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Sunday, September 12, 2021

John Marshall's "Life of Washington"

I'm going through Volume 2 of John Marshall's biography of George Washington. (Volume 2 covers GW's life from 1781-1799). It's a remarkable book, both for what we learn about the Chief Justice and for its style.

First, consider that Marshall (while Chief Justice) wrote in detail about political controversies during the Washington Administration. These occurred only a decade before the book was written and were not ancient history by any means. Yet Marshall does not shy away from sharing his opinions on various matters, including the role that Jefferson played in some of these disputes. It would be hard to imagine John Roberts writing, say, a book about the Bush 41 or the Clinton Administration. (In the second edition of the book, Marshall added one note that directly responds to comments that Jefferson made about the first edition.)

Second, Marshall does not mince words when discussing the various wars fought between the United States and the Native American Tribes. He uses the word "savages" more than once to describe the Tribes. Perhaps scholars of Marshall's Native American decisions should take a look at Life of Washington to see if that sheds any light on those decisions.

Third, Marshall gives his views on various early constitutional controversies. Some of these are ones that came before the Supreme Court later, such as the validity of the national bank. Others never did, such as the Decision of 1789 or some of the fights over foreign policy during the 1790s. What he had to say about these issues is worth examining, though maybe not enough for a paper of its own.

Fourth, Marshall talks about the XYZ Affair but never mentions that he was one of the diplomats involved in the Affair. Maybe he was being modest, or maybe he assumed that his readers would just know. It's odd though.

Posted by Gerard Magliocca on September 12, 2021 at 03:27 PM | Permalink


I checked, since the book is available free online, and he doesn't name any of the XYZ diplomats (though in a footnote notes their political leanings, to answer a criticism).

I hypothesize it was part of a norm in keeping himself above the fray of what he was writing about. But, I don't know, and would wonder if others who wrote a similar type of book did the same thing.

BTW, though it was a lot less popular, Marshall's colleague also wrote a biography of Nathaniel Greene.

Posted by: Joe | Sep 13, 2021 11:56:03 AM

I like Marshall, but he's a good cautionary tale of a military commander president with a government full of his lieutenants.

Posted by: thegreatdisappointment | Sep 12, 2021 5:29:19 PM

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