A Connected Legacy: John Marshall and George Washington

Time Period
1764 to 1824
1825 to 1860
Politics & Government

John Marshall by James Reid Lambdin, 1832, purchased with funds provided by Hunton & Williams in honor of Justice Lewis F. Powell, Jr. (VMHC 1988.8)

Both the first object acquired by the Virginia Historical Society and arguably one of the best objects in the VMHC collection are tied to a special relationship that existed between John Marshall and George Washington. The first object is a copy of Marshall’s biography of Washington. The other is the diary that President Washington kept in 1790 – 91 during his first term. 

The story of the first object has often been told. In 1831, when concerned Virginians created a “society” to preserve the records of their illustrious predecessors who had helped found the nation, they elected as the institution’s president a Founding Father. In gratitude, John Marshall presented the society a copy of his biography, The Life of George Washington, inscribed by the author “to the Virginia Historical and Philosophical Society.”  

The story of how the best object was acquired has largely been forgotten. Institutional records reveal that in 1859 it was given by James K. Marshall. How did he acquire it? James K. Marshall was one of John Marshall’s five sons. Trained as a banker, he served as executor of his father’s complex will. John Marshall had accumulated considerable wealth and property. In settling the estate, James K. Marshall probably came upon Washington’s diary among his father’s possessions. But how did John Marshall come to own it? 


George Washington by Charles Peale Polk, after 1787. (VMHC 1905.10. Gift of Anthony M. Keiley)

No one in public life was closer to George Washington in his final years than was John Marshall, who praised him in 1797 — on the president’s retirement — as “the greatest man on earth.” Two years later, it was Marshall who announced the news of George Washington’s death in Congress and gave the nation’s memorial address there. Marshall also chaired the committee that made Washington’s funeral arrangements, and he headed the committee to plan a Washington Monument in the capital.  

The bond between Washington and the Marshall family had been formed through Thomas Marshall, John’s father. Childhood neighbors in northern Virginia who briefly attended school together, both became surveyors employed by Thomas, Lord Fairfax, both served in the House of Burgesses, and they fought together during the Revolutionary War. 


George Washington diary, 1790 – 1791. (VMHC Mss5:1 W2773:1. Gift of James Keith Marshall through the courtesy of John C. Hamilton)

In 1775, Thomas Marshall raised a unit of Virginia state militia that formed a portion of the famed Culpeper Minutemen. At age 19, John Marshall joined his father in that service. The Minutemen were absorbed into George Washington’s Continental Army. John Marshall rose from the rank of lieutenant to captain in the 11th Virginia Regiment (1776 – 1780). He served alongside Washington at Valley Forge, and he participated with Washington in the Revolutionary War battles of Brandywine and Germantown in Pennsylvania, and Monmouth in New Jersey. Influenced by those wartime experiences, John Marshall — like George Washington — recognized the need for a strong central government and they became members of the Federalist party. In 1798, newly retired President Washington, long impressed by his fellow soldier and Federalist friend, convinced John Marshall to run for a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives, which Marshall won. In 1801, President John Adams nominated his loyal Federalist supporter to become chief justice of the Supreme Court. Fellow justice Bushrod Washington, a nephew of George Washington, became Marshall’s close friend. In 1802, Bushrod inherited his uncle’s home, Mount Vernon, along with his uncle’s voluminous papers. He planned to write a biography of Washington based upon those documents, but soon he gave up so herculean a task. So, he asked John Marshall to assume the responsibility.  


John Marshall’s inscription inside The Life of George Washington book. (VMHC E312 M33 1832)

How do you write a 3,200-page, five-volume biography while serving as chief justice? On joining the Supreme Court, Marshall spent three months each year boarding in Washington during the court’s annual term. He also traveled several weeks to serve on the circuit court in Raleigh, North Carolina. He had to examine trunk-loads of the Washington papers, which must have been delivered to him, probably to both his Richmond home and his summer house in Fauquier County. On one occasion, Marshall confessed to his publisher, “under the pressure of constant application the spring of the mind loses its elasticity.” Nonetheless, he persevered, beginning in 1801 and finishing the fifth volume five years later. Apparently, the diary was not included in the trunk-loads of papers returned to Mount Vernon. 

The last chapter in this story is documented by a trail of letters. In the 1850s, the location of the diary was known to historians. In April 1859, John Reuben Thompson, editor of the Southern Literary Messenger, wrote James K. Marshall on behalf of Edward Everett, a distinguished New England writer and orator. Thompson, a resident of Richmond and New York City, worked with a number of accomplished writers, including Edgar Allan Poe and William Gilmore Simms. Everett was a staunch supporter of efforts to preserve Mount Vernon, and he would publish in 1860 his Life of George Washington. In 1859, he was contributing articles about the house and its owner to the New York Ledger and donating the profits from those articles to the preservation of Mount Vernon. For that purpose, Thompson asked Marshall to permit Everett “to make use of the m[anu]s[cript] diary of Washington in your possession.” 


Chief Justice of the United States John Marshall’s slant-front Chippendale-style desk, built about 1780 – 1805. (VMHC 1959.28. Gift of Edna V. Moffet)

Marshall obliged Thompson’s request. A month later, Everett wrote a note of thanks, adding that “the ‘Diary’ came safely to hand” and that “very soon” he would ship it back to Virginia. In the meantime, John C. Hamilton of New York, another prominent historian and biographer, and the son of Alexander Hamilton, requested and was granted examination of the diary. The book returned to Virginia, and in December of 1859, James K. Marshall donated it to the Virginia Historical Society. According to society records, the gift was transacted “through the courtesy of John C. Hamilton, New York.” The younger Marshall had been prompted to action by this trio of southern and northern historians — Thompson, Everett, and Hamilton — who were inspired by the memory of the first president. Sadly, less than two years later, the nation that George Washington had brought together during his presidencies was torn apart by the Civil War. 

Stories like this one — interesting and important—were featured in the VMHC's exhibition, John Marshall: Hidden Hero of National Union. This show chronicled the long and illustrious career of the Founding Father who fought for independence, served in all three branches of the federal government, and established for the Supreme Court the powers that it retains today. 

 This article was written by Dr. William M. S. Rasmussen while VMHC Senior Curator of Exhibitions for Virginia History & Culture Magazine, Winter/Spring 2019.