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John Marshall: Definer of a Nation
By Jean Edward Smith

Chapter One: Marshall's Virginia Heritage

The events of my life are too unimportant, and have too little interest for any person not of my immediate family, to render them worth communicating or preserving(1)

With those modest words John Marshall commenced a terse autobiographical sketch for his old friend and colleague Joseph Story. The year was 1827, and Marshall was seventy-two. Story had requested the information for a review he was writing of Marshall's History of the Colonies, which had recently been republished.(2) Marshall told Story that he had difficulty recounting the events of his life "since the mere act of detailing exhibits the appearance of attaching consequence to them.... If I conquer [that difficulty] now, it is because the request is made by a partial and highly valued friend."(3)

The chief justice thereupon provided Story with a succinct survey of his early life:

I was born on the 24th of September 1755 in the county of Fauquier, at that time one of the frontier counties of Virginia. My Father possessed scarcely any fortune, and had received a very limited education;--but was a man to whom nature had been bountiful, and who had assiduously improved her gifts. He superintended my education, and gave me an early taste for history and poetry. At the age of twelve I had transcribed Pope's Essay on Man, with some of his Moral Essays.

There being no grammar school in that part of the country in which my Father resided I was sent, at fourteen, about one hundred miles from home, to be placed under the tuition of Mr. Campbell, a clergyman of great respectability. I remained with him one year, after which I was brought home and placed under the care of a Scotch gentleman who was just introduced into the parish as Pastor, and who resided in my Father's family. He remained in the family one year, at the expiration of which time I had commenced reading Horace and Livy. I continued my studies with no other aid than my Dictionary. My Father superintended the English part of my education, and to his care I am indebted for anything valuable which I may have acquired in my youth. He was my only intelligent companion; and was both a watchful parent and an affectionate friend. The young men within my reach were entirely uncultivated; and the time I passed with them was devoted to hardy athletic exercises.(4)

With those sparse words John Marshall sketched the broad outline of his upbringing. In September 1755 when Marshall was born, Fauquier county, at the foot of the Blue Ridge Mountains, was perched at the frontier and lightly settled.(5) Its pioneer inhabitants were nervous and apprehensive that autumn. Two months before, 5,000 red-coated regulars, the largest force Britain had ever deployed in the colonies, had been ambushed by the French and Indians on the banks of the Monongahela. Major General Edward Braddock, the British commander in chief in North America, had been killed and his command annihilated.(6) The panic flight of the few survivors shattered the myth of English invincibility. If Wolfe's victory over Montcalm on the Plains of Abraham consolidated the British hold on Canada, Braddock's defeat at the hands of the Indians convinced the American colonists they must tend for themselves.

George Washington, then twenty-three years old, led the Virginia rangers who served with Braddock. He saw firsthand the magnitude of Braddock's defeat, as did the other young Virginians who accompanied him. One Virginian who did not join the campaign was Washington's close friend Thomas Marshall, the future chief justice's father.(7) Washington and Thomas Marshall had been raised as neighbors in tidewater's Westmoreland county and briefly attended school together in Washington parish. Both were surveyors by profession and had worked together mapping the vast expanse of Virginia's northern neck to chart the way for future settlement. Like Washington, the elder Marshall was an officer in the Virginia militia, but with his wife expecting their first child, he remained at home that summer in the tiny community of Germantown, a settlement of less than a dozen dwellings, all of which disappeared when the frontier moved westward.(8)

John Marshall's parents were typical of many young couples in colonial America. His paternal ancestors were Welsh artisans who came to Virginia sometime in the late seventeenth or early eighteenth century. His father was the son of another John Marshall, a small planter who struggled to make a living on two hundred acres of low, marshy land cut from the wilderness along a minor tributary of the Potomac. That John Marshall was known to his prosperous neighbors as "John of the forest," a pejorative term used by tidewater aristocracy to describe someone less affluent who lived in the woods.(9) In In 1722 he married Elizabeth Markham, the younger daughter of a prosperous merchant from Alexandria, Virginia,(10) and together they had six children, Thomas being the eldest. Nothing definite is known about the parents of "John of the forest," and all efforts to chart the chief justice's paternal heritage beyond the second generation have ended in genealogical quicksand. Marshall himself never traced his parentage beyond his grandfather.(11)

