Chapter XV: Death

The death of Chief Justice Marshall, which occurred in Philadelphia on the 6th day of July, 1835, in the eightieth year of his age, created a profound impression throughout the country. His long career of public service, his extensive learning, his clear and massive intellect, his incorruptible integrity, and his profound wisdom, united to the simplicity of his character and the genial kindness of his disposition and manners, had made his name a synonym of true greatness and himself a favorite with all classes of men. Thus his death, though not unexpected, was everywhere deplored as a public calamity, and every possible form of respect and sympathy was everywhere displayed.

At the session of the Supreme Court in the winter of 1835 it was manifest that his health was declining. He suffered much pain through the spring, and, at the earnest solicitation of his family and friends, he revisited Philadelphia to seek the relief which had formerly been afforded him by the medical skill of that city. He was accompanied by three of his sons; and during his illness he received every consolation from filial attention, and from the kindness of his numerous friends in Philadelphia, who showed the deepest interest in his situation, and did all in their power for his relief. The famous Dr. Physic stated that

“The cause of his death was a very diseased condition of the liver, which was enormously enlarged, and contained several tuberculous abscesses of great size. Its pressure upon the stomach had the effect of dislodging this organ from its natural situation, and compressing it in such a manner that for some time previous to his death it would not retain the smallest quantity of nutriment.” [1]

He was fully conscious of his approaching end, which he met with perfect composure. His intellect was unclouded to the last moment. A

few days before his death, and in full view of it, he wrote with characteristic modesty the following inscription for his tomb :

“John Marshall, son of Thomas and Mary Marshall, was born on the 24th of September, 1755; intermarried with Mary Willis Ambler the 3d of January, 1783; departed this life day of 18__.”

On Monday, the 6th of July, 1835, about six o’clock in the evening, he died without a struggle.

The event elicited everywhere manifestations of deep sorrow. The citizens of Philadelphia assembled in public meeting to express their sentiments on the occasion. The venerable Bishop White, then in the eighty-eighth year of his age, presided, and appropriate resolutions were adopted. A committee of the Philadelphia bar accompanied his remains to Richmond, where they were met by an immense procession formed of the military, the judges and officers of the courts, the members of the bar, the Masonic fraternity, the civil authorities, and the citizens en masse. Thus the funeral cortege was escorted to his residence, where the last services were performed by the aged and venerated Bishop Moore of the Episcopal Church, in a fervent and feeling manner. He was buried by the side of his wife in what was then called the New Burying-Ground, now Shockhoe Hill Cemetery. As the sad news of his decease spread through the country, meetings were held and resolutions of sympathy and sorrow were adopted, not only in the large cities and towns, but at the courthouses and villages throughout the land. In Richmond especially, where he was best known and most loved, the sorrow of the citizens was unbounded.

As his death occurred during the summer vacation of the courts, no opportunity occurred to offer in an official form a memorial tribute of respect until the 23d of November, 1835. On that day a meeting of the judges, members of the bar, and officers of the Circuit Court of the United States for the Eastern District of Virginia was held in the court-room in the city of Richmond. The Hon. Philip Pendleton Barbour presided, and a preamble and resolutions were proposed by Benjamin Watkins Leigh, Esq., and unanimously adopted.

The Supreme Court of the United States, at its session of January 12, 1836, observed the like customary and sad formalities. At the meeting Edmund I. Lee, Esq., was chairman, General Walter Jones was secretary, Henry Clay offered the resolutions, and Judge Story spoke concerning his associate, for whom he had felt an exceptional affection and admiration.

At a meeting of the social club at Buchanan’s Spring, when there was a motion to supply the vacancy occasioned by the death of Judge Marshall, Mr. B. Watkins Leigh proposed as appropriate that “there should be no attempt to fill it ever; but that the number of the club should remain one less than it was before his death.”

The death of the chief justice was also appropriately memorialized by numerous addresses and discourses before learned societies and public institutions. Among these, and possessing peculiar merit from their elegance and beauty, were Judge Story’s discourse on his life, character, and services, delivered at the request of the Suffolk bar in Massachusetts; Mr. Horace Binney’s eulogy, delivered at the request of the councils of Philadelphia; and the memoir by Mr. Joseph Hopkinson, pronounced before the American Philosophical Society, at Philadelphia.

Half a century has elapsed since the death of Chief Justice Marshall, but there is no token of any waning of the respect and affection entertained for his memory by the American people. Almost as we write these lines, the most recent manifestation of the grateful remembrance of his countrymen is shown in the unveiling, at the national capital, of Story’s statue of the great chief justice, amid the sincere display of popular enthusiasm.

The Commonwealth of Virginia, desirous of perpetuating in some enduring form the memory of her sons, who, under the providence of God, were instrumental with their compatriots in achieving and consolidating the liberties of our country in the great Revolutionary struggle of 1776, took steps some years ago to erect on her Capitol Square in Richmond a colossal group of statuary in bronze, surmounted by an equestrian statue of Washington, exhibiting separately, on a circle of pedestals, the statues of Jefferson, Henry, Marshall, Nelson, Lewis, and Mason. This design was happily executed in part by Thomas Crawford, the American sculptor, and completed by Randolph Rogers of New York.

  1. Randolph’s Memoir of Dr. Physic, p. 101. Return to text.