Chapter XIV: Opinions, Personal Traits (1832-1835)

Judge Marshall's opinions on the question of slavery were formed with deliberation and were well known. Though a slaveholder himself by inheritance, he felt the institution to be a plague-spot on the body politic, which he earnestly desired to see eradicated. He understood, however, the bearings of the subject too well to entertain any sympathy with the schemes of instantaneous abolition, which fanatical intermeddlers urged so persistently, without pausing to reflect on the dreadful consequences which would ensue from the two races occupying the same territory in natural and inevitable antagonism, under that plan of emancipation. He believed that, as a peaceful remedy, it would in the condition of the country at that time have proved a failure, and have issued in the bitter hostility of the races, and the almost certain destruction, ultimately, of the colored population. The experience of Great Britain in such a scheme of emancipation in her West India colonies, with the example of the San Domingo massacres as a warning, held out no hope of good results in our slave States. This strengthened his conviction that unless a scheme of voluntary deportation, as proposed by the Colonization Society, should prove successful, the evil was incurable except by some such destructive convulsion as civil war. He was therefore the strong and ardent advocate of the objects of that society, and favored the plan of state aid and cooperation, and of dedicating the entire proceeds of the sale of the public lands of the United States to the purchase and transportation of the slave population to Africa. On this subject he urged his views with great force.

“It is undoubtedly of great importance,” he said, “to retain the countenance and protection of the general government. Some of our cruisers stationed on the coast of Africa would at the same time interrupt the slave trade, a horrid traffic detested by all good men, and would protect the vessels and commerce of the colony from pirates who infest those seas. The power of the government to afford this aid is not, I believe, contested. I regret that its power to grant pecuniary aid is not equally free from question. On this subject I have always thought and still think that the proposition made by Mr. King in the Senate is the most unexceptionable and the most effective that can be devised… . The lands are the property of the United States, and have hitherto been disposed of by the government under the idea of absolute ownership.” [1]

Judge Marshall took no active part in the political controversies of the day, nor of course could he properly do so, though he was not without a warm interest respecting them. He lamented, even with gloom and despondency, the ascendancy of principles in Virginia which he believed, if carried into practice, would lead to civil war, and too probably involve the overthrow of the government. In a letter to Judge Story, written two years before his death, in which he acknowledged the receipt of Story’s “Commentaries on the Constitution,” [2] which had been dedicated to him, he says:

“I have just finished reading your great work, and wish it could be read by every statesman and every would-be statesman in the United States. It is a comprehensive and an accurate commentary on our Constitution, formed in the spirit of the original text. In the South we are so far gone in political metaphysics that I fear no demonstration can restore us to common sense. The words State Rights, as expounded by the Resolutions of 1798, and the Report of 1799, construed by our legislature, have a charm against which all reasoning is vain. Those resolutions and that report constitute the creed of every politician who hopes to rise in Virginia; and to question them,

or even to adopt the construction given by their author, [3] is deemed political sacrilege. The solemn and interesting admonitions of your concluding remarks will not, I fear, avail as they ought to avail against this popular frenzy.

“I am grateful for the very flattering terms in which you speak of your friend in many parts of this valuable work as well as in the dedication. In despite of my vanity I cannot suppress the fear that you will be supposed by others, as well as myself, to have consulted a partial friendship farther than your deliberate judgment will approve. Others may not contemplate this partiality with as much gratification as its object.” [4]

While the chief justice was opposed to the general principles of President Jackson’s administration in 1832–33, he most heartily approved the President’s bold and vigorous treatment of the nullification heresy, which threatened civil war and imperiled the safety of the Union. He cordially approved the proclamation of the President and the Force Bill enacted by Congress, both leveled at the dangerous dogma which was enacted into law by the State of South Carolina. With Judge Marshall, both nullification and secession were utterly subversive of all stable government, and at open war with its organic principles and objects. Judge Story, speaking of a dinner at the President’s at the time of the debate on the Force Bill, says:

“I forgot to say that, notwithstanding I am the most dangerous man in America, [5] the President specially invited me to drink a glass of wine with him. But what is more remarkable, since his last proclamation and message the chief justice and myself have become his warmest supporters, and shall continue so just as long as he maintains the principles contained in them. Who would have dreamed of such an occurrence?” [6]

Marshall’s health was naturally good, and being of simple, regular, and temperate habits, he suffered little from sickness of any kind. We are indebted to his grandson, John Marshall, Esq., of Markham, for the following interesting letter from the chief justice, found among the letters of his son, the late Edward C. Marshall, hitherto unpublished:

WASHINGTON, Feb. 15, 1832.

