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The rare or unique holdings of Nimitz Library.

The Fourth Chief Justice Writes about the First President

by Jennifer Bryan on 2024-02-16T15:37:03-05:00 in History, Special Collections & Archives | 0 Comments

Among the books in the original 1845 library of the Naval Academy is John Marshall's five-volume Life of George Washington.  Published in Philadelphia between 1804 and 1807, the work is what today would be called an authorized biography.  George Washington had bequeathed all his papers to his nephew Bushrod Washington, an associate justice of the Supreme Court, who gave Marshall access to them to write his account of Washington's life.     


Frontispiece from volume 1 of John Marshall's The Life of George Washington


John Marshall (1755-1835), who had served in the Continental Army and been a leader in the defense of the Constitution during ratification proceedings in Virginia, had developed a friendship with George Washington.  In 1798, he ran successfully for the House of Representatives, which is why he declined John Adams's nomination that year as an associate justice of the Supreme Court, a nomination that then went to Bushrod Washington.  Adams nominated Marshall as Chief Justice in 1800, and he took office in 1801.


Engraving of John Marshall from The National Portrait Gallery of Distinguished Americans


The first edition of Marshall's biography suffered from a certain awkwardness.  The entire first volume, the "Introduction," is devoted to a history of the English colonies in America through the end of the Seven Years' War.  The next three volumes document Washington's career as Commander-in-Chief of the Continental Army.  The final volume details his Presidential administration.  In 1824, Marshall separately published the first volume, and in 1832 produced a revised biography in two volumes.  In the 1850s, the Naval Academy library acquired an 1850 printing of the two-volume edition.

Marshall sought to be accurate and exact in his history.  Where recollections differed, he presented the varied accounts.  While modern historians differ in their assessments of Marshall's biography, it is still an important work written by someone who knew Washington and participated in the Revolution and founding of the United States.


Title page from volume 1 of John Marshall's The Life of George Washington


Marshall, John.  The Life of George Washington:  Special Edition for Schools.  Ed. Robert Faulkner and Paul Carrese.  Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2000.

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