John Marshall (1755 - 1835)

Parents - Thomas Marshall and Mary Randolph Keith

Thomas was a close friend of George Washington and worked with him as a surveyor. He helped Washington survey part of the Fairfax Estate which John was to purchase from the Fairfax family after the Revolution. The huge estate had been sequestered by the Americans during the war.

Mary Randolph Keith Marshall was related, distantly, to Thomas Jefferson, through the Randolph family lines.

John Marshall born on September 24, 1755, eleven weeks after Braddock's defeat during which most of the British officers, including Braddock, were killed or wounded. The significance of the defeat of Braddock's Army was at least two-fold. It forced the colonies to reconsider their dependence upon England for defense (up until this time the Royal troops had been considered invincible) and it made a hero of Washington. Only 23 at the time, Washington was the leader of the Virginia Rangers and chief military figure of the Old Dominion. Repeatedly he rode his horse in front of the stampeding Royal forces trying vainly to turn them back. Two horses were shot out from under him and his uniform was rent with four bullet holes. The Virginia Rangers held and made a controlled withdrawal. As Washington later said, "The Virginia companies behaved like men and died like soldiers...of three companies...scarce thirty were left alive."

Early Education

John Marshall was born in Prince William County (now Fauquier), Virginia. His father moved the family from there before John was ten to a valley in the Blue Ridge Mountains, about 30 miles away. Unlike most frontier dwellings, the home Thomas Marshall built was of frame construction rather than log and was one and a half story.

Both parents, while not formally educated, were considered adequately educated for the times and could read and write. They held a significant social, religious, and political status in the newly formed Fauquier County area.

Books were difficult to obtain on the frontier and quite expensive. But it is known that the Marshall home had a bible, almost for certain Shakespeare and Dryden, and definitely Pope who John Marshall said he had copied every word of the "Essay on Man" and other moral essays and had memorized many of the more interesting passages by the time he was twelve.

It is likely that Thomas Marshall was allowed access to Lord Fairfax's library just as his good friend, George Washington, was. And, of course, Washington had a library. Books, while relatively scarce, were available to John Marshall. His very evident love of poetry and literature was seen in his later life.

John Marshall In 1767, a young Scotch minister came to live with the Marshalls for a year while he was being "tried out" by the congregation. This provided John with his first bit of formal education. In 1772 he received his second time of formal education at the academy of Reverend Archibald Campbell but perhaps more importantly, Blackstone's "Commentaries" was published in America and Thomas Marshall bought a copy, not only for his own use, but specifically for John to read and study.

The Marshalls had long before decided that John was to be a lawyer. The last time of formal education came in 1780 during a six week stay at William and Mary College where he attended the law lectures of George Wythe. James Madison was President of the college at that time and it has been reported that Marshall took a course in philosophy from him. However, while there are carefully made notes of Wythe's lectures there are not any for other courses. Considering Marshall's careful note taking it is doubtful that he would have attended Madison's course and not recorded it. The college was all but deserted at that time with thirty students and three professors in the army and, in fact, closed for a time the next year. When Cornwallis occupied Williamsburg in June of 1781 he made the president's house his headquarters.

The War Years

Both father and son distinguished themselves during the Revolutionary War. Thomas Marshall was a trained fighter who had earned the rank of captain during the Indian Wars. (It has never been explained why he was not with George Washington during Braddock's misadventure. While it seems odd especially considering their friendship, the reason must have been sufficient for Washington because the two remained fast friends. One possible explanation given is that Mary Marshall was pregnant with John and it would not have been safe to leave her alone in an isolated, frontier cabin.)

Thomas was a major at the out break of war in a regiment of minute men raised by the local counties of Culpeper, Orange, and Fauquier. He was to end the war as a full colonel and the commander of Yorktown.

John Marshall joined the Culpeper Minute Men and was chosen Lieutenant. Both he and his father were at a number of the battles well known even today such as Great Bridge (also called "the little Bunker Hill" because of the tremendous loss of British lives and no loss for the Americans), Brandywine, Germantown (the last two serious defeats for the Americans), Monmouth, and ending, for John, with a dashing episode as a member of a detail from the Light Infantry of Virginia under the command of Major Henry Lee.