MY DEAR SON, Your letter of the 10th gave me great pleasure, because it assured me of the health of your family and the health of the other families in which I take so deep an interest. My own has improved. I strengthen considerably, and am able, without fatigue, to walk to court, a distance of two miles, and return to dinner. At first this exercise was attended with some difficulty, but I feel no inconvenience from it now. The sympathetic feeling to which you allude has sustained no diminution; I fear it never will. I perceive no symptoms, and I trust I never shall, of returning disease.

The question on Mr. Van Buren’s nomination [7] was not exempt from difficulty. Those who opposed him, I believe, thought conscientiously that his appointment ought not to be confirmed. They feel a great hostility to that gentleman from other causes than his letter to Mr. McLane. They believe him to have been at the bottom of a system which they condemn. Whether this conviction be well or ill founded, it is their conviction, at least I believe it is. In such a case it is extremely difficult, almost impossible, for any man to separate himself from his party.

This session of Congress is indeed peculiarly interesting. The discussions on the tariff and on the Bank, especially, will, I believe, call forth an unusual display of talents. I have no hope that any accommodation can take place on the first question. The bitterness of party spirit on that subject threatens to continue unabated. There seems to be no prospect of allaying it.

The two great objects in Virginia are internal improvement and our colored population. On the first, I despair. On the second, we might do much if our unfortunate political prejudices did not restrain us from asking the aid of the Federal Government. As far as I can judge, that aid, if asked, would be freely and liberally given. The association you speak of, if it could be made extensive, might be of great utility. I would suggest the addition of a resolution not to bring any slave within the country. My love to .

I am, my dear son,

Your affectionate father,



It was only in the year 1831, when he was seventy-six years of age, that Judge Marshall was attacked with any serious disease. Then he became the victim of that cruel malady, the stone. His recovery from a severe surgical operation was attributed by one of his physicians “to his extraordinary self-possession, and to the calm and philosophical views which he took of his case.”

Although he was restored to health and shared the great joy of his friends and family on that account, the unseen shadow of a great calamity was impending over him, which too soon caused him to realize in sadness the impressive words of the poet:

“The spider’s most attenuated thread

Is cord, is cable, to man’s tender tie

On earthly bliss; it breaks at every breeze.”

This heavy misfortune was the death of his wife, to whom he was so ardently attached, and which followed closely upon his own restoration to health, taking place December 25, 1831. He was devoted to her, and felt her loss with the keenest anguish. She had suffered much and long from continued ill-health, and, as Bishop Meade remarks, the tender and assiduous attention he paid to her was the most interesting and striking feature in his domestic character. “She was nervous in the extreme. The least noise was sometimes agony to her whole frame, and his perpetual endeavor was to keep the house and yard and outhouses from the slightest cause of distressing her; walking, himself, at times, about the house and yard without shoes. On one occasion, when she was in her most distressing state, the town authorities of Richmond manifested their great respect for him and sympathy for her by having either the town clock or town bell muffled.” [8]

Judge Story, who saw much of him at this time, afterward said: “She must have been a very extraordinary woman, so to have attached him; and I think he is the most extraordinary man I ever saw, for the depth and tenderness of his feelings.”

At the beginning of the next term of the Supreme Court, January, 1833, the chief justice was present, and although now in his seventy-eighth year his health seemed excellent. “The court opened on Monday last,” says Judge Story, “and all the judges were present, except Judge Baldwin. All were in good health, and the chief justice seemed to revive and enjoy anew his green old age. He brought with him and presented to each of us a copy of the new edition of the Life of Washington, inscribing on the fly-page of mine a very kind remark… . Having some leisure on our hands, the chief justice and myself have devoted some of it to attendance upon the theatre to hear Miss Fanny Kemble, who has been in the city the past week. We attended on Monday night, and on the chief justice’s entrance into the box he was cheered in a marked manner. He behaved as he always does, with extreme modesty, and seemed not to know that the compliment was designed for him. We have seen Miss Kemble as Julia in The Hunchback, and as Mrs. Haller in The Stranger. … I have never seen any female acting at all comparable to hers. She is so graceful that you forget that she is not very handsome. In Mrs. Haller she threw the whole audience into tears. The chief justice shed them in common with younger eyes.”[Story’s Life and Letters, vol. ii. p. 116.]

