Chapter XII: The “Life of Washington” (1800-1806)

General Washington died on the 14th of December, 1799. By his will, he bequeathed his large collection of valuable papers, private and public, to his nephew, Judge Bushrod Washington. The latter, by much solicitation, induced Judge Marshall to write from these manuscripts the life of Washington. This work, extending, as it did, over more than the previous half century, the most stirring and eventful period of modern history, and filled with events of the most imposing character, necessarily comprised the history of the United States, as well as all the military and civil events leading to the national existence. So much material could not be compressed into moderate limits within a short period. The contract with the publishers to prepare and print the work was dated September 22, 1802, yet four of the five octave volumes of the work were prepared in manuscript for the press by the autumn of 1804. The first volume was placed in the printer’s hands in the winter of 1804, and was actually published in that year. Yet even this dispatch did not satisfy people at the time. Indeed, such was the public eagerness for the book that it was actually looked for before one page was printed.

Several causes conspired to induce this anticipation. Mr. Jefferson, with characteristic jealousy, and in his eager anxiety to forestall any impressions which the publication might create adverse to his elevation to the presidency at the next election, an idea that never entered the mind of Judge Marshall, sounded the alarm to his political followers by condemning the work in advance; and in his busy correspondence he even covertly imputed these partisan motives for its early publication. Among his published letters of that date, two years before Marshall s first volume appeared, there is one to his friend Joel Barlow, the author of the “Columbiad,” who was then residing at Paris; to him Jefferson writes:

“Mr. Madison and myself have cut out a piece of work for you, which is to write the history of the United States from the close of the war downwards. We are rich ourselves in materials, and can open all the public archives to you; but your residence here is essential, because a great deal of the knowledge of things is not on paper, but only within ourselves for verbal communication. John Marshall is writing the life of General Washington from his papers. It is intended to come out just in time to influence the next presidential election. It is written, therefore, principally with a view to electioneering purposes. It will consequently be out in time to aid you with information, as well as to point out the perversions of truth necessary to be rectified. Think of this and agree to it.” [1]

These assertions and these possibly genuine apprehensions of Jefferson were without the least foundation. Judge Washington wrote to Wayne, the publisher, in reference to this suspicion, as follows:

“The Democrats may say what they please, and I have expected they would say a great deal, but this is, at least, not intended to be a party work, nor will any candid man have cause to make this charge.”

The tocsin of alarm, however, thus sounded by Mr. Jefferson, produced an unfavorable influence in the canvass for subscriptions, and combined with the high cost of the volumes to repress the circulation. Judge Washington had anticipated thirty thousand subscribers by the time the first volume went to press. The number actually obtained did not exceed eight thousand.

It must be confessed that, whether because he was too much hurried by outside pressure or for some other reason, Marshall did not give himself time to do his work as he might and ought to have done it. The book suffered from haste. The early volumes had an appearance of incompleteness which impaired their value to a degree which, when too late, became mortifying to the author. He, however, frankly acknowledged the justice of this complaint. In the preface to his revised and smaller edition in two volumes, he says:

“The work was originally composed under circumstances which might afford some apology for its being finished with less care than its importance demanded. The immense mass of papers which it was necessary to read many of them interesting when written, but no longer so occupied a great part of that time which the impatience of the public could allow for the appearance of the book itself. It was therefore hurried to the press without that previous careful examination which would have resulted in the correction of some faults that have been since perceived. In the hope of presenting the work to the public in a form more worthy of its acceptance and more satisfactory to himself, the author has given it a careful revision.”

Such was the innate modesty of Marshall that he did not intend that his name as author should appear, preferring the mere announcement, “Compiled under the inspection of the Honorable Bushrod Washington from original papers bequeathed to him by his deceased relative.” In a letter to Wayne, the publisher, he says:

“My repugnance to permitting my name to appear in the title still continues, but it shall yield to your right to make the best use you can of the copy. I do not myself imagine that the name of the author being given or withheld can produce any difference in the number of subscribers; but if you think differently, I should be very unwilling, by a pertinacious adherence to what may be deemed a mere prejudice, to leave you in the opinion that a real injury has been sustained. I have written to Mr. Washington on this subject, and shall submit my scruples to you and him, only requesting my name may not be given. But, on mature consideration and conviction of its propriety, if this shall be ultimately resolved on, I wish not my title in the judiciary of the United States to be annexed to it.”

The question thus submitted to Judge Washington was promptly decided. “The chief justice,” he says, in a letter to Wayne,“ with great reluctance consents that his name as author may be inserted in the title-page, provided I insist upon it. It gives me pain to decide against his wishes, but I really think it necessary for many reasons. It will, I presume, be sufficient to say, By John Marshall.”

