John Marshall was born on September 24, 1755 in prince William County, Virginia. His father moved the family from there before john was ten to a valley in the Blue Ridge Mountains, about 30 miles away. Unlike most frontier dwellings, the home Thomas Marshall built was of frame construction rather than log and was one and a half story. Both parents, while not formally educated, were considered adequately educated for the ties and could read and write. They held a significant social, religious, and political status in the newly formed Fauquir County area.
Books were difficult to obtain on the frontier and quite expensive. But it is known that the Marshall home had a bible, almost for certain Shakespeare and Dryden, and definitely Pope who John Marshall said he had copied every word of the “Essay on Man” and other Moral essays and had memorized many of the more interesting passages by the time he was twelve. It is likely that Thomas Marshall was allowed access to Lord Fairfax’s library just as his good friend, George Washington, was. And, of course, Washington had a library. Books, while relatively scarce, were available to John.
His very evident love of poetry and literature was seen in his later life. In 1767, a young Scotch minister came to live with the Marshall’s for a year while he was being “tried out” by the congregation. This provided John with his first bit of formal education. In 1772 he received his second time of formal education at the academy of Reverend Archibald Campbell but perhaps more importantly, Blackstone’s “Commentaries” was published in America and Thomas Marshall bought a copy, not only for his own use, but also specifically for John to read and study.
The Marshall’s had long decided that John was to be a lawyer. The last time of formal education came in 1780 during a six-week stay at William and Mary College where he attended the law lectures of George Wythe. James Madison was president of the college at the time and it has been reported that Marshall took a course in philosophy from him. However, while there are carefully made notes of Wythe’s lectures there are not any for other courses. Considering Marshall’s course and not recorded it.
The college was all but deserted at that time with thirty students and three professors in the army and, in fact, closed for a time the next year. Both father and son distinguished themselves during the Revolutionary War. Thomas Marshall was trained fighter who had earned the rank of captain during the Indian Wars. (It has never been explained why he was not with George Washington during the Braddock’s misadventure. While it seems odd especially considering their friendship, the reason must have been sufficient for Washington because the two remained fast friends.
One possible explanation given is that Mary Marshall was pregnant with John and it would not have been safe to leave her alone in an isolated, frontier cabin. ) Thomas was a major at the outbreak of war in a regiment of minutemen raised by the local countries of Culpeper, Orange, and Fauquier. He was to end the war as a full colonel and the commander of Yorktown. John Marshall joined the Culpeper Minute Men and was chosen Lieutenant.
Both he and his father were at a number of the battles well known even today such as Great Bridge (also called “the little Bunker Hill” because of the tremendous loss of British lives and no loss for the Americans), Brandywine Germantown (the last two serious defeats for the Americans), Monmouth, and ending, for John with a dashing episode as a member of a detail from the Light Infantry of Virginia under the command of Major Henry Lee. Marshall was a captain. The detail kept in close contact with the British forces around New York.
The enemy had erected a fortified position at Point Hook, a point of land on the west side of the Hudson, opposite New York and had garrisoned it with several hundred men. Lee and Marshall decided to surprise the garrison and capture it. With Washington’s approval Lee’s men marched all night of August 18, 1779, moving stealthily through the steep hills, passed the main group of the soundly sleeping British army, and at three in the morning entered the British position and captured all with the loss of two Americans killed and three wounded.
The prisoners were taken back to American lines. The event caused a resurgence of spirit in the patriot forces and much humiliation for the British. Marshall did have one other brief episode of combat during Benedict Arnold’s invasion of Virginia during late December 1780, and January 1781. This event was one that probably colored much of his later relationship with Jefferson. Jefferson was governor of Virginia and his conduct during the invasion was questioned event o the point of an inquiry of impeachment formally moved in the Virginia Legislature.
The news of the invading troops came to him first and it is claimed that he fled shamelessly without warning to others. There is a description given of him galloping away, treasure clutched in his arms and crammed in his clothes, while his slaves labor away digging holes to bury what could not be carried. Marshall knew there stories about Jefferson’s behavior and, like Washington and others, had asked during the war, “Where is Jefferson? ” It was during the time between the adventure at Powles Hook and his last combat during Arnold’s invasion that Marshall met Mary Ambler.
Mary’s father had been one of Yorktown’s wealthiest men but the war had ruined him financially. The family had taken a small tenement apartment next to the headquarters of Colonel Thomas Marshall who extended his protection. Mary’s father was Jacquelyn Ambler who Rebecca Burwell married rather than Thomas Jefferson. Rebecca was the love of Jefferson’s youth. She was the “Campana in die,” “Belinda,” “Adnileb,” and “R. B. ” of Jefferson’s letters. When John came to visit his father his arrival was being anticipated eagerly by the girls of the Ambler family.
They, of course, had heard many stories about this paragon of manhood, hero at Brandywine and Germantown, at Valley Forge and Monmouth. Thomas had often shared John’s letters and had painted a princely picture as a father is allowed to do. What he neglected to mention was that John Marshall was an indifferent dresser, often wearing mismatched clothing and an old slouch hat, and rather rustic in bearing. He was tall, gaunt, and loose-jointed whose clothes seemed to hang as if from a rack. While all the other girls lost interest rather quickly, Mary claimed she fell in love immediately.
They married on January 3, 1783. By then John Marshall were a member of the bar in Virginia and a member of the Legislature. (Their marriage lasted almost 49 years, until her death on December 25, 1831, and is a story of deep love and devotion. Mary became an invalid soon after they were married. ) Marshall’s private law practice flourished. He became a well-known attorney but his dress habits didn’t change. One potential client, seeing him pass by on the street, exclaimed he would never hire a man looking like that even to do physical labor.
The story goes that the fellow then hired the fanciest dressed attorney he could find for the customary one hundred dollars. However, he kept hearing from all to whom he talked that Marshall was the best. Finally, he went to court to hear Marshall and was so deeply impressed that he pleaded with him to take the case. There was a slight problem however. The fellow had paid the fancy lawyer and only had five dollars left. Marshall took the cases. During this period he was politically active in Virginia and served in the House of Delegates.
He became a leader of the Federalist Party in that state and started his long-time politically rivalry with Thomas Jefferson who had fallen out with the Virginia Federalists. It was during his service in the House of Delegates that he participated in the Virginia Convention debates about the adoption of the Constitution. Patrick Henry spoke in opposition. Marshall was chosen to speak in favor of a strong judiciary. His later views about the importance and power of a strong federal judicial system, which came as a surprise to some, were clearly expressed in this speech.
After becoming Chief Justice Marshall was asked by the nephew of George Washington, Bush rod Washington, to write the official biography. This was a task that Marshall was unprepared to do, having no knowledge of the difficulties in researching and writing a biography, but he needed the financial return that was expected. The five volume biography took over four years to write and met with a very mixed and critical reception. It is hard to imagine what course the nation would have followed without the mind of Marshall at the helm.
For it was his mind, his power of reason and understanding of the new form of government which his peers had created, that still stands the test of time by the adherence to precedents he set. His biographer, Jean Edward Smith, fully aware of the founding fathers he alluded to, states that Marshall “possessed the best-organized mind of his generation. ” Thomas Jefferson too, though often at odds with Marshall, conceded that “you must never give him an affirmative answer or you will be forced to grant his conclusion. Why, if he were to ask me if it were daylight or not, I’d reply, ‘sir, I don’t know, I can’t tell. “