By contrast. the chief justice's maternal ancestors came from the remnants of English gentry and Scottish nobility who settled Virginia's great plantations. "My mother was named Mary Keith," wrote Marshall. "She was the daughter of a clergyman, of the name of Keith, who migrated from Scotland and intermarried with a Miss Randolph of James River."(12) Marshall's summary was as delicate as it was precise. His maternal grandmother, the Miss Randolph of James River," was Mary Isham Randolph, the granddaughter of William Randolph of Turkey Island and Mary Isham of Bermuda Hundred--colonial grandees sometimes referred to as the "Adam and Eve of Virginia." Their descendants include not only Marshall, but Thomas Jefferson, Robert E. Lee, and numerous generations of Randolphs.(13)

The Ishams and the Randolphs were among the first English settlers to arrive in Virginia.(14) The first Randolph, a merchant by the name of Henry, went to Jamestown in 1635. His business flourished, and in 1659 Henry was named clerk of the House of Burgesses. William Randolph, his nephew, arrived a few years later, and trained as a lawyer. He succeeded his uncle as the burgesses's clerk and eventually became attorney general of the colony. In 1680, he married Mary Isham, the much sought after daughter of Henry Isham. one of tidewater Virginia's largest landowners and the social arbiter of the families living on the south bank of the James River.

The Randolph-Isham union proved remarkably fertile. There were nine children and thirty-seven grandchildren. Each of the children married well, and the family holdings multiplied. One son, Richard of Curles,(*) married Jane Bolling, a great-granddaughter of Pocahontas. Another, Sir John Randolph, a distinguished lawyer and scholar, was knighted by George II in 1737, the only Virginian to be given such a rank in the colonial period.(15) A third son, Isham Randolph, who came into possession of the vast Dungeness plantation, was the grandfather of Thomas Jefferson. The descendants of William, the eldest son, intermarried with the Blands and the Lees, spawning additional dynasties. Thomas, the second son of the original William Randolph and Mary Isham, married the wealthy Judith Fleming of New Kent county,(16) and established one of the James River's most famous plantations at Tuckahoe. It was from the Tuckahoe Randolphs that Marshall was descended.

In the early 1730s Mary Isham Randolph, the eldest daughter of Thomas and Judith of' Tuckahoe, then a young girl of sixteen or seventeen, fell in love and eloped with a slave overseer from her uncle Isham's Dungeness plantation--an Irishman by the name of Enoch Arden.(17) The two were married secretly and had a child. Eventually they were discovered to be living on remote Elk Island in the James River. According to family chroniclers, the enraged Randolphs descended on the island, killed Arden and the baby, and took Mary back to Tuckahoe. The tragic loss of her husband and child shattered Mary's sanity(18)

Under careful family supervision, Mary recovered gradually, only to fall in love with yet another man deemed objectionable by the Randolphs. This time the object of Mary's affection was the Reverend James Keith. Keith was the minister of Henrico parish, one of the largest and most important parishes in Virginia.(19) It included not only Tuckahoe and other Randolph plantations on the James but the rapidly growing town of Richmond as well. A refugee from the abortive 1719 Jacobite uprising in Scotland, the Reverend Keith was particularly effective in the pulpit. He was a bachelor, but he was seventeen years older than Mary and, like much of the Anglican clergy in colonial Virginia, enjoyed a reputation for licentiousness.(20) Mary and James had an affair and appear to have been discovered in flagrante delicto. The Randolphs, who held two seats on the vestry of Henrico parish, forced Keith's resignation and did their utmost to prevent the pair from seeing each other. Keith resigned as minister of the parish on October 12, 1733,(21) and departed for Maryland immediately thereafter.(22)

The episode was handled gingerly by church authorities.(23) Commissary James Blair, the Church of England's representative in Virginia, and a former minister of Henrico parish, wrote to the Bishop of London that "Mr. Keith has privately left this parish and Country, being guilty of fornication with a young Gentlewoman, whose friends did so dislike his character that they would not let her marry him."(24) Blair, however, soon had second thoughts about the precipitate action against Keith. On March 24, 1734, he wrote a follow-up letter to the bishop stating that "I gave your Lordship an account of the misfortune which occasioned [Rev. Keith's resignation] tho' I did not then know what I have learned since that from some of the circumstances in his case, our Governor recommended him to the Governor of Maryland."(25) The circumstances are not mentioned by Blair, but presumably pertained to the tact that James Keith and Mary Randolph were deeply in love. The following year Blair rescinded Keith's exile to Maryland and appointed him minister of the frontier parish of Hamilton in what subsequently became Fauquier county.(*) When Mary came of age, she and James Keith were married, and between them they had eight children, including Marshall's mother.

