition of their dinner parties, and the jests which they circulated, is still preserved."

It was his custom always to provide for his table himself when at home, and he might be seen every morning at the Shockoe Hill Market, with his basket on his arm, engaged in making his purchases. Upon one of these occasions he noticed a fashionably-dressed young man, swearing violently because he could not find any one willing to carry home for him a turkey which he had just purchased, and which his foolish pride would not permit him to carry himself. Approaching him quietly, the Judge asked where he lived, and upon being told, said, "I am going that way, and will carry it for you." Taking the turkey, he set out and soon reached the young man's door. Upon receiving his turkey, the young man thanked him for his trouble, and asked, "How much shall I pay you?" "Oh, nothing," replied the Judge, smiling, "you are welcome. It was on my way, and no trouble." So saying, the Judge departed, and the young man, with a faint suspicion of the truth, turned to a bystander, and asked, in some confusion, "Who is that polite old gentleman who brought home my turkey for me?" "That is John Marshall, the Chief Justice of the United States," was the reply. "Why, then, did he bring home my turkey?" stammered the fop. "To give you a deserved rebuke," said the gentleman, "and to teach you to conquer your silly pride."

Reference has been made to his carelessness in regard to his personal appearance. A wager was once laid among his friends in Richmond that he could not dress himself without leaving about his clothing some mark of his carelessness. The Judge good-humoredly accepted the wager. A supper was to be given to him upon these conditions. If his dress was found faultless upon that occasion, the other parties were to pay for the entertainment; but if any carelessness could be detected about his dress or in his appearance, the expense was to fall upon him. Upon the appointed evening the gentlemen and the Judge met at the place agreed upon, and to the surprise of all, the Judge's dress seemed faultless. He appeared the very perfection of neatness and taste. The supper followed, the Judge being in high glee over his victory. Near the close of the repast, however, one of the guests, who sat next to Judge Marshall, chanced to drop his napkin, and stooping down to pick it up, discovered that the Judge had put on one of his stockings with the wrong side out. Of course the condition of affairs was immediately reversed, and, amid roars of laughter, the Chief Justice acknowledged his defeat.

The means of locomotion in the Southern States being limited in the days of Judge Marshall, it was his custom to travel about the country, when holding his circuit courts, in an old-fashioned and very much dilapidated gig. His plain and even rusty appearance often led him into ludicrous adventures, which he related to his friends with keen enjoyment. At other times people to whom he was personally unknown were astonished to find that this shabbily-dressed old man was the famous Chief-Justice Marshall. One of his adventures is thus related by an eye-witness:

"It is not long since a gentleman was traveling 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 when 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 traveler observed, further, that he was plainly clad, that his knee-buckles 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 of them, if not all, of the legal profession. As soon as they became conveniently accommodated, the conversation was turned by the latter upon an eloquent harangue which had that day been delivered at the bar. The other replied 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 was 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 resist.' Our traveler 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-established prejudices, wheeled around, and, with some familiarity, exclaimed, 'Well, my old gentleman, what think you of these things?' If, said the traveler, 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 used 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 traveler, would be an attempt to paint the sunbeams. It was now a matter of curiosity and inquiry who the old gentleman was. The traveler concluded it was the preacher from whom the pulpit eloquence was heard; but no—it was the Chief Justice of the United States."

Judge Marshall was a simple and earnest Christian, and held in the deepest abhorrence the fashionable skepticism of his day. His conduct was consistent with his profession, and to the last this good and great man repeated night and morning the simple prayer he had learned at his mother's knee.

For many years he suffered from an affection of the bladder, and was at length compelled to resort to a surgical operation for relief. This had the desired effect, but he was soon after taken with an attack of "liver complaint." He repaired to Philadelphia for medical treatment, but failed to derive any benefit from it, and died in that city on the 6th of July, 1835.

His body was conveyed to Richmond for interment, and he now sleeps by the side of his wife in the Shockoe Hill Cemetery in that city. The spot is marked by a plain slab of marble, over which the weeds and the rank grass are growing, and on which may be read the following inscription, dictated (saving the last date) by himself:

"John Marshall, son of Thomas and Mary Marshall, was born 24th of September, 1755; intermarried with Mary Willis Ambler, the 3d of January, 1783; departed this life the 6th day of July, 1835."