The American Cyclopædia (1879)/Marshall, John

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The American Cyclopædia
Marshall, John
Edition of 1879. See also John Marshall on Wikipedia, and the disclaimer.

MARSHALL, John, an American jurist, born in Fauquier co., Va., Sept. 24, 1755, died in Philadelphia, July 6, 1835. He was the eldest of 15 children of Col. Thomas Marshall, who signalized himself during the revolution, especially at the battle of Brandywine. The maiden name of his mother was Mary Keith. Col. Marshall was a gentleman of culture, and devoted himself personally to the training of his children. John thus obtained a strong love of English literature, especially for poetry and history. At the age of 12 he knew by heart a large portion of Pope's writings, and was familiar with Milton, Shakespeare, and Dryden. At the age of 14 he was sent to school at Westmoreland, where James Monroe was one of his fellow students. Returning home at the end of a year, he resumed his studies under the direction of a clergyman. His hours were still largely devoted to his favorite poets, and for many years he was full of dreamy romance and poetical enthusiasm. Field sports and athletic exercises in the open air were also habitual with him. He commenced the study of law at the age of 18; but the impending struggle with Great Britain drew him away from his books before he had obtained a license to practise. In 1775 he joined a military company, and when news came of the battle of Lexington, and the march of Patrick Henry upon Williamsburg, he addressed the company in eloquent terms, urging them to prepare for every emergency. After the flight of Dunmore he took part with his regiment, of which his father was major, in the battle of Great Bridge. Marshall was lieutenant of the flanking party which advanced in face of a murderous discharge from the enemy posted on the causeway, and terminated the engagement. His company was the “Culpeper minutemen,” who wore green hunting shirts with “Liberty or Death” in white letters on the bosom, and whose banner displayed a coiled rattlesnake, with the motto, “Don't tread on me.” In July, 1776, he was made lieutenant in the 11th Virginia regiment, on continental service, and marched to the north. In May, 1777, he was promoted to a captaincy. From the time of his entrance into the army to the close of 1779, Marshall was in active service. He took part in the engagement at Iron Hill, and in the battles of Brandywine, Germantown, and Monmouth. He shared the hardships and sufferings of the troops at Valley Forge with unvarying good humor and sanguine hopefulness. At this period he acted frequently as deputy judge advocate, and secured the warm regard of Washington. In the winter of 1779 he was sent to Virginia to take command of a new corps to be raised by the legislature. While this subject was under discussion, he attended a course of law lectures delivered by Mr. Wythe at William and Mary college, and Bishop Madison's lectures on natural philosophy. In the ensuing summer he was licensed to practise law, but his military duties drew him back to the army. The project to raise additional forces in Virginia seems to have failed, and he set out alone and on foot to make the long journey to headquarters. On his arrival in Philadelphia his appearance was so shabby that the landlord of the hotel at which he stopped refused him admittance. He continued in the army until after the invasion of Virginia by Arnold in 1781, when, finding a redundancy of officers in the Virginia line, he resigned. At the close of the war he began practice as an attorney, and his success was marked from the commencement. The benevolence, placidity, and sweetness of his temper gained him a host of friends; and “that extraordinary comprehension and grasp of mind, by which difficulties were seized and overcome without difficulty or parade, commanded the attention and respect of the courts of justice.” In 1782 he was a member of the house of delegates from Fauquier, and in the autumn of the same year was appointed one of the council of state. After his marriage in 1783 with Mary Willis Ambler, daughter of Treasurer Ambler, he resigned his seat in the executive council, and fixed his residence in Richmond. In spite of his removal from the county, his old neighbors reëlected him a member of the house, and in 1787 he sat in the same body as representative from the county of Henrico. In June, 1788, the Virginia convention to act upon the constitution drawn up by the Philadelphia convention assembled, and Marshall was a member. He took a conspicuous stand by the side of James Madison, Edmund Pendleton, and other distinguished advocates of its acceptance. His defence of the constitution against its assailants was masterly. On three occasions, the debates on taxation, on the judiciary, and on the power over tho militia, he gave full scope to his powerful logic and massive faculty of reasoning. The instrument was finally accepted by a vote of 89 to 79. Marshall and Madison were justly regarded as having done more for the adoption of the federal plan of government than any other members of the convention. The legislature having in 1788 directed that hereafter the city of Richmond should be entitled to a representative in the house, Marshall was elected, and continued to sit in the assembly during the sessions of 1789, 1790, and 1791. Virginia was the headquarters of the state rights party, whose views were represented in the national cabinet by Thomas Jefferson; and a majority of the people of the commonwealth were opposed to the measures of the administration. The great question whether the United States constitution should be strictly or liberally construed was the point at issue. Marshall supported the federal view with the calmness and moderation of tone which characterized him, but with all the vigor which his friends had expected. When in 1792 he retired from the body, he left not an enemy behind him. From 1792 to 1795 he devoted himself exclusively to his practice, which had greatly increased. In 1793 he appeared prominently in public meetings on the side of the administration of Washington, and defended the proclamation of neutrality occasioned by the insolent conduct of Genest, the French minister. He also advocated Washington's policy with his pen, and secured the passage by a meeting of the citizens of a set of resolutions approving it, which he had drafted. In 1795 he sat again in the house of