The Keiths flourished in Fauquier county,(26) but Mary's troubles were not over. Years later she received a letter purporting to come from the Irishman Enoch Arden, triggering a final bout of insanity from which she never recovered. Despite the passage of time, Mary cherished the memory of Arden, and the possibility that he might still be alive filled her with despair--a despair compounded by fears that as a consequence her marriage to the Reverend Keith might be invalid.(27) Were that to be the case, their children would be illegitimate. The question was never resolved conclusively, and for whatever reason Chief Justice Marshall rarely mentioned his tie to the Randolphs.(28)

Marshall was less reluctant to discuss his Keith heritage. James Keith, born in 1697, was the son of a professor at Marischal College in Aberdeen.(29) Most of the Keiths, however, were soldiers: a military family whose lineal descendants bore the title Earl Marischal and who traced their roots to ancient Scottish and Saxon kings. Their soldierly exploits won wide renown and were celebrated in song and legend. Robert Keith, the first Earl Marischal, led the decisive cavalry charge at the battle of Bannockburn in 1314, culminating Scotland's struggle for independence.(30) George Keith (1553-1623), the fifth Earl Marischal, founded Marischal College. His grandson, the seventh Earl Marischal, supported the restoration of Charles II and was keeper of the privy seal of Scotland. Another grandson, John, first Earl of Kintore, held the family castle Dunnottar against Cromwell during the civil wars and preserved the regalia of Scotland, keeping it from falling into the hands of the Puritans.(31)

After the Glorious Revolution of 1688, which brought William and Mary to the throne, the Keiths continued to side with the Scottish James II (the Pretender) and helped to raise the armies that fought on his behalf. The Earl Marischal commanded the Jacobite forces that landed in Scotland in 1719, where they made a desperate but doomed effort to rally the highland clans to the Pretender's cause.(32) When the rebellion failed, the Keiths fled. James Keith, Marshall's grandfather and a first cousin of the Earl Marischal, came to Virginia.(33) His companion, James Francis Edward Keith, the Earl Marischal's younger brother, continued as a soldier, first in the Spanish, then the Russian, and finally in the Prussian army.(34)

Marshall's heritage, the union of working-class fathers and illustrious maternal forebears, was not uncommon in colonial Virginia. The ancestors of his great contemporaries--Washington, Jefferson, Patrick Henry, Madison, and Monroe--reflected similar pairings.(35) Ambitious men of working-class origins frequently became surveyors or lawyers and "married up." Most served as officers in the militia and engaged in local politics--another means of social mobility. All speculated heavily in land, and the fortunate ones prospered. Men such as George Washington, Peter Jefferson, and Thomas Marshall, who worked as surveyors charting the wilderness, were especially well placed to locate desirable tracts and file claims. The daughters of the established gentry, with few eligible suitors to choose from, reached out to select husbands from among these rising young men.

The ancestral parallel between John Marshall and Thomas Jefferson is especially striking. Marshall's father and Peter Jefferson, the president's father, descended from the same stock of Welsh yeomanry. Both inherited modest farms from their own fathers; both became surveyors; both married Randolphs; and neither could trace his distant forebears with any degree of certainty. Peter Jefferson was twenty-two years older than Thomas Marshall and success came correspondingly sooner, but their careers followed remarkably similar paths.

Jefferson, in his own autobiographical sketch, wrote affectionately of his father, using virtually the same words as those chosen by John Marshall to describe his. "My father's education had been quite neglected," said Jefferson, "but being of a strong mind, sound judgment and eager after information, he read much and improved himself." The president noted that his father "was the 3rd or 4th settler of the part of the country in which I live,"(36) and he always took pride in his parents' status as pioneers.(37)

Like Peter Jefferson, Thomas Marshall moved west to exploit the opportunities the frontier provided. In 1752, when "John of the forest" died, he left the bulk of his small estate to his wife Elizabeth for her lifetime, and then to Thomas.(38) The poor land offered little promise, and with the aid of his friend George Washington, Thomas Marshall found employment as a surveyor and land agent for Lord Fairfax. In early 1753 he and his mother abandoned their homestead in Westmoreland county and resettled in the small frontier community of Germantown, in what subsequently became Fauquier county. Captain I homes Marshall became one of its first and most prominent citizens. He divided the county into districts for tax purposes and several years later was appointed sheriff and tax collector. Since the sheriff, as tax collector, retained a portion of the fees, this was one of the most lucrative positions in colonial America. Later Thomas Marshall became Fauquier county's first magistrate and was elected to the House of Burgesses, where he represented the county virtually without interruption until the revolution.(39) In 1754 he married Mary Randolph Keith, the seventeen-year-old daughter of the Reverend James Keith and Mary Isham Randolph of' Tuckahoe. John Marshall, the future chief justice, their first child, was born the following year in circumstances remarkably similar to those in which Thomas Jefferson had been born twelve years earlier.

