Chief Justice John Marshall

Chief Justice John Marshall

John Marshall became one of the most influential leaders of the era of the American Revolution and the founding of the United States. He was the fourth chief justice of the United States Supreme Court where he made history.


Life In Fauquier County

John Marshall was born in Fauquier County, Virginia, on September 24, 1755. He was the oldest son to Thomas and Mary Marshall. His father, held position of prominence in Fauquier and by 1761 he was elected to the House of Burgesses and represented Fauquier County in that assemblage until 1767, when he was appointed sheriff of the county.

In 1773, his father purchased Oak Hill and began work on the 1500 square foot home. Marshall sited his house on a knoll in an oak grove near the southeast corner of his tract, which he called Oak Hill. It was not a large house but in every respect it was vastly superior to their previous residence.

When his parents died, Oak Hill and the holding of 1000 remaining acres in Fauquier, then passed to John.

Friends and Revolution

As a young boy, John Marshall was strongly influenced and encouraged by his father’s friend, George Washington.

It suffices to say that the Marshalls were good soldiers. His father Colonel Thomas Marshall commanded the Third Virginia Regiment in the Continental Line. As a lieutenant in the same regiment John Marshall served with distinction.

During his time in the army, he enjoyed running races with the other soldiers and was nicknamed Silverheels for the white heels his mother had sewn into his stockings.

His concern for the welfare of his men was especially noteworthy. During the terrible winter at Valley Forge he was one of few officers who refused to return to Virginia where many of his contemporaries were enjoying the comforts of home.

At Valley Forge, his admiration of General Washington grew as did his resolve to help shape what was to become the new nation.


The Law

The early spring of 1780 found John Marshall without a command. The company he had raised had long since evaporated through expiration of enlistments and battlefield casualties. Seeking new opportunities, he joined his father in Yorktown. While in the Tidewater region, he travelled the twelve miles from Yorktown to Williamsburg to attend the law lectures of George Wythe, the celebrated attorney, for about six weeks. This was the only formal education in law that the future Chief Justice ever had.

He returned to Oak Hill in the summer of 1780, believing himself ready to practice law. Accordingly, on the 28th of August, 1780 he presented himself at the county courthouse and produced a license signed by Governor Thomas Jefferson allowing him to practice law. It was at this time that he was admitted to the bar in Fauquier County.


His True Love – Polly

When he was 27, Marshall asked Mary Willis Ambler (then 16 and known as “Polly”) to marry him. Although she wanted to accept, and had thought about marrying John since their first encounter two years prior, for some reason Polly (who had earlier dated Thomas Jefferson) declined. Marshall left her home, upset. Polly, wholly regretting her answer became hysterical.

Polly’s cousin, John Ambler, seeing his distressed relative assured her that all was not lost. Ambler cut off a lock of Polly’s hair and took it to Marshall to prove her love for him. When the future Chief Justice of the United States returned to Polly’s home – to ask the important question a second time – Polly happily accepted. They were married in John Ambler’s home on the 3rd of January 1783. An act of sentimentality, she kept the lock of hair in a locket until her death.


Virginia House of Delegates

John Marshall and his family moved from Fauquier to Richmond where he served in the Virginia House of Delegates for several sessions from 1782-1797. It was not long until John Marshall was known for his fairness; his belief in a strong federal government; and his acute intellect. These characteristics made him a leading member of the legal community in Richmond and prompted Federalist John Adams to call on Marshall to serve his country.


XYZ Affair

In 1797, President John Adams convinced John Marshall to serve as an envoy to France. He became involved in the complicated XYZ Affair, a diplomatic scandal which led to the Quasi-War. Having gained American support through his handling of the affair, Adams offered Marshall a seat on the Supreme Court once he returned to America. He declined the offer, choosing to run for the U. S. House of Representatives, he was elected to this position in 1799. On May 12, 1800, Adams nominated Marshall to the post of Secretary of State. The Senate confirmed him unanimously the next day.


Great Chief Justice

On January 20, 1801, Adams nominated Marshall to be Chief Justice of the United States. The Senate confirmed the nomination unanimously on January 27, swearing John Marshall in on February 4, 1801.

Marshall served as Chief Justice for thirty-four years, making the longest serving justice in history. The influence of his landmark decisions did much to strengthen the judicial branch of government and to define the tripartite arrangement that is so basic to the American system of government.

Marshall served as Chief Justice during all or part of the administrations of six Presidents: John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, James Monroe, John Quincy Adams and Andrew Jackson. He remained a stalwart advocate of Federalism and a nemesis of the Jeffersonian school of government throughout its day. He participated in over 1,000 judicial decisions, writing 519 of the opinions himself.

His decision in Marbury vs. Madison in 1803 declared the power of the Supreme Court to invalidate an act of Congress if that act was in conflict with the Constitution.

Some of his decisions were unpopular; nevertheless, Marshall built up the third branch of the federal government and augmented federal power in the name of the Constitution, and the rule of law.

At the end of the day, Marshall’s legacy cannot be overstated. Although largely forgotten to popular history, he is one of the most influential of the Founders.


His Legacy

On Christmas Day, 1831, John Marshall’s beloved Polly died. In her final act before death she gave the locket with her hair to her husband. John Marshall lived for another three and one-half years. He died on July 6, 1835, in Philadelphia. His last words were a prayer for the Union.

On July 8, while tolling for the funeral procession of the Great Chief Justice, the historic Liberty Bell cracked. Since then, the great bell has been on display but has never rung again. Marshall’s body was brought back to Richmond and laid next to Polly.

His passing was mourned by the entire nation, but today his legacy remains in Virginia and with his home in Fauquier County – Oak Hill Estate.


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