The first volume of the work met with the usual varied fortune of commendation and criticism from the public and the press.

In a letter to Wayne, Marshall says:

“I thank you for the two papers you sent me. The very handsome critique in The Political and Commercial Register was new to me. I could only regret that there was in it more of panegyric than was merited. The editor of that paper, if the author of the critique, manifests himself to be master of a style of very superior order, and to be, of course, a very correct judge of the compositions of others. … I cannot be insensible of the opinions entertained of it, but I am much more solicitous to hear the strictures upon it than to know what parts may be thought exempt from censure. As I am about giving a reading to the first volume, and as not much time can be employed upon it, the strictures of those who were either friendly or hostile to the work may be useful, if communicated to me, because they may direct my attention to defects which might otherwise escape a single reading, however careful that reading may be.”

The American press in general spoke favorably of the work as to its accuracy and completeness. Judge Story said: “It could scarcely be doubted that his Life of Washington would be invaluable for the truth of its facts and the accuracy and completeness of its narrative, and such has been and will continue to be its reputation.” [2] Jared Sparks said: “After the able, accurate, and comprehensive work by Chief Justice Marshall it would be presumptuous to at tempt a historical biography of Washington.” [3] Washington Irving said of it: “Marshall and Sparks are very accurate. Whoever will read the Life by Marshall and the Correspondence by Sparks will have a good idea of Washington.”

As to the reception of the work in Great Britain, it was hardly to be expected, so soon after the Revolutionary war, that English criticism of such a book should be entirely free from prejudice. The smart of defeat in the successful revolt of the colonies against the mother country was still recent, and rankled in many a British breast. This naturally inspired the harsh spirit in which the book was reviewed in that country. In presenting some extracts from these reviews we forgive, therefore, the bad taste of ungenerous and spiteful criticism, in consideration of the honest admission of the fullness and truth of the biography as a faithful historical narrative.

We quote from the “Edinburgh Review ” of October, 1808, as follows:

“If we are to regard the history of a good man’s life as a monument which literature erects to his memory, and consider the magnitude of the intellectual structure as sufficient to insure its celebrity and duration, the chief justice of America must certainly be allowed to have graced the fields of literature with one of the most promising trophies ever employed to commemorate the illustrious dead. But mere bulk, we suspect, gives no durable quality to works made of words, and it is not by the space they cover that they are likely to attract the notice of mankind. Mr. Marshall must not, therefore, promise himself a reputation commensurate with the dimensions of his work, for we are greatly afraid that it may come to be superseded, and the name of Washington carried down to posterity by some less ostentatious, but more tasteful and pleasing memorial.”

In an article in “Blackwood’s Magazine” entitled “American Writers,” [4] we read:

“Washington’s Life, so called, is a great, heavy book that should have been called by some other name. As a lawyer, as a judge, whose decisions, year after year, in the Supreme Court of the United States would have done credit and honor to Westminster Hall in the proud season of English law, we must, we do, revere Chief Justice Marshall. But we cannot will not forgive such a man for having made such a book about such another man as George Washington. Full of power, full of truth as the work undoubtedly is, one gets tired and sick of the very name of Washington before he gets half through these four [five] prodigious octavos, which are equal to about a dozen of our fashionable quartos, and all this without finding out by them who Washington was or what he has done… . Insupportably tiresome, and with all his honesty, care, and sources of information from the papers of Washington, he is greatly mistaken several times in matters of importance.”

In honesty it must be admitted that the censoriousness of the English critics came nearer to the truth than the friendly and courteous compliments of the popular author’s countrymen. In the first place, the time had not come when the life of Washington could be properly written, so far at least as his administrations as president were concerned. The questions which had then arisen were too near; the partisanship was as fresh and as strong as ever; and even the judicial mind of Marshall could not escape such powerful present influences. Neither was Marshall altogether fitted to write a great book; he was not a literary man nor a scholar; he did not understand the art of composition, and of making a vivid, condensed, attractive narrative. He wrote a useful book, as a man of his ability could not fail to do when dealing with subjects with which he was thoroughly familiar, and in which he was deeply interested; he had further the advantage which arises always from personal acquaintance with the subject of the memoir and from entire sympathy with him. For the student of American history the book must thus have a value; but general readers have long since forgotten it, and leave it neglected on the shelves of the old libraries. It has long been out of print, and copies of it are not in demand even by reason of rarity. Jefferson was so far right in his prognostications concerning it that it is now universally regarded as a decidedly Federalist biography.

  1. Jefferson’s Works, vol. iv. p. 437. Return to text.
  2. National Portrait Gallery, vol. i. Return to text.
  3. Allibone’s Dictionary of Authors. Return to text.
  4. Nos. 4 and 5, vol. Xvii pp. 57, 187. Return to text.