Lord Fairfax, whose home was at Greenway Court in the Shenandoah Valley, played a pivotal role in the development of the Marshall family. The only peer of the realm to take up permanent residence in North America, "the Proprietor"--as Fairfax was known--was a generous and beloved patron. He not only provided Thomas Marshall (and George Washington as well) with a substantial income, but also offered a model of wisdom and modesty that was exceptionally rare in frontier America. Equally important, by representing his lordship in Fauquier county, Thomas Marshall acquired an immediate social standing that otherwise might have eluded him.

Lord Fairfax's vast holdings, from which he was entitled to collect quitrents,(40) numbered over 5.2 million acres and traced to a royal grant by Charles II in 1649.(41) Known as the northern neck of Virginia, the Fairfax estate included all the land hounded by Chesapeake Bay on the east, the Potomac River on the north, the Rappahannock on the south, and a direct line joining the head springs of the Potomac and the Rappahannock on the west. The area amounted to roughly one quarter of Virginia and included eighteen counties in present-day Virginia and seven in West Virginia.(42) The land was sparsely settled, however, and there were virtually no inhabitants beyond the Blue Ridge Mountains. The task of the Proprietor's agents--men like Washington end Thomas Marshall--was to survey the tract, assist in finding people to settle there, arrange the title transfers, and ultimately collect the modest quitrents, which were often as low as two shillings per hundred acres.

Perhaps even more important than the financial support that Lord Fairfax provided was the access he allowed to his home at Greenway Court, which was an exceptional frontier oasis of learning and culture.(43) Fairfax had been educated at Oxford and as a young man had written the occasional article for Joseph Addison's Spectator.(44) He appreciated both the written and the spoken word and had brought with him from England one of the largest libraries in the colonies. Both Washington and Thomas Marshall took full advantage of the resources at Greenway Court, and borrowed freely from the extensive collection of classical and contemporary literature.(45) They relished this access to the world of learning and treasured their association with the man who provided it. The Proprietor's love for the Virginia countryside, his eagerness to aid new settlers, and the confident leadership he exerted on the frontier (Fairfax declined advice that he surrender his exposed position at Greenway Court after Braddock's defeat) contributed significantly to the growth of the American nation.(*)

During the revolution, Lord Fairfax remained undisturbed at Greenway Court, and George Washington personally undertook to insure his safety.(46) The fact is that Fairfax, the scion of a prominent Whig family in Britain,(47) had little quarrel with American independence. He declined to renounce allegiance to George III, but this was primarily to protect his estates in England, which would have been sequestered had he done so. Nevertheless, the Shenandoah Valley, much of which was still owned by Lord Fairfax, quickly became George Washington's principal source of food for the Continental Army. Similarly, when the paper currency issued by the revolutionary government was deteriorating rapidly in value, Fairfax helped to stabilize the dollar by instructing his numerous collectors to accept it at face value.(48)

Lord Fairfax died in December 1781, at the age of ninety.(49) There is no evidence that the young John Marshall ever met the Proprietor, though he easily could have when he accompanied his father on surveying expeditions for his Lordship. But the example provided by Lord Fairfax, his encouragement of Marshall's father, and the library he shared clearly had an impact on the future chief justice. In later years, Marshall felt emotionally attached to the Fairfax holdings. He often represented the Proprietor's heirs in litigation and subsequently led a syndicate that purchased a remainder interest in the estate.

Thomas Marshall eventually prospered as Lord Fairfax's agent in Fauquier county, but success was hard won. The simple pioneer cabin in Germantown in

which the Marshalls initially resided was well constructed,(50) and the family remained there for almost ten years. Thomas Marshall's main source of income was as a surveyor and land agent. Whatever farming the family engaged in was primarily for their own consumption. Clothing was mostly homespun, tools and utensils were fashioned locally, and purchases were restricted to the few staples such as salt and sugar that could not be produced domestically. Reflecting on his childhood many years later, the chief justice recalled how meals frequently consisted of only corn meal mush and how ladies used thorns in the absence of pins to secure their dresses.(51)

