America has been bountifully blessed with great and good men. Washington ‘The father’—I was about to say—’founder of his country’; Jefferson who taught us the beauty of plain dress but rich manners; Hamilton who placed a tottering treasury upon a strong foundation,—Great indeed were all of these, but there was born in Fouquier county, Virginia, on the 24th day of September, 1755, a child who was to be known to all posterity as the great Chief Justice of the United States. This was John Marshall.
He was the eldest of a family of fifteen children. In early boyhood he took an interest in poetry and was perfectly familiar with Dryden, Pope, Milton and Shakespeare. He was for many years full of dreamy romance and poetical enthusiasm, and his solitary meditations were usually amid the wildest scenery.
After a short college course at West Moreland, where he had as a fellow-student James Monroe, and a further classical education under a resident clergyman; he, at eighteen, began the study of law, but enlisted to fight the British before he obtained a license to practice. He soon took a part with his regiment, of which his father was major, in the battle of Great Bridge leading, as lieutenant, in a flanking party which advanced in the face of a murderous fire and put an end to the engagement.
He belonged to the Culpepper Minute-men, who wore green hunting shirts with “Liberty or Death” on the bosom in white letters, and who carried a banner which displayed a coiled rattlesnake with the motto, “Don’t tread on me.” He took a part in the battle of Brandywine, Germantown and Monmouth; he shared the hardships of Valley Forge; in fact saw almost continuous service from the time he enlisted at the beginning until the glorious end, for which he had so sanguinely waited, came.
Meanwhile he had studied some, and had attended a course of lectures delivered by the renowned Mr Wythe at William and Mary College, and had secured a license to practice. At the close of hostilities he commenced business as an attorney; with marked success from the first.
That extraordinary comprehension and grasp of mind by which difficulties were seized and overcome without parade, commended the attention of the courts of justice; and his sweet temper and loving ways gained for him a host of friends. Such a man, who possessed not only ability but a perfect control of himself, must succeed. He soon rose to distinction, being elected to a seat in the council of the State. He was married in 1783 to the daughter of the State treasurer and moved to Richmond.
In spite of this removal his old neighbors re-elected him to represent their county, and in 1787 he became a member from his adopted county, Henrico. As is well-known, the Federal constitution was considered by many an approach to monarchy. It was held by Jefferson and many of his followers as tending toward that state of things of which they had so much to fear. At the Virginia Convention, assembled to discuss the constitution drawn up at Philadelphia, where great opposition wasdeveloped, Mr. Marshall’s speech had a crushing effect on its assailants. He next became a member from Richmond, that city now being entitled to a representative, where he remained for three years.
Virginia was the headquarters of the State rights party, headed by Jefferson. Mr. Marshall supported the administration of Washington, defining the Federal view so clearly that it carried conviction, yet so calmly and with such moderation of tone, that when he retired from that body in 1792 he left not an enemy behind. He now devoted himself to his profession with unbounded success. While attending to a large legal practice, he also frequently appeared at public meetings in support of the administration of Washington.
In 1795 he was again a member of the House. In the violent debate over Jay’s treaty he became its champion, and by a most eloquent speech, before a body that had condemned it, he secured an amendment to their resolution, reversing their former decision, and the passage of one favorable to the policy. Washington offered him a place in his Cabinet, but he refused, as it would interfere with his profession; later he was offered the mission to France, which he also declined. In 1797 President Adams sent another delegation to France, which he accepted, and with Pickney and Gerry proceeded to Paris.
Upon his return he immediately resumed his practice, but was urged to defend his party. Washington finally prevailed upon him to run for Congress, to which he was elected in 1799. Even during the canvass Adams offered him a seat on the Supreme Bench, which he declined. Within a few weeks from the time of his entrance upon his duties as Congressman, he was called upon to announce in that body the death of Washington. His words were few, but were ever remembered as producing a profound impression.
Washington, the great Federal leader was dead. Virginia had passed the resolution of 1798, recording her solemn protest, and the Republicans were flushed with the daily increasing revulsion against the Federal Government. At this crisis John Marshall appeared in Congress and stepped to the front as the leader of his party. In 1800 he was appointed Secretary of War. Before he entered upon his duties he is placed at the head of the Cabinet as Secretary of State, and a few months later his name is sent by the President to Congress, and is unanimously confirmed for the position of Chief Justice of the United States.
John Marshall has been heretofore recognized as a man of great ability, and now he takes a position which he holds for life, and where his influence is paramount. On one occasion a young house-keeper was swearing lustily because he could find no one to carry his turkey home for him. A plain man standing by offered to perform the service, and when they arrived at the door the young man asked, ‘What shall I pay you, sir’? ‘O nothing,’ replied the old man; ‘It was on my way, and no trouble.’ ‘Who is that polite old gentleman,’ asked the young man of a bystander. The reply was, ‘That is the Chief Justice of the United States.’ The young man drank the bitter cup without further comment.
An eminent writer once said of him: Here is John Marshall, whose mind seems to be an inexhaustible quarry from which he draws the materials and builds his fabrics rude and Gothic, but of such strength that neither time nor force can beat them down; a fellow who would not turn off a single step from the right line of his argument, though a paradise should rise to tempt him.
What more could be said of him,—only that he died at Philadelphia on the 6th of July, 1835; more would be superfluous.