John Marshall by R.W. Griswold, D.D.

John Marshall, son of Colonel Thomas Marshall, a planter of moderate fortune, was born in Germantown, Fauquier County, Virginia, on the twenty-fourth of September, 1755. When twenty-one years of age, he was commissioned as a lieutenant in the continental service, and marching with his regiment to the north, was appointed captain in the spring of 1777, and in that capacity served in the battles of Brandywine, Germantown, and Monmouth; was at Valley Forge during the winter of 1778, and was one of the covering party at the assault of Stoney Point, in June, 1779. Having returned to his native State at the expiration of the enlistment of the Virginia troops, in 1780 he received a license for the practice of the law, and rapidly rose to distinction in that profession. In 1782 he was chosen a representative to the legislature, and afterward a member of the executive council In January, 1783, he married Mary Willis Ambler, of York, in Virginia, with whom he lived for fifty years in the tenderest affection. He was a delegate to the convention of Virginia which met on the second of June, 1788, to take into consideration the new constitution, and in conjunction with his friend, Mr. Madison, mainly contributed to its adoption, in opposition to the ardent efforts of Henry, Grayson, and Mason. His name first became generally known throughout the nation by his vindication, in the legislature of the State, of the ratification of Jay's treaty by President Washington. No report of that speech remains, but the evidence of its ability survives in the effects which it produced on the legislature and the country. He continued in the practice of the law, having declined successively the offices of Attorney General of the United States and Minister to France, until 1797, when with General Pinkney and Mr. Gerry, he was sent on a special mission to the French republic. The manner in which the dignity of the American character was maintained against the corruption of the Directory and its ministers is well known. The letters of the seventeenth of January and third of April, 1798, to Talleyrand, the Minister of Foreign Relations, have always been attributed to Marshall, and they rank among the ablest and most effective of diplomatic communications. Mr. Marshall  arrived in New-York on the seventeenth of June, 1798, and on the nineteenth entered Philadelphia. At the intelligence of his approach the whole city poured out toward Frankford to receive him, and escorted him to his lodgings with all the honors of a triumph. In after years, when he visited Philadelphia, he often spoke of the feelings with which, as he came near the city on that occasion, with some doubts as to the reception which he might meet with in the existing state of parties, he beheld the multitude rushing forth to crowd about him with every demonstration of respect and approbation, as having been the most interesting and gratifying of his life.

On his return to Virginia, at the special request of General Washington, he became a candidate for the House of Representatives, and was elected in the spring of 1799. His greatest effort in Congress was his speech in opposition to the resolutions of Edward Livingston relative to Thomas Nash, alias Jonathan Robbins. Fortunately we possess an accurate report of it, revised by himself. The case was, that Thomas Nash, having committed a murder on board the British frigate Hermione, navigating the high seas under a commission from the British king, had sought an asylum within the United States, and his delivery had been demanded by the British minister under the twenty-seventh article of the treaty of amity between the two nations. Mr. Marshall's argument first established that the crime was within the jurisdiction of Great Britain, on the general principles of public law, and then demonstrated, that under the constitution the case was subject to the disposal of the executive, and not the judiciary. He distinguished these departments from one another with an acuteness of discrimination and a force of logic which frustrated  the attempt to carry the judiciary out of its orbit, and settled the political question, then and for ever. It is said that Mr. Gallatin, whose part it was to reply to Mr. Marshall, at the close of the speech turned to some of his friends and said, "You may answer that if you choose; I cannot." The argument deserves to rank among the most dignified displays of human intellect. At the close of the session, Mr. Marshall was appointed Secretary of War, and soon after Secretary of State. During his continuance in that department our relations with England were in a very interesting condition, and his correspondence with Mr. King exhibits his abilities and spirit in the most dignified point of view. "His despatch of the twentieth of September, 1800," says Mr. Binney, "is a noble specimen of the first order of state papers, and shows the most finished adaptation of parts for the station of an American Secretary of State." On the thirty-first of January, 1801, he was appointed Chief Justice of the United States, in which office he continued until his death. In 1804 he published the Biography of Washington, which for candor, accuracy, and comprehension, will for ever be the most authentic history of the Revolution. He died in Philadelphia on the sixth of July, 1835.

Mr. Marshall's career as Chief Justice extended through a period of more than thirty-four years, which is the longest judicial tenure recorded in history. To one who cannot follow his great judgments, in which, at the same time, the depths of legal wisdom are disclosed and the limits of human reason measured, the language of just eulogy must wear an appearance of extravagance. In his own profession he stands for the reverence of the wise rather than for the enthusiasm of the  many. The proportion of the figure was so perfect, that the sense of its vastness was lost. Above the difficulties of common minds, he was in some degree above their sympathy. Saved from popularity by the very rarity of his qualities, he astonished the most where he was best understood. The questions upon which his judgment was detained, and the considerations by which his decision was at last determined, were such as ordinary understandings, not merely could not resolve, but were often inadequate even to appreciate or apprehend. It was his manner to deal directly with the results of thought and learning, and the length and labor of the processes by which these results were suggested and verified might elude the consciousness of those who had not themselves attempted to perform them. From the position in which he stood of evident superiority to his subject, it was obviously so easy for him to describe its character and define its relations, that we sometimes forgot to wonder by what faculties or what efforts he had attained to that eminence. We were so much accustomed to see his mind move only in the light, that there was a danger of our not observing that the illumination by which it was surrounded was the beam of its own presence, and not the natural atmosphere of the scene.