The parallels between John Marshall and Thomas Jefferson end abruptly after the early years of childhood. At the age of two, Jefferson's parents returned to Goochland county and, ironically, to Tuckahoe--the ancestral home of Marshall's maternal forebears.(52) Thomas Jefferson's removal to Tuckahoe provided him with a different vantage point from that of Marshall. Jefferson's father had for many years been a close friend of William Randolph's, the older brother of Marshall's grandmother.(53) In 1729, under Virginia's time-honored practice of primogeniture, William had become the sole owner of Tuckahoe and he had taken the unusual step of naming his friend Peter Jefferson, rather than a Randolph, as the executor of his estate and the guardian of his three young children.(*) When William died in 1745, Jefferson's father moved his family to Tuckahoe and undertook to manage the plantation.(54)

At Tuckahoe, Jefferson was raised in patrician splendor.(55) His early education was assiduously attended to, and although the family returned to Albemarle county in the 1750s, Jefferson's sheltered early years set him apart from Marshall, who grew up on the frontier. Jefferson's close association with the Randolphs widened the gap. While Marshall downplayed his relationship to the family, Jefferson cherished the tie, and his brother and sister subsequently intermarried with other grandchildren of Isham of Dungeness.(56)

Whether their different childhood experiences laid a foundation for the subsequent tension between Marshall and Jefferson is impossible to determine Jefferson was certainly aware that his childhood home, Tuckahoe, had been the home of Marshall's grandmother, and he undoubtedly knew of the tragedy that surrounded Mary Randolph Keith and of the enormous gulf that divided her from the Randolphs. Neither Jefferson nor Marshall ever suggested that any of this mattered in the least. But the circumstances are sufficiently bizarre to warrant comment.

Marshall's family moved several times during his childhood, but always farther west and always to take advantage of the opportunities the frontier provided. In the early 1760s, to enable Thomas to superintend the Fairfax lands more easily, the family left Germantown and moved some thirty miles to Leeds Manor, one of the most beautiful regions on the eastern slope of the Blue Ridge. The area had been named personally by Lord Fairfax to commemorate Leeds Castle, the seat of the Fairfax family in England, and the Proprietor had once considered residing there.(57) On the banks of Goose Creek, Thomas Marshall built a simple wooden cabin patterned after the one in Germantown, with two rooms on the first floor and a two-room loft above. Since Marshall's father was not yet well enough established to buy the land, he leased it from Colonel Richard Henry Lee.(58) The Marshalls called their new home "the Hollow," and the ten years they resided there were John Marshall's formative years.

The family grew rapidly. Besides John, there were eight girls and six boys as well as several cousins, such as Humphrey Marshall, a future Kentucky senator, who were raised with the family. Elizabeth, or Eliza, as she was called, the oldest girl, was born in 1756, and her sister Mary in 1757. Eliza later married John's friend, the successful doctor and merchant Rawleigh Colston. Mary wed her cousin Humphrey.

Marshall's brother Thomas was born in 1761, and a second, James Markham, in 1764. Like John, both served as officers in the Continental Army. Thomas became a lawyer and farmer. James married Hester Morris, the daughter of Philadelphia financier Robert Morris, and was a frequent partner with the chief justice in various land acquisitions.

Marshall's sister Lucy, who married the wealthy Virginia planter John Ambler, was born in 1768 and died in 1795. She was the only child not to survive her parents. Alexander Keith Marshall, who became a prominent lawyer in Kentucky, was born in 1770. Louis, a noted physician, educator, and early president of Washington College (now Washington and Lee University), arrived in 1773.

All of the Marshall children were accomplished, literate, and entirely self-educated under their parents' tutelage. Unlike most families of the period, the girls were educated alongside the boys. Senator Humphrey Marshall, who never attended school outside the Marshall household, said his future wife Mary taught him to read.(59) And it was Marshall's sister Susan, married to Judge William McClung of Kentucky, who was considered by the family to be the most gifted intellectually. Jane, another sister, founded a school for young women in Petersburg, one of the first of its kind in Virginia.(60) Nancy, Marshall's youngest sister, married Colonel Joseph Hamilton Daveiss, a prominent Federalist lawyer, who, as United States attorney for Kentucky, sought in vain to indict Aaron Burr for treason. Daveiss was later killed leading a charge at the battle of Tippecanoe.(61)

