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Marshall: Quintessentially An American and A Virginian

ISSUE:  Summer 1975
The Papers of John Marshall, Volume I: Correspondence and Papers, November 10, 1775-June 23, 1788, and Account Book, September 1783-June 1788. Herbert A. Johnson, Editor; Charles T. Cullen, Associate Editor; Nancy G. Harris, Assistant Editor. University of North Carolina Press. $17.95.

THE volume under review is the first volume (of a projected ten) in the long-awaited Institute of Early American History and Culture edition of the papers of Chief Justice John Marshall. If the initial volume is representative, the entire series will be a triumph of editorial skill, literary taste, and book production. One is particularly impressed by the handsomeness of the physical book—something we have reluctantly learned not to take for granted. The paper is heavy and of high quality, the type face well-chosen, the margins ample, footnotes at the bottom of the page, and the binding sewn. The book is a pleasure to hold and read.

More important, Herbert Johnson and his associates, Charles Cullen and Nancy Harris, have managed the editorial process with remarkable taste and skill. They have provided the reader with a brief but helpful introduction, scholarly headnotes and footnotes, and three excellent indexes. (I noticed only one typographical error; the letter “i” is omitted at the beginning of the second line of footnote 2 on page 193. ) The notes tell the informed reader what he wants to know without contriving to display unnecessary erudition or distracting detail. The focus is everywhere, as it should be, on John Marshall.

Volume I carries Marshall (who was born in September, 1755) from 1775 to 1788. The editors include both Marshall’s student law notes and his account book for the period, but the bulk of the items printed are legal papers and personal correspondence. A number of entries have already been printed elsewhere, but the bulk of the book is comprised of previously unprinted materials collected by the editors. The book concludes with Marshall’s well-known speeches at the Virginia Ratifying Convention in 1788. I suppose that the correspondence will be of primary interest to the readers of this journal, but the legal materials are frequently fascinating and the editorial notes should make them comprehensible to most readers.

What, then, do we learn about John Marshall? In one respect, not enough, for it seems that relatively little personal correspondence survives from the early years of Marshall’s life, and Marshall is notably reticent regarding his personal life in the remaining letters. Where he does refer to personal or non-official matters, the formality of his literary style creates a barrier to modern sympathy and understanding. One delightful exception is his comment on marriage and the fairer sex in a letter of February, 1784, to James Monroe:

This excessive cold weather has operated like magic on our youth. They feel the necessity of artificial heat, & quite wearied with lying alone, are all treading the broad road to Matrimony. . . . Tabby Eppes has grown quite fat & buxom, her charms are renovated & to see her & to love her are now synonimous terms.

Unfortunately, such passages are few and far between.

Nevertheless, of course, we are primarily interested in Marshall as a public figure, and here he comes through loud and clear. He displays most of the attitudes we have come to associate with the high Federalism of the early national period, and he expresses himself eloquently on these subjects. He reveals his horror at the news of Shays’ Rebellion in Massachusetts and his fear for the viability of republican government :

These violent, I fear bloody, dissentions in a state I had thought inferior in wisdom and virtue to no one in the union, added to the strong tendency which the politics of many eminent characters among ourselves have to promote private and public dishonesty cast a deep shade over that bright prospect which the revolution in America and the establishment of our free governments had opened to the votaries of liberty throughout the globe.

In a similar vein, he also displays a real mistrust of the political process:

And I have ever observed that our Countrymen in the general may be persuaded from an apprehension of a distant evil, to adopt measures which may produce a certain one. This arises from refining too much, & this they will do in all cases except those where money is to be drawn from their purses.

He also shows himself to be suspicious of local lawyers and politicians and we are not surprised at his eloquent defense of the principles of central government during the Virginia debates on ratification of the 1787 constitution.

It is in these debates that Marshall (who earlier refers to George Washington as “the greatest Man on earth”) emerges as the clear-headed nationalist who transformed the United States Supreme Court into the institution we admire today. He declares his commitment to the concept of judicial review in responding to George Mason’s charge that federal law and federal courts would swallow up state jurisdiction. Can the government of the United States, he asks rhetorically, legislate beyond its delegated powers? Definitely not, he responds, for:

. . . it would be considered by the Judges as an infringement of the Constitution which they are to guard:—They would not consider such a law as coming under their jurisdiction. — They would declare it void.

This, then, is our Marshall: protagonist of a strong central government, fearful of the excesses of democracy, believing in the efficacy of judicial restraints upon arrogant assertions of legislative power. He believed, as he said on June 10, 1788, in “a well regulated Democracy” and national security:

. . . I think the virtue and talents of the members of the General Government will tend to the security, instead of the destruction of our liberty.

Marshall’s ideas of government were thus well-formed even at the very outset of our national experience.

In 1783 Marshall responded to a friend’s inquiry, what “is Virginia about?”

The grand object of the people is still, as it has ever been, to oppose successfully our British enemies & to establish on the firm base of certainty the independence of America.

He goes on to explain that in the pursuit of this objective “an attention to a variety of little interests & passions” has led to such “a distracted contrariety of measures” that the “grand object” may appear obscured. He reassures his friend, however, that “We have not perhaps so much virtue as we ought to have but we are possessed of much more than our neighbors will give us credit for.” Marshall was quintessentially an American and a Virginian, and throughout his career he was true to the notions he developed as a young man.


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