Marshall was a captain. The detail kept in close contact with the British forces around New York. The enemy had erected a fortified position at Powles Hook, a point of land on the west side of the Hudson, opposite New York and had garrisoned it with several hundred men. Lee and Marshall decided to surprise the garrison and capture it. With Washington's approval Lee's men marched all night of August 18, 1779, moving stealthily through the steep hills, passed the main group of the soundly sleeping British army, and at three in the morning entered the British position and captured all with the loss of two Americans killed and three wounded. The prisoners were taken back to American lines. The event caused a resurgence of spirit in the patriot forces and much humiliation for the British.

Marshall did have one other brief episode of combat during Benedict Arnold's invasion of Virginia during late December, 1780, and January, 1781. This event was one that probably colored much of his later relationship with Jefferson. Jefferson was governor of Virginia and his conduct during the invasion was questioned even to the point of an inquiry of impeachment formally moved in the Virginia Legislature.

The news of the invading troops came to him first and it is claimed that he fled shamelessly without warning to others. There is a description given of him galloping away, treasure clutched in his arms and crammed in his clothes, while his slaves labor away digging holes to bury what could not be carried. Marshall knew these stories about Jefferson's behavior and, like Washington and others, had asked during the war, "Where is Jefferson?".

1782 to March 4, 1801 (Jefferson becomes President)

It was during the time between the adventure at Powles Hook and his last combat during Arnold's invasion that Marshall met Mary Ambler. Mary's father had been one of Yorktown's wealthiest men but the war had ruined him financially. The family had taken a small tenement apartment next to the headquarters of Colonel Thomas Marshall who extended his protection.

Mary's father was Jacquelin Ambler who Rebecca Burwell married rather than Thomas Jefferson. Rebecca was the love of Jefferson's youth. She was the "Campana in die," "Belinda," "Adnileb," and "R.B." of Jefferson's letters.

When John came to visit his father his arrival was being anticipated eagerly by the girls of the Ambler family. They, of course, had heard many stories about this paragon of manhood, hero at Brandywine and Germantown, at Valley Forge and Monmouth. Thomas had often shared John's letters and had painted a princely picture as a father is allowed to do. What he neglected to mention was that John Marshall was an indifferent dresser, often wearing mismatched clothing and an old slouch hat, and rather rustic in bearing. He was tall, gaunt, and loose-jointed whose clothes seemed to hang as if from a rack. While all the other girls lost interest rather quickly, Mary claimed she fell in love immediately. They married on January 3, 1783. By then John Marshall was a member of the bar in Virginia and a member of the Legislature. (Their marriage lasted almost 49 years, until her death on December 25, 1831, and is a story of deep love and devotion. Mary became an invalid soon after they were married.)

Marshall's private law practice flourished. He became a well known attorney but his dress habits didn't change. One potential client, seeing him pass by on the street, exclaimed he would never hire a man looking like that even to do physical labor. The story goes that the fellow then hired the fanciest dressed attorney he could find for the customary one hundred dollars. However, he kept hearing from all to whom he talked that Marshall was the best. Finally, he went to court to hear Marshall and was so deeply impressed that he pleaded with him to take the case. There was a slight problem however. The fellow had paid the fancy lawyer and only had five dollars left. Marshall took the case.

During this period he was politically active in Virginia and served in the House of Delegates (1782-1790, 1795-1796). He became a leader of the Federalist party in that state and started his long-time politically rivalry with Thomas Jefferson who had fallen out with the Virginia Federalists. It was during his service in the House of Delegates that he participated in the Virginia Convention debates about the adoption of the Constitution. Patrick Henry spoke in opposition. Marshall was chosen to speak in favor of a strong judiciary. His later views about the importance and power of a strong federal judicial system, which came as a surprise to some, were clearly expressed in this speech.