As to Judge Marshall’s religious opinions and character, no man can speak with more accuracy and authority than the venerable Bishop Meade, who, as an Episcopal clergyman first, and afterward bishop of the Episcopal Church of Virginia, knew him more intimately in these ecclesiastical relations than any of his contemporaries. It is sufficiently obvious, from what has already been told of the simplicity of Marshall’s character and the benevolence of his life, that there were no materials in his mind or character out of which an atheist or an infidel could have been made. The bishop writes: “I can never forget how he would prostrate his tall form before the rude low benches without backs at Cool Spring meeting-house, in the midst of his children and grandchildren and his neighbors. In Richmond he always set an example to the gentlemen of the same conformity, though many of them did not follow it. He not only conformed to the ceremonies of religion, but his whole life evinced virtuous principles and affections. He was a sincere friend to religion, and a constant attendant upon its ministrations. Brought up in the Episcopal Church, he adhered to it through life; though not until a short time before his death a believer in its fundamental doctrines.”

His daughter, during her last illness, said:

“The reason why he never communed was, that he was a Unitarian in opinion, though he never joined their society. He told her he believed in the truth of the Christian Revelation, but not in the divinity of Christ; therefore he could not commune in the Episcopal Church. But during the last months of his life he read Keith on Prophecy, where our Saviour’s divinity is incidentally treated, and was convinced by this work, and the fuller investigation to which it led, of the supreme divinity of the Saviour. He determined to apply for admission to the communion of our Church, objected to communion in private, because he thought it his duty to make a public confession of the Saviour; and while waiting for improved health to enable him to go to the church for that purpose, he grew worse and died, without ever communing.”

In this connection, and in illustration of the depth and fervor of his religious convictions, the following authentic anecdote is of interest. He was once traveling in the northern part of Virginia, and about nightfall arrived at the village of Winchester in Frederick County. He drove to what was then known as McGuire’s Hotel. What occurred there has been thus related:

“A gentleman was traveling in one of the counties in Virginia, and about the close of the day stopped at a public house to obtain refreshment and spend the night. He had been there but a short time before an old man alighted from his gig, with the apparent intention of becoming his fellow guest at the same house. As the old man drove up, the traveler observed that both the shafts of his gig were broken, and that they were held together by withes formed from the bark of a hickory sapling. He observed also that he was plainly clad, that his knee-buckles were loosened, and that something like negligence pervaded his dress. Conceiving him to be one of the honest yeomanry of our land, the courtesies of strangers passed between them, and they entered the tavern. About the same time an addition of three or four young gentlemen was made to their number, most, if not all of them, of the legal profession. As soon as they became conveniently accommodated, the conversation was turned by one of the latter upon an eloquent harangue which had that day been displayed at the bar. It was replied by another that he had witnessed on the same day a degree of eloquence no doubt equal, but it was from the pulpit; and a warm and able altercation ensued, in which the merits of the Christian religion became the subject of discussion. From six o’clock until eleven the young champions wielded the sword of argument, adducing with ingenuity and ability everything that could be said pro and con. During this protracted period the old gentleman listened with all the meekness and modesty of a child, as if he was adding new information to the stores of his own mind… .”