By any standard, the Marshall household was remarkable. John Marshall, who respected his father enormously, often spoke of his superior intellect and strength of character. It was, said Justice Story, a theme on which he broke out with spontaneous eloquence. Marshall told Story that "My father was a far abler man than any of his sons. To him I owe the solid foundation of all my success in life."(62) Marshall's comment reflected more than an outcropping of filial devotion. Thomas Marshall was ambitious, dedicated, and unflagging in his pursuit of the American dream. From modest beginnings--an abandoned cabin in Germantown and a leased homestead on Goose Creek--he eventually became one of the largest landowners on the Virginia frontier. He was one of George Washington's most trusted advisers, and in his later years he played a prominent role in the settlement of Kentucky.(*) Upon his death in 1802, he left an estate of more than 200,000 acres in Virginia and Kentucky to be divided among his children.(63)

Thomas Marshall was a large man. Physically powerful and possessed of enormous endurance, he had the ideal characteristics for mapping new country and leading the wave of settlement. He was also a brave man. His courageous leadership of the 3rd Virginia regiment at the battle of Brandywine in 1777 is credited with slowing Cornwallis's advance and saving Washington's army from annihilation. He was also known for his remarkable tolerance at a time when only the Church of England was recognized in the colony. In 1769 he is reported to have constructed a small, nondenominational church on North Cobbler Mountain, and later he intervened with county authorities to prevent the arrest of his brother William, a Baptist preacher of great effectiveness who had riled the anti-Baptist faction of Fauquier's religious establishment.(64) Despite a lack of formal schooling, Thomas Marshall was intellectually accomplished. He invented what became known as Marshall's Meridian Instrument, a surveying device for converting magnetic north to true north that the Virginia Assembly required for all surveys after 1772.(65) George Washington subsequently recommended him to command Virginia's artillery regiment because of his superior mathematical ability. In short, Thomas Marshall's achievements were substantial and his reputation unblemished.

Although Marshall rarely spoke of his mother, he acquired from her a steady temperament and an exceptional respect for the intellectual accomplishments of women.(66) Mary Keith Marshall, as the daughter of a Scottish cleric and teacher, had been educated far beyond the level customary for a Virginia woman of that period.(67) Despite the demands of her large family, she found time to impart to her children a remarkable love of learning. Justice Joseph Bradley wrote that Marshall's mother "was a woman of more than ordinary intellect and character," and noted in his diary that many believed "the Ch[ief] Just[ice] got his brains from his mother's side."(68)

Years later Marshall commented indirectly on the influence of his mother when, as Chief Justice of the United States, he wrote to Richmond publisher Thomas White in support of higher education for women. "I have always believed," wrote Marshall, "that national character... depends more on the female part of society than is generally imagined. Precepts from the lips of a beloved mother ... sink deep in the heart, and make an impression which is seldom entirely effaced. These impressions have an influence on character which may contribute greatly to the happiness or misery, the eminence or insignificancy of the individual."(69) Driving his point home, Marshall told White that "If the agency of the mother in forming the character of her children is, in truth, so considerable as I think it--if she does so much toward making her son what she would wish him to be--how essential is it that she should be fitted for the beneficial performance of these important duties."(70)

Joseph Story captured the chief justice's unusual appreciation of the ability of women when he spoke of the high esteem in which Marshall "held the female sex, as... the equals of man. I do not refer to the courtesy and delicate kindness with which he was accustomed to treat the sex; but rather to the unaffected respect with which he spoke of their accomplishments, their talents, their virtues and their excellences."(71)

Marshall's attitude was sufficiently unique to cause Harriet Martineau, an English feminist who knew Marshall in his later years, to note that the chief justice:

maintained through life and carried to his grave a reverence for women, as rare in its kind as in its degree. He brought not only the love and pity ... which they excite in the minds of the pure, but the steady conviction of their intellectual equality with men, and with this a deep sense of their social injuries. Throughout life he so invariably sustained their cause that no indulgent libertine dared to flatter and humour, no skeptic ... dared to scoff at the claims of women in the presence of Marshall.(72)

Martineau genuinely admired the chief justice and called him "the most venerated man in the country." In 1835 she undertook a trek across America, and Marshall, who admired her work on behalf of women, insisted on providing her with a letter of introduction in which he pledged himself to be under personal obligation to anyone who might assist her.(73)

It was while the family was living beside Goose Creek that John Marshall's education began in earnest. With no schools in the region, the family hearth became a classroom. In an environment where books were a precious rarity, Thomas Marshall's library stood out as a remarkable exception. His collection of literature, some of which was borrowed from Lord Fairfax, was substantial for the time and included works by Livy, Horace, Pope, Dryden, Milton, and Shakespeare.(74) In his brief autobiographical sketch, Marshall told Story how his father had encouraged his interest in history and poetry and how, at the age of twelve, he had transcribed the works of Alexander Pope. The early exposure to Pope obviously made a lasting impression on Marshall. Sixty years later, at the height of his authority as chief justice, the act of copying out Pope's evocative poetry was one of the few events from his childhood that Marshall still recalled with enthusiasm, and happily wished to record.

