The John Marshall House, Richmond, Virginia


An old book, ” Richmond in By Gone Days,” says that John Marshall was noted in Richmond for his unpretending manner. ” His dress was plain even to negligence. He marketed for himself and might be seen at an early hour returning home with a pair of fowls, or a basket of eggs in his hand, not with ostentatious humility, but for mere convenience.”

It is related by Flanders that Marshall ” was one morning strolling through the streets of Richmond, at-tired in a plain linen roundabout and shorts, with his hat under his arm, from which he was eating cherries, when he stopped in the porch of the Eagle Hotel, indulged in some little pleasantry with the landlord, and then passed on.” Just then a man from the country, who wished a lawyer to appear for him in court, was referred by the landlord to Marshall, as the best advocate he could have, but the countryman declined to have anything to do with the careless young man. In court he asked the clerk for a lawyer, and was once more recommended to take John Marshall. Again he re-fused. Just then a dignified old man in powdered wig and black coat entered. He was at once engaged, on his appearance. After a time the inferiority of the black-coated lawyer was so apparent that the country-man sought Marshall, told him of the mistake he had made, said that he had left but five dollars of the one hundred dollars he had set aside for lawyers’ fees, and asked Marshall if he would assist on the case. The lawyer laughingly agreed.

In 1781, when Marshall was twenty-five years old, he walked from Virginia to Philadelphia, to be inoculated for smallpox. ” He walked at the rate of thirty-five miles a day. On his arrival, such was his shabby appearance, that he was refused admission into one of the hotels; his long beard, and worn-out garments, probably suggesting the idea that his purse was not adequate to his entertainment. And this in the city which had seen much of the young man’s heroic services during the Revolution ! ”

Before the close of the war, while visiting his father, Colonel Marshall, who was the commanding officer at Yorktown, Virginia, he met Mary Willis Ambler, a daughter of Jacqueline Ambler, the treasurer of Virginia. ” She was just fourteen years of age at the time, and it is stated to have been a case of love at first sight.” Even when Marshall called to see her he was not prepossessing in appearance, yet he was well rceived, ” not-withstanding his slouched hat, and negligent and awkward dress,” for his amiable manners, fine talents, and especially his love for poetry, which he read to them with deep pathos, led them to forget his dress.

The young people were married on January 3, 1783. After paying the fee of the minister, the groom’s sole remaining fortune was a guinea !

Mrs. Marshall was for many years a nervous invalid. Bishop Meade says, ” The least noise was sometimes agony to her whole frame, and his perpetual endeavor was to keep the house and yard and out-houses from the slightest cause of distressing her; walking himself at times about the house and yard without shoes.” The attitude of the people of Richmond to the husband and wife is shown by the fact that ” on one occasion, when she was in her most distressing state, the town authorities manifested their great respect for him and sympathy for her, by having either the town clock or town bell muffled.”

On his marriage John Marshall took his wife to one of the best houses then available in the village of Richmond, a two-room frame building. In 1789 he bought two acres of ground on Shockoe Hill, and here, in 1793, he built a nine-room brick house. One of the rooms was a large apartment, in which he gave his famous ” lawyer dinners.”

When Marshall was not in Washington, he lived in this comfortable house, which was near the home of his father-in-law. He had also a farm a few miles from Richmond. Bishop Meade says that one morning, between daybreak and sunrise, he met Marshall on horse-back. He had a bag of clover seed lying before him, which he was carrying to his farm.

An English traveller who spent a week in Richmond in 1835 gave his impression of the Richmond home :

” The house is small, and more humble in appearance than those of the average of successful lawyers and merchants. I called there three times upon him; there is no bell to the door. Once I turned the handle of it and walked in unannounced; on the other two occasions he had seen me coming, and had lifted the latch and received me at the door, although he was at the time suffering from severe contusions received in the stage while travelling on the road from Fredericksburg to Richmond.”

Chief Justice Marshall frequently attended the Monumental Church. The narrow pews troubled him, for he was quite tall. ” Not finding room enough for his whole body within the pew, he used to take his seat nearest the door of his pew, and, throwing it open, let his legs stretch a little into the aisle.”

The death of his wife was a great grief to him. ” Never can I cease to feel the loss and to deplore it,” he wrote on December 25, 1832, the anniversary of her death. ” Grief for her is too sacred ever to be profaned on this day, which shall be, during my existence, marked by a recollection of her virtues.”

He survived Mrs. Marshall less than five years. In June, 1835, he went to Dr. Physic in Philadelphia, seeking relief for a disability that had been aggravated by the road accident of which the English visitor wrote, as already quoted. There he died, July 6, 1835. On July 4 he wrote the inscription which he wished placed above his grave :

” John Marshall, son of Thomas and Mary Marshall, was born on the 24th of September, 1755, intermarried with Mary Willis Ambler the 3rd of January, 1783, de-parted this life the day of 18 .”

The Marshall house is now in possession of the Society for the Preservation of Virginia Antiquities, having been purchased a few years ago from the Misses Harvie, the granddaughters of Chief Justice Marshall. They had lived in the house until they sold it to the city of Richmond.