Chapter IX: In Mr. Adam’s Cabinet (1800-1801)

On the reorganization of the cabinet of President Adams, Mr. Marshall was nominated by the President to the War Department, which had been lately vacated by the resignation of General James McHenry. Mr. Marshall had not been consulted concerning this nomination, nor indeed had he received any intimation that General McHenry was to retire. He declined the appointment. But almost immediately afterwards, Mr. Pickering having been removed by the President from the State Department, Mr. Marshall, on the renewed invitation of President Adams, accepted that position, and Mr. Dexter was appointed secretary of war. Although this rearrangement was occasioned by very decided differences of opinion and of policy between the President and his secretaries as to certain public questions, especially those affecting our foreign relations, in respect to which Mr. Marshall agreed with Mr. Adams, it worked no diminution of the regard theretofore entertained by the discarded secretaries towards their successors. Mr. Wolcott, who, though sharing in a great degree the sentiments of his retiring colleagues, yet retained his place, at the President’s request, as head of the Treasury Department, wrote thus at the time to Fisher Ames:

“Let me not be suspected of entertaining a harsh opinion that the gentlemen lately appointed to office are not independent men. I highly respect and esteem them both, and consider their acceptance of their offices as the best evidence of their patriotism…. I consider General Marshall and Mr. Dexter as more than secretaries, as state conservators, the value of whose services ought to be estimated not only by the good that they do, but by the mischief they have prevented. If I am not mistaken, however, General Marshall will find himself out of his proper element.” [1]

But in this prophecy Mr. Wolcott was himself mistaken, for Mr. Adams wrote : “My new minister, Marshall, did all to my entire satisfaction.” As indeed his course in the discharge of the important duties of the station met the public satisfaction also.

Our relations with Great Britain at the time, also the adjourned questions with France, wore a threatening aspect, and called for prudent action to avert serious consequences. The new secretary of state addressed himself with characteristic energy, moderation, and firmness to the adjustment of these difficulties, and with good results. His instructions to Rufus King, our minister to the court of St. James, respecting the claims of British creditors and neutral rights, hold deservedly high rank among American state papers.

It was a difficult task in the discussion of these questions, with such jealous rivals as England and France, to preserve amicable relations with both; each party being watchful of any advantage the opposite side might gain in the negotiations. The pretension which those nations then put forth, that one nation may of right interfere in the affairs of another as independent as itself, though a postulate of the European system of that day, was not conceded by the United States, but was, on the contrary, firmly resisted. Thus Jay’s treaty had been ratified in spite of the opposition and threats of France, and our negotiations with France were pushed to a successful issue notwithstanding the clamor of England. It was in this spirit that the American secretary of state wrote in a dispatch to Minister King:

“The United States do not hold themselves in any degree responsible to France or to Great Britain for their negotiations with one or the other of those powers, but they are ready to make amicable and reasonable explanations to either. The aggressions, sometimes of one and sometimes of another belligerent power, have forced us to contemplate and prepare for war as a probable event. We have repelled, and we will continue to repel, injuries not doubtful in their nature, and hostilities not to be misunderstood. But this is a situation of necessity, not of choice; it is one in which we are placed, not by our own acts, but by the acts of others, and which we will change as soon as the conduct of others will permit us to change it.”

When the presidential election in 1800 had resulted in transferring the choice between Jefferson and Burr to the House of Representatives, Mr. Marshall was inclined to the opinion that the federal party should support the pretensions of the latter, though he viewed the alternative with great reluctance and regret. In the midst of these doubts and difficulties he received a letter from Alexander Hamilton, delineating the character of Burr, which seems to have shaken his predilection for that gentleman. It is in this connection a significant circumstance that he was induced to this change of mind by Hamilton s arguments. He wrote to Hamilton as follows:

“Being no longer in the House of Representatives, and, consequently, being compelled by no duty to decide between them, my own mind had scarcely determined to which of these gentlemen the preference was due. To Mr. Jefferson, whose political character is better known than that of Mr. Burr, I have felt almost insuperable objections. His foreign prejudices seem to me totally to unfit him for the chief magistracy of a nation which cannot indulge those prejudices without sustaining deep and permanent injury.”

“In addition to this solid and immovable objection, Mr. Jefferson appears to me to be a man who will embody himself with the House of Representatives, and, by weakening the office of president, he will increase his personal power. He will diminish his responsibility, sap the fundamental principles of the government, and become the leader of that party which is about to constitute the majority of the legislature… . With these impressions concerning Mr. Jefferson, I was, in some degree, disposed to view with less apprehension any other characters, and to consider the alternative now offered us as a circumstance not to be entirely neglected.”

“Your representation of Mr. Burr, with whom I am entirely unacquainted, shows that from him still greater danger than from Mr. Jefferson may be apprehended. Such a man as you describe is more to be feared, and may do more immediate if not greater mischief. Believing that you know him well and are impartial, my preference would certainly not be for him; but I can take no part in this business. I cannot bring myself to aid Mr. Jefferson. Perhaps respect for myself should, in my present situation, deter me from using any influence if indeed I possess any in support of either gentleman. Although no consideration could induce me to be the secretary of state while there was a president whose political system I believed to be at variance with my own, yet this cannot be so well known to others, and it might be suspected that a desire to be well with the successful candidate had in some degree governed my conduct.” [2]

In closing this sketch of Mr. Marshall as secretary of state, it is perhaps not improper to advert briefly to certain alleged transactions in his conduct of that department which, if true, would mark with some reproach the final hours of his administration, but against the truth of which his whole life is a pregnant protest.