That may seem surprising to a contemporary audience. Yet with few books available, and virtually no other form of intellectual stimulation, transcription--and the inevitable memorization that accompanied it--provided an exceptional learning experience. More than the work of any other writer, it was the poetry of Pope that filtered down to a general audience in prerevolutionary America. His name was invoked like a god--or at least a muse--in popular debate, and his verse was quoted and imitated in journals and newspapers to support any issue to which the lines could be made appropriate.(75) Thomas Jefferson annotated his commonplace book with quotations from pope;(76) George Washington had a six-volume set of Pope's works;(77) and Benjamin Franklin ordered numerous editions from publishers in Philadelphia.(78) Throughout the colonies, ordinary schoolmasters, not unlike Thomas and Mary Marshall, used Pope's verse to teach grammar and moral values simultaneously.(79)

There was good reason for Pope's popularity, and for Marshall's attachment to his works. As a product of the Age of Reason, Pope was the last of the English poets to subscribe to the neoclassical belief that nature was perfect and reason supreme. The neoclassical tradition lacked a sense of original sin and held that morality might be based on common sense. Those ideas are powerfully expressed in Pope's Essay on Man, and John Marshall embraced them wholeheartedly. Pope's syllogisms explained the essence of the human condition in a manner that Marshall, a youth of twelve, found easy to comprehend. The effect of such intense exposure to a single author was unavoidable. Pope's optimistic outlook made an indelible impression on Marshall's mind. If any common thread weaves through the life of John Marshall or expresses itself in his political and judicial outlook, it is the belief in the alliance of nature and reason that he took from Pope.

All Nature is but Art, unknown to thee; All Chance, Direction, which thou canst not see; All Discord, Harmony not understood; All partial Evil, universal Good: And, spite of Pride, in erring Reason's spite, One truth is clear, WHATEVER IS, IS RIGHT.

In the Essay on Man, Pope identified self-interest with the public interest--a powerful talisman for an age of economic expansion and discovery. He also celebrated the virtues of "mixed government," where each element of the population defended its own interest. Man is restrained by "Government and Laws," wrote Pope, and the jarring interests of one element colliding against another created the "music of a well-mixed State." As a formula for constitutional government, the idea of competing interests balancing each other echoed the classical message of Aristotle and Polybius--an idea that came to fruition in the Constitution of the United States, and of which John Marshall was to become the foremost defender.

The future chief justice derived other important advantages from reading Pope. Pope was a master wordsmith--a genius at compressing complex thoughts and expressing them so vividly that his lines continue to enjoy everyday usage. In his introduction to the Essay on Man, Pope offered two reasons why he chose to write in verse instead of prose. First, the "principles, maxims, or precepts so written, both strike the reader more strongly at first, and are more easily retained by him afterwards." A second reason for writing in verse, said Pope, was that "I found I could express [these principles] more shortly this way than in prose itself; and nothing is more certain, than that much of the force as well as grace of arguments or instructions, depends on their conciseness." Marshall drew an important lesson from that. Throughout his career, he strived for a similar effect in his writing and, like Pope, was always fond of the pithy phrase. Marshall's decisions bristle with quotable passages converting intricate constitutional doctrines into handy epigrams that, like the iambics of Pope, have become commonplace. Finally, by reading Pope and committing long passages to memory, Marshall was exercising his mind and improving his faculty for retention. The use of pen (or quill) and pencil followed easily.

Marshall's brief attendance at the academy run by the Reverend Archibald Campbell in Washington parish--the same school his father and George Washington had attended briefly--was the only formal schooling he received as a youth. Among his classmates was James Monroe. Legend has it that Marshall and Monroe walked to school together every day, each with books under one arm and a gun slung over his shoulder, "for these were pioneer days and children were taught self-protection from the cradle."(80) Like Scottish parsons through the ages, Campbell ran a tight educational ship. "He was a disciplinarian of the sternest type," said one of Monroe's descendants, and school was "all work and little play.... His pupils were regarded as especially well grounded in mathematics and Latin ... and in their various subsequent careers they were noted for solidity of character."(81)

When Marshall returned to the Hollow, his father, as head of the vestry for Leeds parish, wrote to a friend in Edinburgh requesting that a minister be sent who could double as a teacher for the local children. The man sent over was the Reverend James Thomson, a recently ordained deacon. Thomson initially resided with the Marshall family and tutored the children in Latin in return for his room and board. When Thomson left at the end of the year, Marshall had commenced reading Horace and Livy.

