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FOREWORD - John Marshall, The Life of George Washington 
The Life of George Washington. Special Edition for Schools, ed. Robert Faulkner and Paul Carrese (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2000).
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While there are other good biographies of George Washington, some recent, this Life by Chief Justice John Marshall probably should be read first. It is the first serious biography, appearing within eight years of Washington’s death, and its author was himself a statesman of rare judgment who knew the great man and many of his accomplishments. The Life of Washington is therefore an account of men and events by one who saw much at first hand and saw with a knowing eye. Marshall once wrote to Gouverneur Morris (October 2, 1816) on “the inferiority of modern to ancient history”; . . . it is not “written by practical statesmen” who have actually “engaged in the great & interesting events” they write about. The Life is the only published assessment of Washington’s whole work in war and peace by a wise observer himself active in both. While there are differing twentieth-century estimates of the book, the prominent historian Charles Beard had good reason to call Marshall “a historian of masterful acumen.”
Actually, the Life is about much more than Washington. Washington was father of his country, and Marshall’s Life of Washington is political history as well as biography. The Life is the only comprehensive account by a great statesman of the full founding of the United States—of the founding of an independent people as well as of its government. We see the war that freed and partly formed, and then the political deeds that made of tenuous union a self-governing country. We see these from the governing point of view: of the Commander in Chief and founding President without whom, Marshall suggests, neither would have happened. There is no other concentrated history of the essentials by such an authority on American institutions. It is a historical-political companion to that old bible of American institutions, The Federalist Papers.
One should add that Marshall’s epic is instructive about more than Washington and his political work. It can be seen as a case study of the relation between democracy and human greatness. To what extent does democracy depend upon extraordinary leaders? How do a leader and a democracy overcome the tensions inherent in such a relation? Superior leaders’ claims to superiority rub against a democracy’s pride in equal rights, majority rule, and popular consent. But it is a fact that the American democratic republic depended upon the great man Washington, and it sustained him. How success was possible is the question Marshall proposed to answer in the Life.
The Life began as what would now be called an authorized biography. Washington’s executor selected Marshall for the writing, and Marshall alone among the early biographers was permitted access to Washington’s own papers. He took this special responsibility seriously. He sifted the papers, reviewed what histories there were, inquired of those who had served Washington in war and in politics, and sought accuracy and even exactitude in describing details of a battle or responsibility of a politician. Where generals differed in their recollections, historians in their estimates of casualties, or parties in their political interpretations, Marshall presented the different sides. The Life was to be authoritative as well as authorized.
This one-volume version is Marshall’s final revision, completed a year or two before his death in 1835. It was the last of several revisions. The first edition in five volumes had been hurried out from 1803 through 1807, just when Marshall undertook his new duties as Chief Justice and as an ex officio justice on the North Carolina and Virginia circuit courts. It was somewhat ill conceived—Washington was not introduced until volume two—and burdened by printing errors and clumsiness. This is one reason that some historians have disdained the Life. But an embarrassed Marshall bent himself to correct and improve. A reprinting in 1805 allowed him to eliminate the worst errors in production and composition. In 1824 he spun off the first volume as a history of the colonies; in 1832 he reissued the revised biography proper as compressed into two volumes. This may be regarded as his definitive version. Then, during the remaining three years before his death, the aging Chief Justice shortened more and simplified more in order to prepare this one-volume edition for schools. Simplifying did not mean what now would be ridiculed as “dumbing down.” While Marshall cut out elaborate wording, some analyses, and the occasional incident, he retained from the two-volume work the three great parts (war, governing, character), much of the language, and the important diagnoses and events. “Written entirely” by the Chief Justice (according to the original publisher’s notice) and published from his manuscript in 1838, the one-volume edition was a success. It went through seven reprintings in six months and twenty reprintings in all, the last in 1849—and then it reappeared, with another publisher and without the subtitle “written for the use of schools,” in three printings from 1857 to 1859. This Liberty Fund edition makes available for the first time in over 140 years Marshall’s most approachable version of the Life and his final effort to keep before his countrymen the example of Washington’s character and principles.
