In Search of America: Transatlantic Essays, 1951-1990

By Marcus Cunliffe | Go to book overview

7
John Marshall's George Washington

This piece was intended (in 1980) as an introduction to a reprint of John Marshall's life of George Washington. The publisher, Chelsea House, dropped the plan. Why, I don't know: not, I imagine, because of pressure from some Jeffersonian latter-day mafia. One incidental benefit was that preparing the essay prompted me to read Marshall's tomes, a task hitherto evaded. The essay appears here in print for the first time, so I have modified the 1980 version.

In the twentieth century John Marshall's reputation as a constitutional lawyer has stood high. This cannot be said of his reputation as a historian; scholars are apt to treat his biography of Washington as a minor detour in Marshall's career or even as a venture not altogether honorable. It is worth considering why this should be so -- given my view, which I shall explain later, that Marshall Washington deserves more sympathetic attention than has been accorded.

Marshall's historical abilities have been defined for most subsequent commentators by Albert J. Beveridge Life of John Marshall ( 4 vols., 1916-19), the third volume of which contains a substantial chapter on Marshall's toils as a biographer. Although, in general, Beveridge presents his subject as a great man, the account of Marshall the would-be historian is negative in tone. Thus, we gather that he undertook the work for mixed reasons, including the hope of a big financial return. George Washington had died in December 1799. A nephew, Bushrod Washington, came into possession of the President's papers. To Bushrod and to Marshall the opportunity may have seemed golden. They reckoned a full-scale history of Washington and his era, running to five volumes,

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