Virginia Magazine of History and Biography
The Papers of John Marshall (12 Volumes) • Edited by Charles F. Hobson • Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1974–2006
Reviewed by Steve Belko, associate professor of history, coordinator of the Historic Preservation Program, and director of the History Pre-Law Program at the University of West Florida.
With the recent publication of the twelfth and final volume of The Papers of John Marshall, one of the most influential figures of the founding era and arguably the greatest of all Supreme Court justices finally has a collection of public and private papers worthy of the man. The endeavor to compile Marshall's papers began very early in the twentieth century, and several subsequent attempts at editing followed but produced little of value when compared to the edition reviewed here. Not until serious interest in the study of Marshall arose in the middle half of the last century did scholars successfully undertake the arduous task of compiling and editing Marshall's correspondence. The project commenced in 1966, the first volume was published in 1974, and the final volume was completed in 2006.
Any effort at compiling the papers of a prominent American figure is indeed a massive undertaking, but this endeavor faced more than its fair share of obstacles. For one, no single mass of Marshall's papers exists, and what remains is rather sparse for such a pivotal figure. Marshall proved a careless record keeper. He produced no letterbooks, as was the practice of the day, and kept few financial records. Fires in 1814 and 1865 also consumed many of his legal papers and documents. Because of such hurdles, the editors should be commended for their remarkable effort of chasing down, collecting, and identifying dispersed manuscripts—even the inclusion of papers provided by private collectors. Every known Marshall document is calendared and accompanied by a brief synopsis. Those papers that do find their way into the body of the volumes vary markedly in length and content, leading some possibly to question the historical significance of so many documents of apparently mundane matters. Even so, what some may desire to see calendared, others will find of great value.
The most obvious contribution of this collection, then, is the Marshall letters never before published—letters that reveal great insight into the life and mind of John Marshall. In some of the volumes, as much as 90 percent of the documents are printed for the first time. To no one’s surprise, correspondents to and from Marshall are a register of who’s who in early America. Unfortunately, the bulk of the correspondence concerns his public life; documents of legal, judicial, and political nature predominate. Few letters of personal content remain, but those that do reveal much that is moving about the man, especially those discussing family affairs, such as his wayward sons and his wife's declining health. Regardless of the nature of the documents, public or private, the myriad features of Marshall's life come alive—Marshall the lawyer, Marshall the statesman, Marshall the diplomat, Marshall the nationalist, Marshall the justice.
Marshall the lawyer steals the stage in the early volumes, as his remarkable skill with and knowledge of the Virginia legal system and the language of law is clearly visible; the logic, the persuasion, the reasoning that we see in his landmark Supreme Court cases are revealed here. The complexity of the Virginia legal system and practice of law, and the state’s subsequent legal and judicial reforms, are likewise apparent in Marshall’s papers. He thrived in this often arcane and usually convoluted legal environment, expanding his lucrative practice and his Virginia social and political connections as well. Volume five deserves special attention for its emphasis on Marshall’s legal career. Forty-three representative cases from 1784 to 1800 provide a detailed look into his state and federal practice and the larger legal world. Marshall/s intellectual debt to George Wythe and Edmund Randolph, his Virginia political connections aiding his legal business, and his shift from the common law cases in state courts to a lucrative chancery, appellate, and federal practice appear in this volume. Add to this the magnificent introductory sections so ably explaining the Virginia court system and complex common law procedure, and no student of early American legal history should be without a copy of these wonderful editorial examinations, and legal scholars should include them in their curricula.
During the 1790s, Marshall the statesman arrives onstage as the Virginian gradually makes the transition from the state to the federal scene, cutting his ties with Richmond and emerging quickly as a prominent spokesman for moderate Federalism. Hints of this move arise as early as volume two, when Marshall, as a delegate to the Virginia General Assembly, publicly defended President Washington's neutrality policy, and writing under the pseudonyms of Aristides and Gracchus, brilliantly responded in true Federalist fashion to the arguments proffered by James Monroe in his equally renowned Agricola letters. Volume three continues Marshall's rise to national prominence by focusing on his international activities. Appointed an envoy to France in 1797, he became entangled in the infamous XYZ Affair—his Paris journal, printed for the first time in this volume, lends new insight into this episode, as we see internal strife affecting the three U.S. ministers and learn that their rejection of the French loan may have been due more to a belief that it would prove unworkable, rather than a rejection based on patriotic sentiment and moral reprehension. Marshall's reputation increased with his 1798 election to Congress, and his correspondence as congressman continues to reveal his position on foreign affairs and the consequent political and constitutional struggle arising from the Alien and Sedition Acts. His short tenure as secretary of state (May 1800 to March 1801) certainly produced a voluminous amount of documentation, but because a great majority of these were of routine business, only a select number are printed—mostly concerning domestic duties, as Marshall dealt with few issues of foreign policy during these months; many of the consular dispatches are listed in an appendix.