“At last one of the young men, remarking that it was impossible to combat with long established prejudices, wheeled about, and, with some familiarity, exclaimed: “Well, my old gentleman, what think you of these things? If, said the traveler, a streak of vivid lightning had at that moment crossed the room, their amazement could not have been greater than it was with what followed. The most eloquent and unanswerable appeal was made for nearly an hour by the old gentleman that he ever heard or read. So perfect was his recollection, that every argument urged against the Christian religion was met in the order in which it was advanced. Hume’s sophistry on the subject of miracles was, if possible, more perfectly answered than it had already been by Campbell. And in the whole lecture there was so much simplicity and energy, pathos and sublimity, that not another word was uttered. An attempt to describe it, said the traveler, would be an attempt to paint the sunbeams. It was now a matter of curiosity and inquiry who the old gentleman was. The traveler concluded it was the preacher from whom the pulpit eloquence was heard; but no, it was the Chief Justice of the United States.” [9]

The residence of the chief justice in Richmond, built by himself, and situated on Shockhoe Hill, yet stands between Marshall and Clay streets, the former street being named after him, and is owned and occupied by his descendants. Without any architectural pretensions, it is a large and commodious brick mansion, originally situated upon an ample lot of about two acres. His judicial labors were so arranged that he spent much of the year at home. The session of the Supreme Court at Washington and of the circuit courts of Virginia and North Carolina comprised the annual round of his official duties.

“Having thus some leisure, and being fond of agriculture, he purchased a farm three or four miles from Richmond, in Henrico County, which he visited frequently, often on foot. He retained also the Oak Hill estate in Fauquier County, to which he made an annual visit. His family and social attachments were warm and constant, and these visits to Fauquier were always highly enjoyed both by himself and his numerous relatives and friends.”

He was so full of genuine benevolence and good-will that his hand, heart, and purse were ever ready for a kindness, and he was an active member of numerous societies whose mission it was to do good. He belonged for nearly half a century to the Amicable Society at Richmond, which was formed to relieve strangers and wayfarers in distress, for whom the law made no provision. He was a member of the Masonic Order. He belonged to the Colonization Society, and took an active interest in its objects. He was a prominent officer of the Virginia Bible Society, and was a friend to the Sunday-schools. Once he walked at the head of the procession of these schools through the streets of Richmond, in token of his earnest sympathy in their cause. He was a pew-owner in the Monumental Episcopal Church, and a regular attendant on its services.

The chief justice was a great admirer of the ladies, whose society he greatly enjoyed. He always warmly defended their equality in native intellect with the sterner sex. He was remarkable also for his fondness for children and young men. He took an active interest in their sports and exercises, and was always a favorite with them.

“He was a most conscientious man,” says Bishop Meade, “in regard to some things which others might regard as too trivial to be observed. It was my privilege more than once to travel with him between Fauquier and Fredericksburg, when we were both going to the lower country. On one occasion, the roads being in their worst condition, when we came to that most miry part called the Black Jack, he found that the travelers through it had taken a nearer and better road through a plantation, the fence being down or very low. I was proceeding to pass over; but he said we had better go round, although each step was a plunge; adding that it was his duty, as one in office, to be very particular in regard to such things. As to some other matters, however, he was not so particular. Although myself never much given to dress or equipage, I was not at all ashamed to compare with him during these travels, whether as to clothing, horse, saddle, or bridle. Servant he had none. Federalist as he was in politics, in his manners and habits he was truly Republican. Would that all republicans were like him in this respect… . On one of my visits to Richmond, being in a street near his house, between daybreak and sunrise, I met him on horse back, with a bag of clover seed lying before him, which he was carrying to his farm, it being the time of sowing such seed.” [10]

Although his great modesty and the natural reserve of his manners in society might be supposed to render him somewhat morose, Judge Marshall was of an extremely cheerful, even hilarious, disposition, and greatly enjoyed the society of persons congenial to him. He was a member of the Barbecue or Quoit Club at Richmond for more than forty years, and always participated in the exercise and recreation that took place at their meetings with the zest of true enjoyment. This famous club was formed in 1788, and consisted of thirty members. They met once a fortnight from May until October, near Buchanan’s Spring, about a mile from the city. A visitor, who was present at a meeting of the club in the lifetime of the chief justice, has given the following account of it:

“The club consists of judges, lawyers, doctors, and merchants, and the governor of the Commonwealth has a general invitation, when he enters into office.”