The true character and measure of Marshall's greatness are missed by those who conceive of him as limited within the sphere of the justices of England, and who describe him merely as the first of lawyers. To have been "the most consummate judge that ever sat in judgment," was the highest possibility of Eldon's merit, but was only a segment of Marshall's fame. It was in a distinct department, of more dignified functions, almost of an opposite kind, that he displayed those abilities  that advance his name to the highest renown, and shed around it the glories of a statesman and legislator. The powers of the Supreme Court of the United States are such as were never before confided to a judicial tribunal by any people. As determining, without appeal, its own jurisdiction, and that of the legislature and executive, that court is not merely the highest estate in the country, but it settles and continually moulds the constitution of the government. Of the great work of constructing a nation, but a small part, practically, had been performed when the written document had been signed by the convention: a vicious theory of interpretation might defeat the grandeur and unity of the organization, and a want of comprehension and foresight might fatally perplex the harmony of the combination. The administration of a system of polity is the larger part of its establishment. What the constitution was to be, depended on the principles on which the federal instrument was to be construed, and they were not to be found in the maxims and modes of reasoning by which the law determines upon social contracts between man and man, but were to be sought anew in the elements of political philosophy and the general suggestions of legislative wisdom. To these august duties Judge Marshall brought a greatness of conception that was commensurate with their difficulty; he came to them in the spirit and with the strength of one who would minister to the development of a nation; and it was the essential sagacity of his guiding mind that saved us from illustrating the sarcasms of Mr. Burke about paper constitutions. He saw the futility of attempting to control society by a metaphysical theory; he apprehended the just relation between opinion and life, between the forms of speculation and the force of things. Knowing that we are wise in respect to nature, only as we give back to it faithfully what we have learned from it obediently, he sought to fix the wisdom of the real and to resolve it into principles. He made the nation explain its constitution, and compelled the actual to define the possible. Experience was the dialectic by which he deduced from substantial premises a practical conclusion. The might of reason by which convenience and right were thus moulded into union, was amazing. But while he knew the folly of endeavoring to be wiser than time, his matchless resources of good sense contributed to the orderly development of the inherent elements of the constitution, by a vigor and dexterity as eminent in their kind as they were rare in their combination. The vessel of state was launched by the patriotism of many: the chart of her course was designed chiefly by Hamilton: but when the voyage was begun, the eye that observed, and the head that reckoned, and the hand that compelled the ship to keep her course amid tempests without, and threats of mutiny within, were those of the great Chief Justice. Posterity will give him reverence as one of the founders of the nation; and of that group of statesmen who may one day perhaps be regarded as above the nature, as they certainly were beyond the dimensions of men, no figure, save ONE alone, will rise upon the eye in grandeur more towering than that of John Marshall.

The authority of the Supreme Court, however, is not confined to cases of constitutional law; it embraces the whole range of judicial action, as it is distributed in England, into legal, equitable, and maritime jurisdictions. The equity system of this court was too little developed to enable us to say what Marshall would have been as a chancellor. It is difficult  to admit that he would have been inferior to Lord Eldon: it is impossible to conceive that he could at all have resembled Lord Eldon. But undoubtedly the native region and proper interest of a mind so analytical and so sound, so piercing and so practical, was the common law; that vigorous system of manly reason and essential right, that splendid scheme of morality expanded by logic and informed by prudence. Perhaps the highest range of English intelligence is illustrated in the law; yet where, in the whole line of that august succession, will be found a character which fills the measure of judicial greatness so completely as Chief Justice Marshall? Where, in English history, is the judge, whose mind was at once so enlarged and so systematic, who so thoroughly had reduced professional science to general reason, in whose disciplined intellect technical learning had so completely passed into native sense? Vast as the reach of the law is, it is not an exaggeration to say that Marshall's understanding was greater, and embraced the forms of legal sagacity within it, as a part of its own spontaneous wisdom. He discriminated with instinctive accuracy between those technicalities which have sprung from the narrowness of inferior minds, and those which are set by the law for the defence of some vital element of justice or reason. The former he brushed away like cobwebs, while he yielded to the latter with a respect which sometimes seemed to those "whose eyes were" not "opened," a species of superstition. In his judicial office the method of Marshall appeared to be, first to bow his understanding reverently to the law, and calmly and patiently to receive its instructions as those of an oracle of which he was the minister; then to prove these dictates by the most searching processes of reason, and to deliver them to others, not as decrees to be obeyed, but as logical manifestations of moral truth. Undoubtedly he made much use of adjudged cases; but he used them to give light and certainty to his own judgment, and not for the vindication or support of the law. He would have deemed it a reproach alike to his abilities and his station, if he should have determined upon precedent what could have been demonstrated by reason, or had referred to authority what belonged to principle. With singular capacity, he united systematic reason with a perception of particular equity: too scrupulous a regard for the latter led Lord Eldon, in most instances, to adjudicate nothing but the case before him; but Marshall remembered that while he owed to the suitors the decision of the case, he owed to society the establishment of the principle. His mind naturally tended, not to suggestion and speculation, but to the determination of opinion and the closing of doubts. On the bench, he always recollected that he was not merely a lawyer, and much less a legal essayist; he was conscious of an official duty and an official authority; and considered that questions might be discussed elsewhere, but came to be settled by him. The dignity with which these duties were discharged was not the least admirable part of the display. It was wisdom on the seat of power, pronouncing the decrees of justice.

