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John Marshall’s Enduring Legacy at Virginia’s Landmark Capitol

January 7, 2016 by Mark Greenough

By Mark Greenough,
Tour Supervisor & Historian, Virginia State Capitol

Although Virginia cousins John Marshall and Thomas Jefferson became famous political rivals, as a young man Marshall benefited from Jefferson’s actions in at least two ways. In 1780 Governor Jefferson signed Marshall’s license to practice law. In 1785 Ambassador Jefferson designed a new Virginia State Capitol in the form of a monumental Roman temple with various rooms for legislative, executive and judicial functions. Marshall later wrote that he had decided to run for public office again in 1788 “partly because the capitol was then completed, and the courts and the legislature sat in the same building.” He explained the new arrangement would allow him, without much inconvenience, to leave the bar and “take part in any debate in which I felt a particular interest.

For more than 40 years John Marshall performed a variety of public duties at Virginia’s Capitol and on the Square. As a freemason, he attended the cornerstone laying ceremony in 1785. As a legislator, Marshall was the first man to represent the city of Richmond in the General Assembly, serving in the House sessions for 1789-1790 and 1795-1796. In 1795 Marshall’s spirited defense of the Jay Treaty during floor debates brought him favorable attention with Federalist leaders outside Virginia.

As an appellate lawyer, Marshall argued cases before the Virginia high courts and the Federal district and circuit courts, which originally sat in the Capitol. In the early 1790s Marshall teamed up with Patrick Henry to successfully defend Virginians involved with the British debts cases argued before Federal judges and justices. Eager crowds gathered on the Capitol portico, drawn by the legal battles inside. In 1797 famed US Capitol Architect Benjamin Latrobe wrote “John Marshall . . . is superior to every other orator at the bar of Virginia in closeness of argument.” After several visits to Virginia’s Capitol, Latrobe marveled that Marshall “speaks to the man of plain common sense, while he delights and informs the most acute.

As Chief Justice of the United States, Marshall presided over spring and fall sessions of the Federal circuit court, which met inside the Virginia Capitol well into the 1820s. In 1807 Marshall and Federal district court judge Cyrus Griffin presided over the famous treason trial of Aaron Burr in the old hall of the House of Delegates. After months of proceedings, the trial jury found Burr “not proved to be guilty.” Marshall wrote to a friend that he had been “fatigued & occupied with the most unpleasant case which has ever been brought before a Judge.” Marshall concluded, “I might perhaps have made it less serious to myself by obeying the public will instead of the public law.” In later years Marshall heard Caribbean piracy cases at the Capitol, resulting in both hangings and executive pardons.

As an agreeable Master of Ceremonies and a veteran of the American Revolution, Marshall was chosen to deliver the speech welcoming the Marquis de Lafayette to Richmond in October 1824. Before a large crowd gathered on Capitol Square, Marshall praised Lafayette’s prudence and “persevering courage” as Washington’s commander in Virginia, extolling Lafayette’s masterful skills leading his Continental troops and Virginia militia to support “the great achievement” of trapping the British at Yorktown in 1781, which “accomplished the independence of the United States.

In 1829 Richmonders chose an aging John Marshall to serve as a delegate to the Virginia Constitutional Convention, which held many of its committee meetings and floor sessions inside the Capitol. Marshall chaired the Judiciary committee and worked with his old colleagues James Monroe and James Madison to help create a new Constitution for the Commonwealth. The “Convention of Giants” completed its labors in 1830, with the independence of Virginia’s judiciary intact. John Marshall died five years later, “as much loved as he was respected.

Today the presence of John Marshall still lingers inside and outside the Capitol. A portrait of Marshall hangs inside the Governor’s old office suite on the third floor and a marble bust of Marshall presides over ongoing events in the Old House Chamber. Outside on the Square, a bronze statue of Marshall, hefting a large volume of “Justice,” stands resolutely below the equestrian figure of General Washington. As visitors move through the modern Capitol extension to the historic building upstairs, they encounter a Jefferson quote: “The most sacred of the duties of a government [is] to do equal and impartial justice to all its citizens.” Regarding this public duty, it seems possible Marshall and Jefferson would finally be in agreement.

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