American Statesmen: John Marshall

Allan B. Magruder (author) • John T. Morse, Jr. (editor of 1898 edition)
Kevin C. Walsh (editor of 2017 edition)


July 8, 2017 by Kevin Walsh

At the session of 1782 Mr. Marshall took his seat in the General Assembly of Virginia as a member from the county of Fauquier. He was then twenty-seven years of age, already in the front rank of his profession as a lawyer, but as yet without any experience in political affairs. His stirring, active life in the army, and the constantly increasing demands on his time and energies in the professional career opened to him in the courts, had left him slender opportunity to study the science of government, or even to pursue with constancy a course of general reading. But his native sagacity, aided by his observation and experience in life, especially while serving in the army under Washington, where he had observed the defects of the system established under the Articles of Confederation, and the mischiefs flowing therefrom, had led him to see and recognize the absolute necessity of a central authority in the government, which should be sufficiently strong to assert and sustain itself without awaiting the tardy and uncertain cooperation of an unwieldy constituency, like the States acting separately. With these convictions he naturally attached himself to the party which, while ardently republican, yet advocated a general government strong enough to insure the public safety, and to execute the powers with which it might be clothed, proprio vigore, independently of control by the several States. His attachment to such a union as this was warm and sincere, and was fostered by all the circumstances of his early career in life.

The influence of these reflections served in his sober judgment, as he wrote in after years, to chasten and subdue “certain enthusiastic notions with which he was tinctured” in the early Revolutionary era. In a letter to a friend, at that subsequent period, he said:

“The questions which were perpetually recurring in the state legislatures, and which brought annually into doubt principles which I thought most sacred; which proved that everything was afloat and that we had no safe anchorage ground, gave a high value in my estimation to that article in the Constitution which imposes restrictions on the States. I was consequently a determined advocate for its adoption, and became a candidate for the state convention.

“When I recollect the wild and enthusiastic notions with which my political opinions of that day were tinctured, I am disposed to ascribe my devotion to the Union, and to a government competent to its preservation, at least as much to casual circumstances as to judgment. I had grown up at a time when the love of the Union, and the resistance to the claims of Great Britain, were the inseparable inmates of the same bosom. When patriotism and a strong fellow feeling with our fellow citizens of Boston were identical, when the maxim, United we stand, divided we fall, was the maxim of every orthodox American. And I had imbibed these sentiments so thoroughly that they constituted a part of my being. I carried them with me into the army, where I found myself associated with brave men from different States, who were risking life and everything valuable in a common cause, believed by all to be most precious, and where I was in the habit of considering America as my country and Congress as my government.”

Adverting to the hardships the army had endured, he adds:

“My immediate entrance into the state legislature opened to my view the causes which had been chiefly instrumental in augmenting those sufferings; and the general tendency of state politics convinced me that no safe and permanent remedy could be found but in a more efficient and better organized general government. [1]

The legislature convened not long after the surrender of Cornwallis at Yorktown, on the nineteenth day of October, 1781. This was practically the close of the war in Virginia. It was not difficult to see that very grave questions of state and national policy would engage the attention of the General Assembly at such a juncture, and that much of good or evil might flow from its deliberations and from its decisions upon the many social and political problems which so strongly agitated the public mind.

Prominent and very urgent among these problems was the necessity for making immediate provision for the payment of our officers and soldiers, now about to be disbanded, who were destitute, in most cases, of the means of subsistence, while the State was largely in their debt. To devise a prompt and efficient remedy for this pressing need, Mr. Marshall exerted himself to the utmost, but the difficulties growing out of the peculiar condition of the country seemed at the time to be almost insurmountable. Yet he knew well, by personal experience, the hardship and privations which the army had endured in this noble struggle for independence, and he had the cause of his late comrades very near his heart. But it was doubtful how much the most energetic efforts could accomplish in the way of justice or even partial relief for these men. For the condition of the country at that period was indeed deplorable. There was not a dollar in the federal treasury, and the State’s exchequer was scarcely better supplied. The army was without pay, provisions, or clothing, simply because there was neither public money nor public credit. The repeated and now almost chronic failures of the States to comply with the pro rata requisition of the Congress for supplies had long ago begun to produce most disastrous results. It seemed as though the end had been reached in utter helplessness and bankruptcy.

Such was the sense entertained by Congress of the imminence of the public danger, and such the apprehensions of civil convulsions resulting from these evils, that they dispatched to the Eastern and Southern States a deputation, consisting of John Rutledge of South Carolina and George Clymer of Pennsylvania, two of their own body, to explain in person the condition of affairs, and the danger which menaced the country through the delinquency of those States which remained so grossly backward in meeting the requisitions made by Congress on behalf of the army, for the relief of the public credit, and payment of the debts contracted in prosecuting the war for independence. In the discharge of this duty, the delegates visited Richmond, and were permitted personally to address the General Assembly. As a member of that body, Marshall became an earnest advocate of their mission, and of all the measures which tended to arrest immediate danger, to apply the resources of the State to the discharge of her obligations, to strengthen the federal authority, and to enable it to perform its duty towards the army and the public creditors. But the State of Virginia was at that time so weak and so exhausted by previous drains on her resources, and the confederacy was so feeble and powerless, hampered and even paralyzed by the absurd restrictions on its powers imposed by the Articles of Confederation, that Marshall clearly perceived that the system of voluntary state contributions for the relief of the public necessities was a total failure, and that the only means of reanimating the public life and restoring public credit lay in the creation of a more vigorous, independent, and comprehensive general government. This conviction, first borne in upon him at this time, became thereafter the leading idea of his political creed, to which he adhered with firmness and constancy, but without rancor or bitterness of party feeling, to the end of his life. He thus early cast in his political lot with those who were soon to become consolidated as the Federalist party; and to the same principles he remained unalterably attached to the end of his days. He did not adopt this political creed as a matter of free choice; but his mental characteristics were such that he inevitably fell in with this division of the nation. His natural way of thinking was the Federalist way.

Some time after the close of his service in the legislature, he resigned his seat in the executive council chamber, that he might devote himself more closely to his profession; but the condition of the country and the necessities of the public service would not permit him to remain in the coveted seclusion of private life. At the election in Fauquier, in the spring of 1784, his old friends and constituents in that county again elected him a member of the General Assembly, although he was no longer an actual resident in the county, but only preserved his eligibility there by reason of his retaining a freehold in her soil. Three years later, in 1787, his adopted county of Henrico, where he resided near Richmond, paid him the same tribute of respect and confidence. Subsequently, also, when a convention was called to deliberate on the Constitution of the United States, which had been framed by the general convention of delegates from the whole Union, the same constituency elected him a member of that body, to which the new Constitution was to be submitted for ratification or rejection.

  1. Story’s Discourse on the Life, etc., of Marshall.  ↩


Category: John Marshall (American Statesmen series)