Political and legal sense are so distinct from one another as almost to be irreconcilable in the same mind. The latter is a mere course of deduction from premises; the other calls into exercise the highest order of perceptive faculties, and that quick felicity of intuition which flashes to its conclusions by a species of mental sympathy rather than by any conscious process of argumentation. The one requires that the  susceptibility of the judgment should be kept exquisitely alive to every suggestion of the practical, so as to catch and follow the insensible reasonings of life, rather than to reason itself: the other demands the exclusion of every thing not rigorously exact, and the concentration of the whole consciousness of the mind in kindling implicit truth into formal principles. The wonder, in Judge Marshall's case, was to see these two almost inconsistent faculties, in quality so matchless, and in development so magnificent, harmonized and united in his marvellous intelligence. We beheld him pass from one to the other department without confusing their nature, and without perplexing his own understanding. When he approached a question of constitutional jurisprudence, we saw the lawyer expand into the legislator; and in returning to a narrower sphere, pause from the creative glow of statesmanship, and descend from intercourse with the great conceptions and great feelings by which nations are guided and society is advanced, to submit his faculties with docility to the yoke of legal forms, and with impassible calmness to thread the tangled intricacies of forensic technicalities.

There was in this extraordinary man an unusual combination of the capacity of apprehending truth, with the ability to demonstrate and make it palpable to others. They often exist together in unequal degrees. Lord Mansfield's power of luminous explication was so surpassing that one might almost say that he made others perceive what he did not understand himself; but the numerous instances in which his decisions have been directly overthrown by his successors, and the still greater number of cases in which his opinions have been silently departed from, compel a belief that his judgment was not of the truest kind. Lord Eldon's judicial sagacity was a species of inspiration; but he seemed to be unable not only to convince others; but even to certify himself of the correctness of his own greatest and wisest determinations. But Judge Marshall's sense appeared to be at once both instinctive and analytical: his logic extended as far as his perception: he had no propositions in his thoughts which he could not resolve into their axioms. Truth came to him as a revelation, and from him as a demonstration. His mind was more than the faculty of vision; it was a body of light, which irradiated the subject to which it was directed, and rendered it as distinct to every other eye as it was to its own.

The mental integrity of this illustrious man was not the least important element of his greatness. Those qualities of vanity, fondness for display, the love of effect, the solicitation of applause, sensibility to opinions, which are the immoralities of intellect, never attached to that stainless essence of pure reason. He seemed to men to be a passionless intelligence; susceptible to no feeling but the constant love of right; subject to no affection but a polarity toward truth.

As has already been stated, the great chief justice was married when twenty-eight years of age, to Miss Ambler, of York, in Virginia; there have been few such unions in every respect more fortunate and delightful; the wife died but a short time before the husband, who, not more than two days previous to his own decease, directed that his body should be laid with hers, and that the plain stone to indicate the place of their rest should have only this simple inscription:

"John Marshall, son of Thomas and Mary Marshall, was born on the 24th of September, 1755, intermarried with Mary Willis Ambler on the 3d of January, 1783, and departed this life the —— day of —— 18—."

 With no other alteration than the filling of the blanks, this is engraved on the modest white marble which is over their remains in the beautiful cemetery on Shoccoe Hill, of Richmond.

The chief justice always lived in a style of singular simplicity; when Secretary of State at Washington, he resided in a brick building hardly larger than most of the kitchens now in use, and his house in Richmond, to which he soon after removed, was characteristically unostentatious. From Richmond he frequently walked out three or four miles to his farm in the county of Henrico; and once a year he made a protracted visit to his other farm, near his birth-place, in Fauquier.

No man had a keener relish for social and convivial enjoyments, and numerous anecdotes are told in illustration of this trait in his character. Nearly all the period of his residence in Richmond, he was a member of a club which met near the city once a fortnight to pitch quoits, and mingle in relaxing conversation; there was no one more punctual in his attendance at its meetings, or who contributed more to their pleasantness; and such was his skill in the manly game he practised, that he would hurl his iron ring, weighing two pounds, with rarely erring aim, fifty-five or sixty feet, and when he or his partner made any specially successful exhibition of skill, he would leap up and clap his hands with the light-hearted enthusiasm of boyhood.