As chief justice of the Supreme Court, Marshall undeniably played his most significant role on the national stage, permanently altering the political and Constitutional landscape of the young United States. As expected, half of the volumes cover his tenure on the Court. Because Marshall delivered well over five hundred opinions before the Supreme Court and the circuit court of Virginia and North Carolina, many of which can be found in U.S. Reports, the editors include only those opinions that made a significant mark on the new nation’s development. Original copies of his opinions, his unpublished notes of arguments before the Court, and his circuit court cases are included in these volumes. Little correspondence from this stage of Marshall’s life exists, but what does remain, much containing interesting and valuable content, is included. For example, the documents show a paradox to his tenure as chief justice: the Marshall Court secured its independence, prestige, and power while working in tandem with the Jeffersonian administrations, yet Marshall grew more despondent over the perceived dangers inherent in the independent judiciary that the Jeffersonian Republicans espoused. Another enlightening aspect of his correspondence during his Court years is the collegiality among the justices that the chief justice built and fostered, and when this unity unraveled as the Jacksonians took control of the ship of state and a concerted attack on nationalism commenced, Marshall’s intimate friendship with Joseph Story emerges as a prominent and poignant story of the Virginian's last decade on the bench. In short, the documents selected by the editors clearly succeed in demonstrating Marshall’s reputation as the defender and spokesman for the Constitution and testify to his consistent efforts to confirm national supremacy, broad construction, and expansion of the powers of the federal courts.
Marshall the nationalist plays a central role throughout the volumes, starting with his service in the Continental Army and in his participation in the 1788 Virginia ratification convention, continuing with his service under the John Adams administration, and culminating with his landmark Supreme Court opinions. Marshall consistently deplored anything Jeffersonian or Jacksonian—states' rights, legislative supremacy, the "Principles of '98," the emerging majoritarian democracy of the 1820s, continual assaults on the federal courts, and punitive policies toward Great Britain and the resulting War of 1812. The correspondence shows his steadfast opposition to the Virginia dogma spouted by the likes of Spencer Roane, and it reveals Marshall's unwavering promotion of a stronger, more vibrant union, with a federal government armed with adequate authority to protect its supremacy. Not only does his apprehension over Jeffersonian and Jacksonian brands of democracy resonate throughout the volumes, but his papers concomitantly also expose a growing despondency over what Marshall perceived to be policies and principles undermining the virtuous republic bequeathed by the founding generation—a generation quickly passing by the 1820s, a generation with which Marshall identified, and a generation and its legacy on which he ruminated during the last decade of his life.
The volumes also succeed in highlighting other important aspects of Marshall's career and influence. The correspondence, for example, includes his extensive work on writing and publishing his five-volume Life of George Washington. Other documents reveal Marshall's unwavering support of internal improvements, namely his 1812 River Commission Report promoting a water route to the western parts of Virginia and his 1828 draft of the Charlottesville convention on internal improvements, both ultimately resulting in the construction of the James River and Kanawha Canal Company, which aimed to link the Ohio River with the Virginia coast. Marshall's correspondence includes interesting commentary on a host of other topics: slavery, education, scientific agriculture, religion, temperance, and Indian removal.
Scholars of American legal, constitutional, and political history will not be the only beneficiaries of the Marshall Papers—scholars of American social and economic history will likewise find a treasure trove of material. The first two volumes alone tell as much about the social and economic life of eighteenth-century Virginia as they do about Marshall's place in it. His rare account books, combined with his legal papers and documents, divulge much about social and economic life in Richmond and antebellum Virginia.
One last outstanding contribution of the series—aside from the content of Marshall's correspondence itself—cannot be ignored, and that is the magnificent editorial effort. Orchestrated and conducted by a distinguished editorial staff, supported by a remarkable corps of scholars, and bolstered by an equally qualified editorial advisory committee, the twelve volumes are unrivalled in editorial production. Proof enough of this testament are the superb annotations and editorial notes providing more extensive discussion of and background to the issues, practices, policies, and personages during Marshall's life. From the editorial introductions outlining the respective phases of his life and career, to the detailed indexes, lists of cases, and calendars of documents, and to the arrangement and selection of the published documents themselves, the entire project is indeed a magisterial editorial effort that should be emulated by anyone seeking to compile the papers of other important individuals in American history. The editorial introductions to each of the Supreme Court and circuit court cases alone prove an invaluable component of the overall project; any reading of Marshall biographies or study of his tenure as chief justice should be accompanied with these insightful examinations—many of which offer cogent reinterpretations of Marshall's constitutional thought. Thanks to this superior editorial effort, students and scholars of Marshall and of the world to which he contributed will be hard-pressed to look elsewhere for the definitive story of this most influential founding father.