It was while secretary of state, as we shall see in the succeeding chapter, that Mr. Marshall, on the 31st of January, 1801, was appointed chief justice of the United States, only a little more than one month before the expiration of the term of office of President Adams. He took the oath of office and his seat on the bench of the Supreme Court at the commencement of the next term, namely, on the 4th of February, 1801, as the records of the court show. It was at the special request of President Adams, by a letter dated on the same day, that Mr. Marshall continued to act as secretary of state until his successor should be appointed; or, to use the language of the President’s letter, “until ulterior arrangements can be made.” Again, on March 4, inauguration day, he was requested by President Jefferson to perform the same duties for the like interval. His successor, Mr. Madison, was appointed on the next day; but Madison being absent, Mr. Levi Lincoln was designated to perform the duties of the office until the arrival of Mr. Madison. These dates are suggestive and important, as they serve to correct and disprove the misstatements referred to, circulated by political opponents for party purposes.

The story is, that late at night on the 3d of March, President Adams was rapidly making Federalist nominations to high official positions, and sending them to the Senate for confirmation, and that Secretary Marshall was zealously engaged in his office in signing them; that midnight overtook him still thus employed, when Levi Lincoln, the incoming attorney-general of the new government, walked into the secretary’s office, with Mr. Jefferson’s watch in his hand, pointed to the hour of twelve, and thus stopped the further progress of the not very reputable business. Many unsigned commissions, it was said, still lay on the table. Such conduct, it was alleged, bad enough in itself, was made worse by the pledge of generous forbearance which Mr. Jefferson had given, to the effect that there should be no interference with persons holding government positions when he should come into office.

In the absence of all proof, and without any authority being vouched to support the charge, we might have passed over the story without even pausing to give it a moment’s consideration, for every intelligent man knows well that such an imputation would be contradicted by the whole tenor of Marshall’s life, and would be justly regarded as the mere offspring of party malice or invention. But when a modern biographer [3] of cleverness and popularity, in relating the history of these times, ventures to impart credibility to the story and to narrate it in full, it deserves some notice and justifies a call for proof.

The foregoing unquestionable and easily provable facts certainly make out an overwhelming probability of the untruth of the charge. It is to the last degree improbable that Judge Marshall, being only the locum tenens of the post of secretary of state to prevent the lapse of the office, a secretary ad interim to prevent a vacancy, and with full employment at the time on the bench of the Supreme Court then in session, having, in his acceptance of the chief justiceship, stepped from the political arena to the strictly neutral ground of necessary exemption from all party ties and affiliations, should so far forget what was due to his own dignity and his official position as to descend from that lofty eyrie to the dust and discredit of a mere squabble for the spoils of office, in which he could have felt no particular interest.

Again, if this tale be true, the facts must have been known to Mr. Jefferson through Levi Lincoln, and would inevitably have incensed him with Marshall; so that it would have been to the last degree improbable, so improbable as to be almost incredible, that he should have sought out Marshall, and at the inauguration on the 4th of March should have taken the oath of office before him, when any other judge or magistrate would have been competent to act; and it is still more improbable and incredible that on that very day he should have invited Marshall to remain in his cabinet until a successor should be appointed! Moreover, Mr. Jefferson, we know, was never reluctant to give vent to his complaints and to record them, as his Anas show, against those whom he supposed to stand in his way; and no charge of this kind against Marshall appears; though Jefferson did not like Marshall, and found him, upon the bench, a serious obstacle in the way of Democratic policy. Nay, he has left behind him a letter, in which he bitterly denounces John Adams s appointment of the “midnight judges” and others to office in the last hours of his administration, without any censure on Secretary Marshall as participating in the transaction, whom he certainly would not have spared, had he had any ground to suspect him of complicity in this darkling scene.

A curious anachronism is involved between this “dramatic tale” as told by Mr. Parton and Mr. Jefferson’s reference to the same occasion, which serves further to disprove the whole story. While the former fixes the midnight hour for the “outrage on decency” complained of, Mr. Jefferson limits the hour to nine o clock at night on the 3d of March, when the transactions were consummated! Writing on the subject afterwards Jefferson says: “Mr. Adams was making appointments, not for himself but for his successor, until nine o’clock of the night at twelve o’clock of which he was to go out of office. This outrage on decency should not have its effect except in the life appointments; … as to the others I consider the nominations as nullities.”

The fact, if it occurred as narrated by Parton, including the appearance even of Mr. Jefferson’s own watch among the theatrical “properties,” could not have been unknown to Jefferson, and was not likely to be set down by him with the palliation of three busy hours.

These facts, which are all patent, and most of which are of official record, afford such disproof of the statement referred to as to be conclusive. It is safe, therefore, to dismiss the story as unworthy of any credence whatever.

It was in this year 1801, and soon after his retirement from the Department of State, that the New Jersey College, better known as Princeton, conferred on General Marshall the degree of LL.D.

  1. Wolcott to Ames, Gibbs’s Administrations of Washington and Adams, vol. ii, p. 402.  Return to text.
  2. Marshall to Hamilton, January, 1801. Hamilton’s Works, vol. ii, p. 445.  Return to text.
  3. James Parton in Life of Jefferson, pp. 585–86. Return to text.