Marshall had had plenty of opportunities to observe Washington in action. Their lives were intertwined despite the facts that Marshall was twenty-three years younger and that his deeds as Chief Justice came in the four decades after Washington’s death. Both men were Virginians. Marshall’s father had been Washington’s friend and eventually a trusted advisor and his Supervisor of Revenue for the District of Ohio. Marshall himself served as lieutenant and captain at a number of the battles described in the Life, including the defeat of Lord Dunmore near Norfolk in 1775 and the intense campaign of 1777, directed by Washington, to deny Philadelphia to the British. He endured with Washington the terrible winter camp of 1777–78 at Valley Forge. After the war Marshall too returned to Virginia, where he became prominent in state politics and eventually, at the Virginia ratifying convention of 1787, one of the leading younger defenders of the proposed Constitution. He became a member of the Legislature and the Council of State, Brigadier-General in the Militia, leader of the Richmond Bar, and, by the 1790s, President Washington’s most important supporter in Virginia. But he had made investments in land that led to large debts. Pleading his private finances, he declined Washington’s offers of such federal posts as Attorney General and Ambassador to France (as well as President John Adams’s nomination, in 1798, to be an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court).
Still, Marshall had accepted appointment by Adams in 1797 to the so-called XYZ mission to France, and this mission made Marshall famous on a national scale. While the French government toyed with the envoys, reports of these humiliations abroad extracted political victory at home. Many hitherto enraptured with France’s democratic Revolution turned for the time from the Republican party which had espoused the cause of France; it is “a shock on the republican mind, as has never been seen since our independence,” Jefferson wrote to Madison (April 6, 1798). It was Marshall who had composed the chief negotiating documents and the reports home, and who had shepherded the Americans in keeping the onus on the French while appearing open to real negotiation. When returned to Virginia, determined to rescue his private affairs, the newly prominent Marshall was nevertheless persuaded to run for Congress. According to his little autobiography only the entreaties of Washington himself, pressed unrelentingly at Mount Vernon, brought him around. In the present “crisis” of parties and policy, Washington had insisted, “every man who could contribute to the success of sound opinions was required by the most sacred duty to offer his services to the public.” The clinching argument came when Washington reminded Marshall of Washington’s own (immeasurably greater) sacrifices of “private feeling” for “public duty.”
Within three years of his entry into national office, Marshall was Chief Justice of the United States, charged to protect the Washingtonian Constitution. He had run for Congress as a moderate Federalist and won, had become, in a very divided House, the unofficial leader without whom nothing could be done, and was selected to offer the House’s eulogy upon Washington’s death. After turning down a nomination by Adams for Secretary of War, he acquiesced in that of Secretary of State and then, as the Federalist era and the presidency of Adams completed their course, he accepted without hesitation a nomination in January of 1801 as Chief Justice. In the most unpromising circumstances ever to greet a Chief, succeeding two comparatively ineffectual predecessors, he went on to develop the semisacred authority of the Supreme Court and the fundamental outlines of a semisacred constitutional law. But founder as he was, and famous as he had become, Marshall himself looked up to Washington as founding father and political hero.
Is Marshall’s Life a shrewd diagnosis of a great founding or—as critics suggest—a partisan treatise intended to extol the Federalists and defame the Republicans? Is it, as these critics object, a one-sided history written by a public man advocating the particular principles of his party? To this objection there is an obvious reply. Even if the Life were partisan history, it helps us understand a great party, perhaps the indispensable party in American history. We are given an authentic account of the party that made enduring popular government possible. More precisely, the struggle between Federalists and Republicans was not merely a partisan matter but a serious political drama upon the outcome of which depended the true and practicable principles of liberal and popular government. More than party is at stake here, and, in any event, a serious political education must consider both sides in the disputes Marshall recounts.
