Musings

Robert Cotner, Editor


I

have a new hero. At my age and in these times, I think that announcement worthy of some notice. My new hero is John Marshall (1755-1835), Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court from 1801 until 1835 — the longest term of service for a Chief Justice in the Court’s long history. Serving with five presidents — Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, James Monroe, John Quincy Adams, and Andrew Jackson — he established the Judicial as an equal to the Executive and Legislative branches of government. And he defined the nation more than any other single individual.

I like his vision of America as a union of states rather than a confederation of equal principalities. This, of course, brought forth the principle of “one people,” which through the anguish of the ages approaches a degree of reality in our time. I respect his remarkable courage to lead justices of disparate views into consensus of opinions and against great political pressures brought to bear year after year of his tenure. I find his personality both appealing and powerful. Few national figures other than Marshall have been recognized by and loved for their hearty laughter at social gatherings. Even his enemies respected him, for his modesty, his brilliance, and his effervescent social graces.

But most of all, I consider his mind the most important, encompassing, and compelling of any American leader of Revolutionary times — or perhaps since . He wove linguistic, logical, physical, and interpersonal intellects so consistently, so uniquely, into the leadership of the Supreme Court for 34 years that consideration of his contributions in the shaping of this magnificent nation is nothing short of awe inspiring.

I think you will find the process of my discovery of John Marshall as interesting as the fact he is my newly discovered American hero. It all began when I read David McCullough’s John Adams (2001) about six months ago. A longtime student of Henry Adams, I found the elder Adams most fascinating. So I read Lynne Withey’s delightful study of Abigail Adams, Dearest Friend (1981). I then read Founding Brothers (2000), a study by Joseph Ellis of the central persons in the American Revolution. I was next drawn by a review of Robert Remini’s Andrew Jackson and His Indian Wars (2002), an unpleasant story of an unpleasant man under whom Marshall would end his service to America.

My next book, What Kind of Nation (2002) by James Simon, brings insight to the epic struggle between Thomas Jefferson and John Marshall. Realizing I knew little of John Marshall in spite of his obvious importance, I contacted my friends at the Newberry Library bookstore — where I keep a running account — and they led me to a most remarkable biography by Jean Edward Smith, John Marshall: Definer of a Nation (1996). This study, one of the finest biographies I have ever read, brings to life in a most vital way the person of John Marshall in his many dimensions and his lofty accomplishments.

I was so captivated by Marshall that my wife and I drove to Richmond, VA, to visit the John Marshall house in June. I walked through the lovely home, saw Marshall’s personal library and held some of his books, found his wine cellar still cool, and spent time in the great hall in which Marshall entertained friends at monthly dinner parties. I sit at John Marshall’s private desk, in fact, as I write these lines. His pipe lies before me, and sealing wax, several of his books, and a quill pen are nearby. Through the window, I see a lovely magnolia in his garden and the blue Virginia sky on this June day.

The people at the Marshall house introduced me to Kent Newmyer’s John Marshall and the Heroic Age of the Supreme Court (2001), which gives a thorough analysis of Marshall’s court decisions, their backgrounds, and their implications on the developing history of America.

We strive, it seems to me, toward a certain fullness of life. This fullness emerges for Americans from a unique social, political, and intellectual liberty, which may best be expressed as, to use George Orwell’s succinct words, the “right to do what you want in your spare time.” In my spare time, I invite those with whom I would be friends, given the opportunity, into my life through books, to share my domain, to enrich my thinking, and to become an associate in my enterprises, large and small. John Marshall has entered my life in a unique way, and I cherish this new found friendship across the years.


















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