University of Wisconsin–Madison

John Marshall

John Marshall Headshot

“…has a faithful expression of great humor and hilarity, his eyes, possess an irradiating spirit, which proclaims the imperial powers of the mind.” (1804, William Wirt)

“This practice…of traveling out of his case to prescribe what the law would be in a moot case not before the court, is very irregular and very censurable.” (1823, Thomas Jefferson)

Biographical Information (pdf)

Descriptions of John Marshall:

  • Philip Slaughter, Account of Marshall at Valley Forge

    He was the best-tempered man I ever knew. During his sufferings at Valley Forge nothing discouraged, nothing disturbed him. If he had only bread to eat, it was just as well; if only meat, it made no difference. If any of the officers murmured at their deprivations he would shame them by good-natured raillery, or encourage them by his own exuberance of spirits. He was an excellent companion, and idolized by the soldiers and his brother officers, whose gloomy hours were enlivened by his inexhaustible fund of anecdotes.

  • Edmund Pendleton to James Madison - November 25, 1782

    Mr. Marshall is elected a Counsellor in the room of Mr. Bannister who resigned: he is clever, but I think too young for that department, which he should rather have earned as a retirement & reward by 10 or 12 years hard service in the Assembly.

  • Benjamin Henry Latrobe, Journals - May 31, 1796

    John Marshall (a general of Militia) is inferior to Edmund Randolph in voice and manner. But for talent he substitutes genius, and instead of talking about his subject he talks upon it. He possesses neither the energy of expression, nor the sublimity of imagination of Innes, but he is superior to every other orator at the bar of Virginia in closeness of argument, in his most surprising talent of placing his case in that point of view best suited to the purpose he aims at, of throwing a blaze of light upon it, and of keeping the attention of his hearers fixed upon the object to which he originally directed it. He speaks to the man of plain common sense, while he delights and informs the most acute. In a less captivating line of oratory than that which signalizes [James] Innes, he is equally great, and equally successful. The jury obey Innes from inclination and Marshall from duty.

  • William Vans Murray to John Quincy Adams - February 20, 1798

    I have not seen much of General P[inckney]’s or G[erry]’s, of Marshall’s writing, but I consider Marshall, whom I have heard speak on a great subject, as one of the most powerful reasoners I ever met with in public or in print. Reasoning in such cases will have a fine effect in America; but to depend upon it in Europe is really to place Quixote with Genes de Passamente and among the men of the world whom he reasoned with so sublimely on their way to the gallies. They answer him, you know, with stones and blows, though the knight is an armed, as well as an eloquent knight.

  • Julian Ursyn Niemcewicz, Travels through America - June 1798

    In the evening with the sound of bells, amidst an escort of militia on horseback and on foot and a crowd of people, General Marshall, one of the commissioners dismissed from Paris, arrived. The more trouble he received in France and the less honor that he was accorded, the more, on his return, the people with public show, with honor and respect, have tried to sweeten the humiliations long undergone. General Marshall is a man of more than 40 years, quite handsome and one could recognize in his bearing that he had breathed the air of Paris. In talent, expression and humor he probably surpasses his colleagues Pinckney and Gerry, and therefore the Directory did not care for him and dismissed him. I was presented to him. In the evening the town gave him a splendid supper.

    The next day, in the morning, when I was getting on the public stage, the very same Mr. Marshall, ambassador extraordinary who, here as everywhere he went, had been greeted with show and pomp was now leaving with bag in hand, and seeing that every seat was occupied, he sat quietly on the seat next to the coachman.

  • Theodore Sedgwick to Rufus King - December 29, 1799

    I have been much in Company with General Marshall since we arrived in this City. He possesses great powers and has much dexterity in the application of them. He is highly & deservedly respected by the friends of the Government from the South. In short we can do nothing without him. I believe his intentions are perfectly honorable, & yet I do believe he would have been a more decided man had his education been on the other side of the Delaware, and he the immediate representative of that country.

  • William Wirt, The Letters of the British Spy - 1804

    The Chief Justice of the United States is in his person tall, meager, emaciated; his muscles so relaxed as not only to disqualify him apparently for any vigorous exertion of body, but to destroy everything like harmony in his air and movements. Indeed, in his whole appearance and demeanor, dress, attitude, gesture, sitting, standing, or walking he is as far removed from the idolized graces of Lord Chesterfield as any other gentleman on earth. His head and face are small in proportion to his height; his complexion swarthy; the muscles of his face, being relaxed, make him appear to be fifty years of age, nor can he be much younger. His countenance has a faithful expression of great good humor and hilarity, while his black eyes, that unerring index, possess an irradiating spirit, which proclaims the imperial powers of the mind that sits enthroned within.

  • Thomas Jefferson to John Adams - January 24, 1814

    . . . our cunning Chief Justice would swear to, and find as many sophisms to twist it out of the general terms of our Declarations of rights, and even the stricter text of the Virginia “act for the freedom of religion” as he did to twist Burr’s neck out of the halter of treason.

  • Thomas Jefferson to William Johnson - June 12, 1823

    This practice of Judge Marshall, of travelling out of his case to prescribe what the law would be in a moot case not before the court, is very irregular and very censurable.

  • Joseph Story to Samuel P. P. Fay - March 2, 1835

    Chief Justice Marshall still possesses his intellectual powers in very high vigor. But his physical strength is manifestly on the decline; and it is now obvious, that after a year or two, he will resign, from the pressing infirmities of age. . . . What a gloom will spread over the nation when he is gone! His place will not, nay, it cannot be supplied.