A good challenge to the Life’s account of the Washingtonian administration is Jefferson’s little “Explanations” at the start of his Anas. The Anas consists of three volumes of memorabilia of Washington’s administration, with an intent, according to the introductory “Explanations,” to counter “the only history of that period which pretends to have been compiled from authentic and unpublished documents.” For Jefferson, at least, Marshall’s Life is the rival to be confronted. According to the Anas, the Life gilds and disguises the undemocratic corruption with which Alexander Hamilton had bamboozled an aging Washington. Hamilton was an “apostate” from the “holy cause” of republicanism. He would raise the wealthy few, put down the people, and reintroduce the corrupt British hierarchy of classes. According to Jefferson, Marshall in the Life puts an attractive shine on Hamilton and the few and their accomplishments, but is silent and cold as to “the rights of humanity,” as to democratic republicanism as a whole (which would “change the condition of man over the civilized globe”), and as to the Republican party in America. This is another common objection to the Life, and it is the one that influences many contemporary critics. These critics are less opposed to Marshall’s partisanship than to his alleged lack of democratic and humanitarian partisanship.
The diagnosis that Jefferson is so concerned to attack is this: at the founding of the American popular government the Republican party was good at being popular but not at establishing government. Only “the temporary ascendancy” of the Federalists, according to the Life, enabled the new government to acquire strength enough to confront the inevitable shocks that were to come. Party is secondary to Marshall, and party strife is “dubious” and regrettable. A constitutional government and wise policies are primary, and it was the Washingtonian Federalists who established both. Perhaps it is relevant to note that Jefferson, despite considerable effort, was unsuccessful at recruiting an author for a rival history. While he finally endorsed the Italian Carlo Botta’s work as “more true than the party diatribe of Marshall’s,” he himself noted that even Botta borrowed heavily from Marshall (Jefferson to John Adams, June 23, 1813).
The Life itself contains several diagnoses of partisanship, and these begin early, with divisions over support of the army during the war years. But Marshall concentrates on the growing opposition during Washington’s presidency from a “great party” that called itself “the people.” The fundamental division as he saw it was between those favoring a government strong enough to govern and those reluctant to burden the states and the majority with the necessary taxes, federal powers, and enforcement of contracts and debt payments. The Life thus supplies a sober but provocative mix: it mixes republican devotion with political science. Marshall was devoted to his country and to popular self-government. He nevertheless shows how the republican experiment might have failed. It was likely to have failed. The war for independence could have been lost (one mutiny threatened the patriot cause with “total ruin”). The attempt at national self-government under the Articles of Confederation did fail. The Americans finally succeeded. But success at war and government was due as much to superior men as to the country’s popular inclinations. It was not due to some inevitable progressive development or to the magic of popular self-rule.
The war for independence involved a people reluctant to sacrifice, states reluctant to allow a national government strong enough to compel sacrifice, and states and peoples reluctant to support the soldiers and officers who did sacrifice. Hence, in Marshall’s judgment, the grandeur of Washington as general on the defensive, as general patching together an army, and as pillar of not only the war effort but the civil effort. “The season for action always arrived before the preparations for it were completed,” Marshall observed of the civil authorities. But Washington also had to be a general squelching visionary hopes and projects, such as enterprises against Canada that tended to dazzle Congress even as the armies starved and supplies dwindled. Similar difficulties greeted Washington as President. According to Marshall, a majority of Americans probably opposed the Constitution, which was ratified only because voters, in selecting the ratifying conventions, still deferred somewhat to character and prominence. When the new government began to govern, it had to confront the long-standing democratic and state-oriented sympathies and authorities. These attitudes and powers were organized into a movement by Jefferson and his allies and inflamed in hope and hatred by the more democratic liberalism of the French Revolution. Thus was formed a Republican party which suspected the essentials (as Marshall saw them) of a strong government and a prosperous economy.
The Life is chiefly an account of what it took to establish the new American order. What it took, chiefly, was Washington. It took above all Washington’s “resolution” in war and peace—a forcefulness deliberate and upright, but unyielding. This is the outlook that controls not only Marshall’s occasional accounts of party conflict but also his general account of the war for independence and the struggle for an adequate government. It also controls the concluding summary of Washington’s mind and character: the moral and political lessons especially for the ambitious young who are “candidates for fame.”
