John Marshall’s Career Trajectory


By Allen Guelzo, Ph.D.Gettysburg College

In 1777, John Marshall’s career trajectory started by being enlisted in the 11th Virginia, one of the regular units of the Continental Army and commanded by the celebrated frontier rifleman, Daniel Morgan. Marshall was commissioned as a lieutenant. He fought his first major battle at the Brandywine in September of 1777 and then endured the dreary winter encampment at Valley Forge.

A painting of the Battle of the Brandywine, at which John Marshall fought.
John Marshall’s career started in the army and he later became a practicing lawyer. (Image: Yohn, F. C/Library of Congress/Public domain)

Planting Seeds of Patriotism in Marshall

“They all lived in huts,” remembered one of his mess-mates, the inaptly-named Philip Slaughter, “Although the snow was up to their knees, and not one soldier in five had a blanket. The country people used to bring them supplies, which, though far from inviting, were bought and consumed with great eagerness.”

Marshall survived the winter of Continental discontent and brought out of it a lesson that stayed with him as long as he lived. The soldiers who were making a Revolution were making it to create a new nation and doing it as an army of men thrown together from all the states as Americans and commanded by one general whom they revered above all, George Washington.

“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,” Marshall told his associate Supreme Court justice, Joseph Story. “When patriotism and a strong fellow feeling with our suffering 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. They were risking life and everything valuable, in a common cause, believed by all to be most precious, and where I was confirmed in the habit of considering America as my country, and Congress as my government.”

This is a transcript from the video series America’s Founding FathersWatch it now, on Wondrium.

John Marshall’s Career in Law

A portrait of John Marshall.
Eventually, Marshall resigned his commission in the army and started practicing law. (Image: Alonzo Chappel /Public domain)

It was at Valley Forge that Marshall also got his first taste of the law. On February 5, 1778, Marshall was detailed to assist the judge-advocate of the army; in other words, the officer handling all the army’s internal court-martial and punishment affairs as a “deputy judge-advocate in the Army of the United States.” 

He evidently had the sort of mind that feasts on the fine distinctions of law and arbitration. Burgess Ball, the lieutenant-colonel of the 9th Virginia, remembered Marshall as brave and signally intelligent. 

In 1779, Marshall was sent home on recruiting duty. It did not impose many actual demands on Marshall, so he put himself under the tutelage of George Wythe at William and Mary for a crash course in legal studies. At the end of actual campaigning at Yorktown in 1781, Marshall resigned his commission and practiced law in Richmond.

Learn more about James McHenry’s army.

Marshall’s Epiphany

A year later, he won a seat in the Virginia legislature, and sitting there opened Marshall’s eyes to the real cause of the suffering of the Continentals at Valley Forge. The soldiers of the Revolution suffered, while gaseous politicians declined any personal exertions of their own exhaled platitude-laden speeches in state assemblies about the glories of liberty and then gutted every initiative on the national level for victory.

“My immediate entrance into the State Legislature,” he later told Joseph Story, “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.” 

Especially in the South, the great planters put their “private animosities” and “little interests and passions” at the head of the state legislatures’ agendas. While doing nothing to “expedite and facilitate the business of recovering debts and compelling a strict compliance with contracts,” much less the more significant task of establishing “on the firm basis of certainty the independence of America.”

Learn more about Hector Saint John de Crevecoeur’s Americans.

Challenging Patrick Henry

So, when Patrick Henry tried to forestall the calling of a Virginia state ratifying convention for the new Constitution, Marshall dared him with a counter-resolution in the legislature that “the new Constitution should be laid before them for their free and ample discussion,” and won. Elected to the ratifying convention, he boldly bearded Patrick Henry in his own den.

Patrick Henry speaking at a General Assembly.
Patrick Henry didn’t fight the force of Marshall’s reasoning. (Image: Martin & Johnson/Public domain)

The supporters of the constitution, and not the anti-Federalists like Henry and George Mason, “claim the title of being sincere friends of liberty and the rights of humankind. What are the favorite maxims of democracy? Strict observance of justice and public faith and a steady adherence to virtue. These sir, are the principles of a good government. 

“No mischief—no misfortune ought to deter us from a strict observance of justice and public faith. Would to Heaven that these principles had been observed under the present government. Had this been the case, the friends of liberty would not be so willing now to part with it.”

Moving Up the Career Ladder

The force of Marshall’s reasoning carried the day, and in the mid-1790s, he had become a principal figure in Virginia Federalism. Washington offered him the post of attorney-general in 1795.

Adams tagged him as one of the three XYZ commissioners in 1797 where, as Jefferson complained, “the XYZ dish” was “cooked up by Marshall” to make “the French government” look like “swindlers” and then as Adams’ secretary of state. When Oliver Ellsworth resigned as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court on September 30, 1800, Adams nominated Marshall as his replacement.

Common Questions about John Marshall’s Career Trajectory

Q: How did John Marshall’s time in the army affect his view of the government and the Constitution?

He saw all of them as fighting for their country and being part of something bigger than themselves led by George Washington. Thus, John Marshall’s career was influenced by the seeds of patriotism planted in him when he was in the army.

Q: How did John Marshall start practicing law?

John Marshall’s career in law started when he was ordered to assist the judge-advocate of the army. After using his break from the army as a chance to learn the law more professionally, he decided to quit the army and practice law instead.

Q: How did John Marshall view the suffering of the Continentals at Valley Forge?

In the early stages of John Marshall‘s career, he understood that while the revolutionary soldiers were suffering, politicians were giving speeches and declined any personal exertions about liberty.

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