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Reading 2
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Determining the Facts

Reading 1: John Marshall at Home

In 1790 John Marshall and his wife, Mary Willis Ambler (he called her Polly), moved into their newly constructed house on lot 786 in the Shockoe Hill area (also called Court End) of Richmond, Virginia. He was 35 years old, a successful lawyer and representative of Henrico County to the Virginia legislature. She was 24, a mother of four children, one of whom had died shortly after birth, and a trustworthy adviser to John. The house was both a domicile and place of work.

The Marshall house was located a short distance from the courthouse and other public buildings, which attracted lawyers and public officials to the neighborhood. Spencer Roane, who became chief judge of the Virginia Court of Appeals, lived nearby. Roane’s house was separated from Marshall’s by a gully, an appropriate symbol of the political differences that marked their careers. Roane, a fervent Jeffersonian Republican, was a staunch public opponent of Marshall. Marshall’s Federalist principles were in strong opposition to the political party of Thomas Jefferson.

Many of Marshall’s political allies also lived in his neighborhood, and some were invited regularly to monthly dinners at his house. These "lawyers’ dinners" included about 30 prominent men seated around the table in the large dining room or great hall at the center of the first floor. No women were invited to these dinners, which lasted from mid-afternoon until late evening. Marshall’s slaves prepared the food and served the guests. According to city tax records, Marshall owned 10 adult slaves in 1791.

Guests at the Marshall house, particularly the ones invited to the lawyers’ dinners, usually discussed current public affairs and political issues. John Marshall’s cousin and rival, Thomas Jefferson, was often the object of sharp criticism, as were his Republican party followers. The talk was spiced occasionally, however, with spirited support for the other side by George Hay, a regular invitee to the lawyers’ dinners and an advocate of Jefferson’s political ideas. One ongoing constitutional issue was about the nature of Federalism and the division of power between the national government and the states. George Hay, Spencer Roane, and other Jeffersonians argued for states’ powers and rights in relationship to the central government. By contrast, John Marshall and his Federalist party associates argued the cause of nationalism and far-reaching supremacy of the federal government over the states.

The Jeffersonian Republicans and Federalists also argued about the nature of popular or free government. Marshall feared a tyranny of the majority and urged the rule of a higher constitutional law to limit the democratic power of the people’s representatives in Congress and the state legislatures. By contrast, Jefferson had a more optimistic view of majority rule and dismissed as elitist nonsense the Federalists’ fears of democratic despotism against unpopular individuals or minorities.

During the 1790s John Marshall became more and more involved in national politics. His pro-Federalist views were sharpened and deepened during this period when he spent much of his time at home. President John Adams in 1797 named him a special envoy to France, with Elbridge Gerry and Charles Cotesworth Pinckney, to negotiate a serious international dispute between the U.S. and France known as the "XYZ Affair." In 1799 he won election from his congressional district in Virginia to the U.S. House of Representatives. In 1800 President Adams appointed Marshall secretary of state. In 1801 President Adams appointed Marshall to be chief justice of the Supreme Court, and the Senate confirmed this nomination unanimously. Marshall wrote to the president, "I hope never to give you occasion to regret having made this appointment." In the years ahead, only Jefferson and his followers had any regrets, as they fumed about the chief justice’s nationalistic opinions in landmark Supreme Court cases.

Marshall served as chief justice from 1801 until his death in 1835. His duties for the Court, however, left ample opportunity for Marshall to be at home. He usually spent less than six months each year in Washington, D.C., or traveling around the country "on circuit" to hear cases. For more than half his time he was in Richmond, where he paid close attention to both his family and his legal work. A notable example of the connections at home between his public and private interests occurred in 1819, when Marshall returned to Richmond in mid-March after presenting the Supreme Court’s opinion only a few days earlier in McCulloch v. Maryland.

Almost immediately after Marshall’s return home, he heard attacks on the Court’s decision from the Jeffersonian Republicans of Richmond. These advocates of states’ rights and powers felt thwarted by the nationalistic decision in the McCulloch case. The U.S. Supreme Court overturned as unconstitutional a law of the state of Maryland, which had been enacted to tax the National Bank of the United States. This decision to uphold the doctrine of implied powers expanded the scope of federal power.

A series of newspaper articles in the Richmond Enquirer strongly denounced Marshall, the Court, and the decision. A leader of the attacks on Marshall was Spencer Roane. Marshall suspected that Roane was the author of several critical articles in the Richmond Enquirer with the byline "Hampden." Marshall decided that he could not ignore the attacks against the Supreme Court and his constitutional principles. So he responded in writing to "Hampden" (Roane). Marshall’s articles in defense of his Supreme Court opinion in McCulloch v. Maryland were written at home and published in the Alexandria Gazette from June 30-July 15, 1819. These articles were signed "A Friend of the Constitution" to preserve the anonymity of the author. An excerpt from Marshall’s July 15 article shows his strong convictions about the value of the federal judicial department and its duty to uphold the Constitution and the rule of law.

The government of the Union was created by, and for, the people of the United States. It has a department in which is vested its whole legislative power, and a department in which is vested its whole judicial power. These departments are filled by citizens of the several states.

The propriety and power of making any law which is proposed must be discussed in the legislature before it is enacted. If any person to whom the law may apply, contests its validity, the case is brought before the court. The power of Congress to pass the law is drawn into question....

To whom more safely than to the judges are judicial questions to be referred? They are selected from the great body of the people for the purpose of deciding them. To secure impartiality, they are made perfectly independent. They have no personal interest in aggrandizing the legislative power. Their paramount interest is the public prosperity, in which is involved their own and that of their family.--No tribunal can be less liable to be swayed by unworthy motives from a conscientious performance of duty. It is not then the party sitting in his own cause. It is the application to individuals by one department of the acts of another department of the government. The people are the authors of all; the departments are their agents; and if the judge be personally disinterested, he is as exempt from any political interest that might influence his opinion, as imperfect human institutions can make him.

Marshall’s spirited defense of his Supreme Court decision in the McCulloch case demonstrates one way in which he brought his public life into his private home. Whether in Washington, D.C., or in Richmond, John Marshall could not disengage from the public duties and commitments to his vision of the U.S. Constitution.

Questions for Reading 1

1. What were the "lawyers’ dinners" that Marshall conducted at his home? What was the political significance of these dinners?

2. Why did Marshall in 1819 write essays, signed with a pseudonym, for publication in newspapers of Virginia and elsewhere?

3. What civic virtues and commitments to constitutional principles did Marshall exhibit in his authorship of his newspaper articles?

4. Read John Marshall's article again. Who appoints Supreme Court judges? Do you feel that Supreme Court judges are impartial parties able to make unbiased decisions for the "people"? Why or why not?

Reading 1 was compiled from Leonard Baker, John Marshall: A Life in Law (New York: Macmillan, 1974), 180-189; "Mister Chief Justice," a video program produced by the John Marshall Foundation of Richmond, Virginia, 1992; brochures of the John Marshall Foundation, Richmond, Virginia; and Gerald Gunther, ed., John Marshall’s Defense of McCulloch v. Maryland (Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1969), 211-212.


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