Livy was the most famous of the Roman historians, and the fragments of his history of Rome that Marshall read glorified the republic and extolled the virtues of patriotism. For Livy, however, historical writing had a greater purpose than simply recording the deeds of the past. He saw history as a guide to life (magistra vitae); in order to be effective, it must be well written and accessible to the general reader. Marshall's exposure to Livy's tight Latin prose reinforced his determination to use words sparingly. From Livy, as from Pope, Marshall learned how to express himself precisely.(82)

Horace, the Augustan poet, was an even greater stylist than Livy. Like Pope, his memorable phrases have the impact of epigrams, exposing the follies and excesses of the poet's contemporaries. From Horace, Marshall learned to write for effect, to appreciate the ability of the poet to express complex ideas gracefully, and to understand poetry's underlying message about life's vexations and opportunities.(83) That Marshall chose to mention Horace and Livy in his brief sketch for Story suggests that their impact on him was important and that his debt to them was substantial.

Despite the occasional presence of a parson in the house, or the fact that Mary Randolph Keith was the daughter of a minister, piety and religious dogma played little role in the education of the Marshall children. Thomas Marshall and his wife were church members, but they made little attempt to inculcate their beliefs. Instead, the children were encouraged to think for themselves. Senator Humphrey Marshall openly scorned religion; Dr. Louis Marshall confessed agnosticism; and brothers James and Thomas were notably devoid of religious sentiment.(84) John Marshall never rejected the church openly, but his acceptance was environmental rather than doctrinal. Throughout his life the chief justice declined to become a member of any congregation, unable to believe in the divinity of Christ.(85) If Marshall needed reinforcement for that skepticism, it may have come from Pope. The Essay on Man is a ringing endorsement of the deist views of the Age of Reason, and although Pope was Catholic, his emphasis on man as a rational being inevitably diminished the role of Christianity.(86)

In 1773 the Marshall family moved once again. Thomas Marshall, by then a man of more substantial means, purchased a 1,700-acre estate adjacent to North Cobbler Mountain, approximately ten miles northwest of the Hollow. He paid almost 1,000[pounds sterling] for the property(87)--a substantial sum in colonial Virginia--but the new farm was located adjacent to the main stage road, and the land was much more fertile than the thin soil of Leeds Manor. It was here that Thomas Marshall built Oak Hill, a seven-room frame home with four rooms on the first floor and three above. Although modest in comparison to the estates of Washington, Madison, and Jefferson--to say nothing of those of the Randolphs and the Lees--Oak Hill nevertheless was a substantial home for the period. According to local legend, it had the first glass windows in the region(88) and, with numerous additions and modifications, it remained in the Marshall family for many years.

Marshall's childhood provided a firm underpinning for his career. His family was not wealthy, but neither was it poor. As the oldest child, Marshall learned to accept responsibility early. He acquired the modesty and discretion that a large family frequently instills, and he learned to lead with a light touch. In Marshall's case, the experience of dealing with a clamorous band of younger siblings, earning their affection and respect while holding them to their tasks, proved remarkably useful in later years when dealing with fractious colleagues jealous of their prerogatives.

Marshall also learned the importance of financial independence. He witnessed his family's progression from Germantown, to the Hollow, to Oak Hill. He recognized the work involved as well as the costs entailed. From his father's example, Marshall appreciated the possibilities that America provided. He was probably not yet aware of his own ability, but whatever it was, he was determined to make the most of it. (*) Under the provisions of the Peace of Paris, France ceded Canada to Great Britain, retaining only the tiny islands of St. Pierre and Miquelon off Newfoundland. Spain gave East and West Florida to Britain, which because the sixteenth and seventeenth English colonies in North America. In return for the loss of the Floridas, Spain obtained the Louisiana Territory from France, which, in effect, made the the Mississippi River the boundary between the British and Spanish empires in North America. For the text of the Treaty of Paris, see George Chalmers. 1 Collection of Treaties 467 (London: J. Stockdale, 1790).

© 1997 Jean Edward Smith

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