“On the day I was present, dinner was ready at half past three o clock, and consisted of excellent meats and fish, well prepared and well served, with the vegetables of the season. Your veritable gourmand never fails to regale himself on his favorite barbecue, which is a fine fat pig called a shoat, cooked on or over the coals and highly seasoned with cayenne. A dessert of melons and fruits follows, and punch, porter, and toddy are the table liquors; but with the fruits comes on the favorite beverage of the Virginians, mint-julep, in place of wine. I never witnessed more festivity and good humor than prevailed at this club. By the constitution, the subject of politics is forbidden. … It was refreshing to see such a man as Chief Justice Marshall laying aside the reserve of his dignified station and contending with the young men at a game of quoits, with all the emulation of youth.”

Many anecdotes are told of occurrences at these meetings. Such is the partiality for the chief justice, that it is said the greatest anxiety is felt for his success in the game by bystanders; and on one occasion an old Scotch gentleman was called on to decide between his quoit and that of another member, who, after seemingly careful measurement, announced “Mister Mareshall has it a leattle,” when it was visible to all that the contrary was the case. A French gentleman (Baron Quenet) was at one time a guest when the governor, the chief justice, and several of the judges of the High Court of Appeals were engaged with others, with coats off, in a well-contested game. He asked if it was possible that the dignitaries of the land could thus intermix with private citizens; and when assured of the fact he observed, with true Gallican enthusiasm, that he had never before seen the real beauty of republicanism… .

“Judge Marshall was very punctual in his attendance at the club, and no one contributed more to the pleasantness of their meetings. Even as years advanced he was among the most skillful in throwing the discus, as he was in discussion; … and it delighted his competitors as much as himself to see him ring the meg. He would hurl his iron ring of two pounds weight with rarely erring aim fifty-five or sixty feet; and at some chef d’oeuvre of skill, in himself or his partner, would spring up and clap his hands with all the light-hearted enthusiasm of boyhood. In his yearly visits to Fauquier, where the proper implements of his sport were not to be had, he still practiced it among his rustic friends with flat stones for quoits.”

“A casual guest at a barbecue one of those rural entertainments so frequent among the people of Virginia saw, soon after his arrival at the spot, an old man emerge from a thicket which bordered the neighboring brook, carrying as large a pile of these flat stones as he could hold between his right arm and his chin. He stepped briskly up to the company and threw down his load among them, saying, “There! here are quoits enough for us all.” The stranger’s surprise may he imagined when he found that this plain and cheerful old man was the Chief Justice of the United States.”

Judge Marshall was an early riser, and was often seen returning from market at sunrise with poultry in one hand and a basket of vegetables in the other. It is related that while in the market, on one occasion, a young man, who had recently removed to Richmond, was fretting and swearing violently because he could find no one to take home his turkey. Marshall stepped up and offered to take the turkey home for him. Arriving at the house, the young man inquired, “What shall I pay you?” “Oh, nothing,” was the reply; “it was on my way, and no trouble.” As Marshall walked away, the other inquired of a bystander, “Who is that polite old man that brought home my turkey for me?” “That,” was the reply, “is Judge Marshall, chief justice of the United States.”

No man was more just or more generous. Of this we cite a single example. In passing through Culpeper, on his way to Fauquier, he fell in company, at a tavern on the roadside, with Mr. S., an old brother officer of the army of the Revolution. In the course of conversation, Marshall learned that there was a mortgage on the estate of his friend to the amount of three thousand dollars, which was about to fall due. The old gentleman was unable to raise the sum, and was greatly distressed at the prospect of impending ruin. Before parting from him, Marshall privately left a check for the amount with the landlord, which was presented to Mr. S. after Marshall’s departure. Impelled by a chivalrous feeling of independence, Mr. S. mounted and spurred his horse until he overtook the judge, and then, with thanks, sought to decline the generosity. But Marshall strenuously persisted; and finally there was a compromise, by which Marshall took security on the loan; but he was never known to call for the money.” [11]

The fame and popularity of the chief justice naturally attracted to him the attention of foreign visitors to this country. Among others, Miss Martineau met him at Washington in the winter preceding his death. She said of him :

“With Judge Story sometimes came the man to whom he looked up with feelings little short of adoration, the aged Chief Justice Marshall. There was almost too much mutual respect in our first meeting; we knew something of his individual merits and services, and he maintained through life and carried to his grave a reverence for woman, as rare in its kind as in its degree. It had all the theoretical fervor and magnificence of Uncle Toby’s, with the advantage of being grounded upon an extensive knowledge of the sex. He was the father and grandfather of woman; and out of this experience he brought not only the love and pity which their offices and position command, and the awe and purity which they excite in the minds of the pure, but a steady conviction of their intellectual equality with men, and with this a deep sense of their social injuries. Throughout life he so invariably sustained their cause that no indulgent libertine dared to flatter and humor, no skeptic, secure in the possession of power dared to scoff at the claims of woman in the presence of Marshall, who, made clear-sighted by his purity, knew the sex far better than either.”

