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The Story of Virginia
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John Marshall: Hidden Hero of National Union

The distinguished life of John Marshall, the nation’s fourth chief justice of the Supreme Court, parallels the unfolding of the American experiment in self-government. Coming of age with the new nation, Marshall fought for independence, then served in all three branches of the federal government. It was during his 34 years as chief justice, however, that Marshall made his most visible and lasting contributions to the nation. Marshall developed the court into what it is today—a co-equal branch of the federal government with powers to check and balance those of the executive and legislative divisions.

Marshall shunned recognition. He helped preserve the fragile union from its origin under George Washington to the presidency of Abraham Lincoln. This exhibition brings to life the little-known story of one of America’s least recognized Founding Fathers. The exhibition tells the story of Marshall the man, a human being with flaws. It acknowledges the fact that Marshall and his family owned slaves, a practice which we view as abhorrent today, but it also recognizes his profound role as a nation builder in a time when the United States needed one.

John Marshall: Hidden Hero of National Union is co-sponsored by Preservation Virginia and the John Marshall Foundation, with support from Hunton Andrews Kurth, LLP, McGuireWoods, & E.B. Duff CLAT.

Highlighting objects like his Law Commonplace Notebook, spectacles and inkwell, writing desk, and even his hair, this exhibition will explore the themes and accomplishments of John Marshall's life, including:

John Marshall Defined the Role and Powers of the Supreme Court

The Framers of the U.S. Constitution spent relatively little time defining the judicial branch. Article III is short. It vests judicial power in the courts and establishes the jurisdiction of the federal courts: “The judicial Power shall extend to all Cases… arising under this Constitution.” It remained for Marshall to deduce and unveil the powers of the Court that the Framers envisioned.

Marshall’s Law Commonplace Notebook, begun in 1780Young Man of the Revolution

At age 20, John Marshall served in a militia unit that became a part of George Washington’s Continental Army. He rose from the rank of lieutenant to captain, wintered with Washington at Valley Forge, and fought in the battles of Brandywine, Germantown, and Monmouth. On military leave in 1780, Marshall studied law with George Wythe and received a law license.

Marshall’s spectacles and inkwellService in the Legislative and Executive Branches of the Federal Government

In 1798, President George Washington, long impressed by his fellow soldier and political ally in the Federalist party, convinced Marshall—famous for defending American rights in France—to run for a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives. Marshall served a year. President John Adams then appointed him to his cabinet. As secretary of state, Marshall ended hostilities with France and established a policy of neutrality that lasted almost a century.

James Madison's letter to Joseph Story, 1821 The Golden Age of the Marshall Court

In 34 years as chief justice (1801-1835), John Marshall guided the Supreme Court while it grew as an institution. Landmark decisions, including Marbury v. Madison (1803) and McCulloch v. Maryland (1819), established precedents that remain in force today. In Marbury v. Madison, Marshall stated, “It is emphatically the province and duty of the judicial department to say what the law is.” The year 2019 is the 200th anniversary of McCulloch v. Maryland, arguably the most important case in the history of the Supreme Court. There Marshall established the extent of federal power and the limits of state sovereignty.

Marshall and Slavery

John Marshall wrote that slavery “is contrary to the law of nature.” In 1823, he became the first president of the Richmond branch of the American Colonization Society—which encouraged the voluntary return of free blacks to the West African colony of Liberia. However, he did not take action himself that would have supported his stated views. Except for offering the option of emancipation to one longtime enslaved person in his will, Marshall did not free any of the nearly 200 African Americans he enslaved.

As a leader on the court,  he believed that his judicial duty was to apply the law of the land. And he did not interpret the Constitution or the law of nations to empower the federal judiciary to interfere with property rights in persons enslaved under the positive law of a state or another country.


PAST Lectures About John Marshall:

Exhibition Information

Sun Feb 10 2019, 10:00amSun Sep 15 2019, 5:00pm
10:00 am - 5:00 pm daily
In Stern Family Gallery

Highlighted objects from John Marshall: Hidden Hero of National Union

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Marshall’s writing desk used in France
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The Life of George Washington, by John Marshall
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Thomas Jefferson to Marshall, 1801
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Marshall’s bladder stones and surgical instrument used to remove them in 1831
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Marshall’s hair
Marshall’s writing desk used in France
The Life of George Washington, by John Mar
Thomas Jefferson to Marshall, 1801
Marshall’s bladder stones and surgical ins
Marshall’s hair

In the museum shop

by Richard Brookhiser The life of John Marshall, Founding Father and America's premier chief justice In 1801, a genial and brilliant Revolutionary War veteran and politician became the fourth chief justice of the United States. He would hold the post for 34 years (still a record), expounding the Constitution he loved. Before he joined the Supreme Court, it was the weakling of the federal government, lacking in dignity and clout. After he died, it could never be ignored again. Through three decades of dramatic cases involving businessmen, scoundrels, Native Americans, and slaves, Marshall defended the federal government against unruly states, established the Supreme Court's right to rebuke Congress or the president, and unleashed the power of American commerce. For better and for worse, he made the Supreme Court a pillar of American life. In John Marshall, award-winning biographer Richard Brookhiser vividly chronicles America's greatest judge and the world he made. 336 pages, ISBN:978-0465096220, Basic Books; 1 edition (November 13, 2018), Hardcover.
John Marshall: The Man Who Made the Supreme Court
by Paul Finkelman The three most important Supreme Court Justices before the Civil War―Chief Justices John Marshall and Roger B. Taney and Associate Justice Joseph Story―upheld the institution of slavery in ruling after ruling. These opinions cast a shadow over the Court and the legacies of these men, but historians have rarely delved deeply into the personal and political ideas and motivations they held. In Supreme Injustice, the distinguished legal historian Paul Finkelman establishes an authoritative account of each justice’s proslavery position, the reasoning behind his opposition to black freedom, and the incentives created by circumstances in his private life. 304 pages, hardcover, ISBN 978-0674051218, Harvard University Press, 2018.
Supreme Injustice: Slavery in the Nation’s Highest Court
By John O. Peters John O. Peters’s book entitled From Marshall to Moussaoui: Federal Justice in the Eastern District of Virginia is quite an accomplishment. Through the historical lens, the reader is transported quickly to the times of the anecdotes that are sprinkled liberally across the pages. The U.S. District Court comes alive as Peters focuses the reader’s attention on the brilliance—and the human foibles—of the jurists who have presided over cases that range from treason and trespass to liquor and libel and from civil war to civil rights. Collectively, the judges, lawyers, and litigants personify the history of this important court of justice. It is also a rich and robust reflection of the history of America. 288 pages, Hardcover, 978-0875171432, The Dietz Press, 2013.
From Marshall To Moussaoui: Federal Justice in the Eastern District of Virginia

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