News & Features » Miscellany

While our country (and her allies) are banding together to defend democracy, one local landmark celebrates one of democracy's earliest defenders.

Justice for All

The stars and stripes flutter on every block. Patriotic ribbons adorn lapels of every other person you see. Politicians stress the importance of maintaining the freedoms that make democracy. All brace for what comes next.

Meanwhile, at the address that Chief Justice John Marshall called home on the northwest corner of Ninth and East Marshall streets downtown, there's a celebration in the planning. On Saturday, Sept. 29, the Association for the Preservation of Virginia Antiquities (which operates the Marshall House) will present an afternoon festival marking the 200th anniversary of Marshall's appointment as chief justice of the United States.

The observance couldn't be more timely.

"Marshall didn't write the Constitution, others did that," says Pat Archer, the house museum's coordinator, as she guides a visitor through the stalwart, red brick, 18th-century house, "but he made it work."

She leads the tour on the Friday after the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, a national day of mourning and remembrance. Archer wears red, white and blue. Her eyes well up as she speaks, moved at the thought of what patriots like Marshall, and his contemporaries, Washington and Madison, had done to mold and meld our American system of government and jurisprudence. As she moves across the mostly uncovered, heart-of-pine floors, opening the shuttered windows to allow in light from the gray morning, Archer explains that Marshall (1755-1835) designed the house himself in 1790 and lived there for 35 years.

Handsome English and American antiques are sparingly placed in the large rooms with high ceilings. Although it is a stately house, there are surprisingly few rooms. Three original rooms and a large entrance hall are downstairs, and there are three main rooms up. "You were taxed according to how many rooms you had," Archer explains.

Many of the furnishings in the house were there when Marshall and his wife, Polly Ambler, occupied the place. The couple had 10 children, not all of whom survived childhood.

All of the objects reflect aspects of Marshall's family life, his distinguished career in public service or intellectual pursuits.

On the first floor is a large drawing room that became, on occasion, a dining room that could accommodate more than 30 people. This was the scene of a lively, monthly dinner Marshall gave for his colleagues. The justice's writing desk is placed near the window overlooking Marshall Street where it stood during his lifetime. A spectacular breakfront shares the same wall.

In the adjacent dining room, the table is set with French-made china. Archer said that apparently President James Monroe ordered it for the White House, but when the federal government wouldn't pay the bill, he sold it to his good friends, the Marshalls. A silver coffeepot and dish that Marshall commissioned for his son and daughter-in-law (and made by a Richmond silversmith) is displayed nearby.

In another room, a bookshelf holds a copy of the Marshall-authored life of George Washington. It was the first biography of the first president.

There is also an ebony and ormolu (imitation gold) French mantel clock purchased while Marshall was ambassador to France in 1797.

Polly Marshall's wedding gown is on display, as well as the judicial robes John Marshall wore as chief justice.

At the celebration on Sept. 29 another chief justice, Harry L. Carrico of the Supreme Court of Virginia, will deliver the keynote address from the Marshall Street side of the house. The public is invited.

Following, there will be tours of the classically proportioned house with re-enactors portraying Marshall, his kinfolk and his friends. The Woodducks, a musical group, will provide period tunes on harpsichord and flute. Guests will be encouraged to dance.

As she completes her tour of the Marshall house, Archer leads her guest onto the back porch and points to a grassy plot near the adjacent and modernistic John Marshall Courts Building where she says a tent would be placed for refreshments, craft demonstrations and children's games.

"He did so much," she says, listing Marshall's service during the American Revolution in the Continental Army, as a delegate in the Virginia legislature, as a member of the U.S. House of Representatives, with an appointment as secretary of state, and, of course, shaping the power of the judiciary as chief justice for 35 years.

"But still," Archer says, "Marshall is overlooked locally."

Perhaps the activities on Sept. 29 will help to change that.

Add a comment