America’s ‘Great Chief Justice’ Was an Unrepentant SlaveholderRoundup
tags: slavery, Supreme Court, John Marshall
Paul Finkelman is the president of and a history professor at Gratz College. He is the author or editor of more than 50 books, most recently Supreme Injustice: Slavery in the Nation’s Highest Court.
John Marshall is America’s most important jurist. Biographers are universally laudatory of the “Great Chief Justice.” A recent documentary about him (in which I am interviewed) is subtitled The Man Who Made the Supreme Court.
This icon of jurisprudence is central to America’s constitutional development. For nearly three and a half decades, longer than any other chief justice, he led the Court and shaped constitutional law. A bronze statue of him sits outside the Supreme Court Building, and a marble one stands inside. He has appeared on four postage stamps, a commemorative silver dollar, a $20 Treasury note, and a $500 Federal Reserve note. Two centuries after he wrote them, Marshall’s opinions are still read and cited. Five of the 10 opinions most cited by the Court itself are Marshall’s.
But the country must now reevaluate this venerated figure in American history. A few institutions have already begun to do so. Of the three law schools named after him, one—John Marshall Law School, at the University of Illinois at Chicago—announced last month that it would now be known as simply the University of Illinois at Chicago School of Law. Another, the Cleveland-Marshall College of Law, at Cleveland State University, is considering a change as well. Franklin & Marshall College, in Pennsylvania, is also weighing a new name. Though some will surely deride these decisions as “cancel culture,” they are part of an earnest and deserved reckoning, the result of an effort to fully understand Marshall’s jurisprudence and his personal life, and to examine whether his profound impact on American law was not as honorable as we have previously believed.
The motivation comes, in part, from information I revealed in my 2018 book, Supreme Injustice: Slavery in the Nation’s Highest Court. Earlier biographers argued that he did not seek investment profit from slavery; that he owned a “dozen house servants” in Richmond, Virginia; that he disliked slavery but went along with it because he was a practical man focused on strengthening the national government; and that as a justice he heard very few cases involving slavery. He accepted the system and focused on other issues.
None of this is true. I spent three years analyzing every case dealing with slavery that the Marshall Court heard, including many that previous scholars had ignored, brought by people held as slaves who had strong legal claims to being freed, and others involving the illegal African slave trade; examining census and tax records revealing Marshall’s huge personal investment in enslaved people; looking at his private letters that display his attention to buying and selling human beings; scrutinizing business records showing his purchases of enslaved people; and consulting the three versions of his will, which also revealed his commitment to slavery. What I found totally upended the established view: Marshall not only owned people; he owned many of them—certainly more than 300—across the years of his life. Unlike other major slaveholders, such as his cousin Thomas Jefferson, Marshall did not inherit enslaved people; he aggressively bought them when he could. Whether buying young children, or a mother and one of her children, or selling them to raise cash, he paid little attention to the enslaved families he destroyed in his lifelong quest for more human property. Marshall’s biographers assert that he was not brutal or violent toward the people he owned, and this may well be true. But Marshall had day-to-day contact with only the dozen and a half enslaved people in his household. We have no knowledge about how the overseers on Marshall’s land in other parts of Virginia treated the chief justice’s human property. Nor do we know how two of his sons, who lived about 100 miles from Marshall, in rural Fauquier County, and to whom he lent about 60 people, treated them.
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