delegates. In the violent discussions on Jay's treaty, Marshall appeared as its champion; and before an assembly of citizens who had denounced the proposed measure he defended it so powerfully that they reversed their former action, and adopted resolutions in favor of the federal policy. In the legislature he opposed the resolutions condemnatory of the treaty in a speech which is represented to have been one of the greatest and noblest of his performances. The result was that the constitutional ground of objection was abandoned, and the assembly confined itself simply to an expression of its disapprobation of the treaty on the ground of its inexpediency at the time. Washington offered Marshall the place of attorney general, which he declined, as interfering with a practice at the bar which had now become very lucrative. In 1796 he was offered the appointment of minister to France, but declined it for the same reason. Gen. Pinckney was appointed in his place, but the French directory refused to receive him; and in 1797 President Adams sent a new commission to Marshall, who yielded his objections, and with Pinckney and Gerry proceeded as envoy extraordinary to Paris, to negotiate with the directory in relation to the obstructions thrown in the way of the commerce of the United States. These negotiations failed; but the envoys, returning in June, 1798, were received with approval and applause. In New York Marshall was honored with a military escort, and crowds thronged his lodgings, to testify their gratitude and respect. Public addresses were offered him, and a public dinner by members of both houses of congress. Marshall had faithfully reflected the views of the administration and the federal party of the country generally, in his official acts; and he approved of the series of measures directed against France, which were so violently opposed by the republicans. He returned to the practice of the law, but was soon again urged to appear in defence of his party. Washington sent for him to visit him at Mount Vernon, and he finally consented to run for congress, and was elected in 1799 by a small majority. During the canvass, Adams offered him a seat on the bench of the United States supreme court, which he declined. In congress he became the main stay and reliance of the administration, though he seems not to have approved of the alien and sedition laws, voting for the repeal of the most obnoxious sections of the latter. Virginia had recorded her solemn protest, in the resolutions passed by her assembly in the winter of 1798, against these laws, and had established arsenals and armories to defend her rights by force if necessary. Washington, the great bulwark of the federal party, was no longer at the head of government, and the republicans were flushed with the daily increasing revulsion against the federal administration. At this crisis Marshall appeared in congress as the federal leader. In the debates upon great constitutional questions he was confessedly the first man in the house. The great event of his career in congress was his speech in defence of the administration in the affair of Jonathan Robbins. This person had committed a murder on board a British frigate, and fled to the United States. On the requisition of the British minister, who alleged that Robbins was a subject of Great Britain, he was surrendered by President Adams, in compliance with a clause in Jay's treaty. For this the opposition in congress furiously assailed the president. Mr. Livingston introduced a resolution of censure on him for the surrender of Robbins at the dictation of the British minister, and upon this resolution took place an animated debate. The speech which he made on this occasion is the only one that Marshall ever revised, and is that by which he is best known to the world. It demonstrated that the surrender was an act of political power which belonged to the executive. Judge Story says the speech silenced opposition, and settled then and for ever the points of national law upon which the controversy hinged. In May, 1800, Marshall was appointed secretary of war, but before his entry on the duties of the office was offered the place of secretary of state, which he accepted. In this capacity he conducted several important discussions with the British minister, and drew up the instructions to Mr. King, the American minister to London, which hold a prominent place among the great state papers of the country. — On Jan. 31, 1801, he was appointed by President Adams chief justice of the United States supreme court, and the senate unanimously confirmed the appointment. In this great tribunal of ultimate resort his influence is known to have been paramount. In 1804-'7 Judge Marshall published a “Life of Washington” (5 vols.), largely based upon unpublished official documents, in which he defended the course of Washington's administration against the assaults of the republican party. The first volume was published separately in 1824, as “A History of the American Colonies;” and in 1832 the whole work was revised and compressed into two volumes. In 1828 Judge Marshall was a delegate from Richmond to a convention held in Charlottesville for devising a system of internal improvements, to be recommended to the legislature. In 1829 he represented Richmond in the reform convention to revise the old constitution of the commonwealth. For many years he had been suffering greatly from a disease of the bladder. A surgical operation procured him relief, but a hurt received in travelling brought on an attack of liver complaint. He went to Philadelphia for medical assistance, but the disease overpowered him. — In person Marshall was ungraceful, and in dress and bearing presented the appearance of a plain countryman. Mr. Wirt describes him as “tall, meagre, 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 everything like harmony in his air or movements.” In spite, however, of this ungainliness and simplicity, no one was a greater social favorite. His great passion was the game of quoits; and he was a member of the club which met at Buchanan's Spring, near Richmond, to play at it. He was the centre of a brilliant circle of wits; but he was an unaffected Christian, and in a time of skepticism he never uttered a word to throw doubt upon Christianity. — A selection from his decisions has been published, entitled “The Writings of John Marshall, late Chief Justice of the United States, upon the Federal Constitution” (Boston, 1839).