In 1797, President John Adams appointed him to the American Mission to France to aid in the trade negotiations. Marshall's steadfast refusal to bow down to French demands for bribes to Tallyrand and others caused a deepening of the rift between France and the United States. The dispatches from the mission to President Adams were demanded by the Republicans (anti-Federalists) in the House. Thomas Jefferson attacked the X.Y.Z. AFFAIR and defended Tallyrand. John Marshall returned to the United States to be enthusiastically received by most of the country.

President Adams asked him to become an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court but Marshall refused. In 1799 he ran for a seat in the House of Representatives and won. His close alliance with President Adams continued and in 1800 Adams appointed him Secretary of State. In January, 1801, after loosing his re-election bid to Jefferson, Adams appointed Marshall Chief Justice of the United States, making him the fourth one. Marshall continued as Secretary of State for the remaining two months of Adam's term.

Chief Justice of the United States

President Adams made a number of "midnight" appointments just as his presidency was ending. He appointed forty two persons to be justices of the peace for the Counties of Washington and Alexandria in the District of Columbia. The Federalist Senate confirmed them, and the commissions were signed, sealed, but not delivered. After Jefferson was inaugurated he directed Madison, as Secretary of State, to issue commissions to twenty-five of the persons appointed by Adams, but to withhold the commissions from the other seventeen. Among the latter was William Marbury, Robert Townsend Hooe, Dennis Ramsay, and William Harper.

These men applied to the Supreme Court for a writ of mandamus compelling Madison to deliver their commissions. The suit, MARBURY v. MADISON (1803), became a land mark case establishing the practice of JUDICIAL REVIEW by federal courts over acts of the other two branches of government.

The federal courts were under a sustained and determined attack by President Jefferson and the Republican Party who wished to bring the courts under the domination of the executive branch. Marshall's opinion in Marbury v. Madison showed his intellectual and moral force and foreshadowed the views he would express in later decisions. Throughout his tenure with the court he was deeply concerned with preserving private property rights, the enhancement of the prestige and power of the court, and the establishment of a strong, central, federal power.

After becoming Chief Justice Marshall was asked by the nephew of George Washington, Bushrod Washington (an Associate Justice of the Court), to write the official biography. This was a task that Marshall was unprepared to do, having no knowledge of the difficulties in researching and writing a biography, but he needed the financial return that was expected. Several years before he had purchased the Fairfax estate and still owed a great deal to the present heir. The five volume biography took over four years to write and met with a very mixed and critical reception. Thomas Jefferson was incensed and called it a "five-volume libel" and a "party diatribe." (There is perhaps some justification in Mr. Jefferson's perturbation. Only two pages are given to the writing of the Declaration of Independence and a footnote credits its author, "...the draft reported by the committee has been generally attributed to Mr. Jefferson." Jefferson published his "Anas" chiefly as a reply to Marshall. Never satisfied with the first edition, Marshall spent almost twenty years in revising it.

The story of the trial of Aaron Burr for treason is replete with intrigue, abusive use of executive power by Jefferson, and an attempt to keep the court from hearing the case by suspending the privilege of habeas corpus.

Senator Giles, Jefferson's personal representative in the Senate, got the measure passed along with an unheard of special, confidential message to the House requesting passage of the bill without delay. The Senate bill provided that "in all cases, where any person or persons, charged on oath with treason, misprision of treason, or other high crime or misdemeanor...shall be arrested or imprisoned...the privilege of the writ of habeas corpus shall be...suspended, for and during the term of three months." The House was astounded and Representative Thompson of Virginia moved the "message and the bill received from the Senate ought not to be kept secret and that the doors be opened." His motion was adopted by 123 yeas and 3 nays. A motion was made to reject the Senate bill and after a short, angry exchange by various factions, the motion was passed 113 yeas to 19 nays. This left the way open for Marshall to consider whether or not the trial belonged within the jurisdiction of the Supreme Court. Marshall did find that the Supreme Court was the proper jurisdiction and the trial was held. His opinion destroyed the law of "constructive treason."

Treason is the only crime specifically defined in the Constitution, leaving the defining of all others to Congress. Furthermore, the Constitution prescribes exactly how treason must be proved. Aaron Burr's guilt or innocence is still debated today. The trial and Marshall's opinion are still as fascinating as ever.