“How delighted we were to see Judge Story bring in the tall, majestic, bright-eyed old man, old by chronology, by the lines on his composed face, and by his services to the republic; but so dignified, so fresh, so present to the time, that no feeling of compassionate consideration for age dared to mix with the contemplation of him.”

“The first evening he asked me much about English politics, and especially whether the people were not fast ripening for the abolition of our religious establishment, an institution which, after a long study of it, he considered so monstrous in principle, and so injurious to true religion in practice, that he could not imagine that it could be upheld for any thing but political purposes. There was no prejudice here on account of American modes being different; for he observed that the clergy were, there as else where, far from being in the van of society, and lamented the existence of much fanaticism in the United States; but he saw the evils of an establishment, the more clearly, not the less, from being aware of the faults in the administration of religion at home. The most animated moment of our conversation was when I told him I was going to visit Mr. Madison on leaving Washington. He instantly sat upright in his chair, and with beaming eyes began to praise Mr. Madison. Madison received the mention of Marshall’s name in just the same manner; yet these men were strongly opposed in politics, and their magnanimous appreciation of each other underwent no slight or brief trial.” [12]

From another English traveler, who met the chief justice in Richmond, we have the following sketch:

“The judge is a tall, venerable man, about eighty years of age, his hair tied in a queue, and with a countenance indicating that simplicity of mind and benignity which so eminently distinguish his character. As a judge he has no rival, his knowledge being profound, his judgment clear and just, and his quickness in apprehending either the fallacy or truth of an argument surprising. I had the pleasure of several long conversations with him, and was struck with admiration at the extraordinary union of modesty and power, gentleness and force, which his mind displays. What he knows he communicates without reserve; he speaks with clearness of expression, and in a tone of simple truth which compels conviction; and on all subjects on which his knowledge is not certain, or which admit of doubt or argument, he delivers his opinion with candid diffidence, and with a deference to that of others amounting almost to timidity; still, it is a timidity that would disarm the most violent opponent, and win respect and credence from any auditor. I remember having often observed a similar characteristic attributed to the immortal Newton. The simplicity of his character is not more singular than that of his life: pride, ostentation, and hypocrisy are Greek to him; and he really lives up to the letter and spirit of republicanism, while he maintains all the dignity due to his age and office. … I verily believe there is not a particle of vanity in his composition, unless it be of that venial and hospitable nature which induces him to pride himself on giving to his friends the best glass of Madeira in Virginia. In short, blending as he does the simplicity of a child and the plainness of a republican with the learning and ability of a lawyer, the venerable dignity of his appearance would not suffer in comparison with that of the most respected and distinguished looking peer in the British House of Lords.” [13]

  1. Fifteenth Annual Report of the Colonization Society, p. 32.  Return to text.
  2. Letter from Marshall, December 14, 1833.  Return to text.
  3. Mr. Madison.  Return to text.
  4. Story’s Life and Letters, vii. p. 135; July 31, 1833.  Return to text.
  5. So called by General Jackson  Return to text.
  6. Story’s Life and Letters, vol. ii. p. 117.  Return to text.
  7. As minister to England.  Return to text.
  8. Old Churches and Families of Virginia, vol. ii. p. 222.  Return to text.
  9. This account was originally published in the Winchester Republican, but is preserved in durable form in Howe’s Virginia Historical Collections, p. 275.  Return to text.
  10. Old Churches and Families of Virginia, ___.  Return to text.
  11. Howe’s Virginia Historical Collections, p. 266.  Return to text.
  12. Martineau ___.  Return to text.
  13. Travels in North America, by the Hon. Charles Augustus Murray, vol. i. p. 158. Return to text.