Two-thirds of the Life is about Washington’s generalship and gives a panoramic portrait of the Revolution’s major battles. The surge of British effort moved from Boston to the crucial middle colonies and finally to the South. The British kept invading and raiding. They attempted the decisive things: to destroy the Americans’ little armies, to occupy the great ports, to split the colonies down the Hudson River, and to reclaim the land and people. First came maneuvering around Boston in 1775. Then the British made the crucial takeovers in the middle colonies, first New York City in 1776, and then Philadelphia in 1777, coupled with Burgoyne’s splitting movement from Quebec to the Hudson via Lakes Champlain and George. Finally, the British thought to roll up the South from Savannah in 1779 and from Charleston and from Westover in Virginia, near Richmond, in 1780. Washington kept defending. He kept the British from extending their conquests from enclaves such as New York and Philadelphia to states as a whole and hence—given the unsettled loyalties—to the bulk of the citizenry. There was an exception in the South. After the British captured General Benjamin Lincoln’s army at Charleston, counties and whole states returned to British sovereignty. Earlier there had almost been a similar disaster in New Jersey after Washington’s rag-tag forces had been chased out of New York and then over the Delaware River into Pennsylvania. But Washington did the most necessary thing—and more. He kept his army alive, and he was resilient. Though driven across the Delaware, amazingly he returned during 1776 and 1777 to Trenton and still more amazingly to Princeton to shake the British hold over most of New Jersey. What shows through the Life, then, is Washington’s immense tenacity. Even amidst the rout around New York “he did not appear to despair.” Washington possessed an “unconquerable firmness” that showed “a serene unembarrassed countenance” to the troops and that fostered enterprise as well as vigilance. He was always devising some plan for the fox on the run to become the wolf on the attack.
In similar circumstances a man less competent could lose. By surrendering his army at Charleston in 1780, General Lincoln lost the whole lower South. Lincoln heeded the pleas of the civil authorities and, contrary to Washington’s counsel, did not retreat when he could have saved his army. By comparison, Washington in 1777 withdrew his army rather than make a final fight for Philadelphia, despite the pleas of civil authorities and despite the fact that Philadelphia was the seat of the Continental Congress. In 1780–81, General Nathanael Greene regained in the South most of what Lincoln had lost—and by a Washingtonian strategy. Greene and his able commanders fought many battles and won few. But he never lost his army, and he was always dangerous. By continually harassing the enemy, by masterfully employing a popular guerrilla force, by dividing his army to force the British to divide and weaken theirs, and by keeping civilians loyal to the patriot cause, Greene made the lower South too difficult for the British to occupy. Greene’s strategy was that of the Commander in Chief, with the sole exceptions of the Continental Army’s victories over Burgoyne at Saratoga in 1777 and over Cornwallis at Yorktown in 1781—the great victories that punctuated dogged effort.
While the obvious drama of the Life is the course of the Revolutionary War, the underlying drama is the way in which Washington’s generalship gave birth to his country. He made a national army out of what was virtually no army—“an undisciplined, ill-organized multitude” from various states. He kept an army despite shortages of soldiers, supplies, arms, and back pay. He kept it by his own example, especially among the officers. He kept it by severe punishment—the execution of deserters, of spies (even in the difficult case of Major André), and of mutineers. Often it seemed that the army was loyal only to him. But Washington kept the army loyal to the cause of free government when it might have turned away or even turned traitor. Marshall dwells on the key incidents. These include Washington’s overcoming a massive mutiny of Pennsylvania soldiers insisting on their back pay, the mutiny that “threatened the American cause with total ruin” in 1781, and with the war over, Washington’s overcoming a potentially massive mutiny by officers bent on assuring their pay before the army disbanded in 1783.
What Marshall quietly reveals is not only how Washington fought, but how Washington kept a deeply divided people loyal to the fight for self-government. The soldiers and the officers were kept loyal in the army. Outside the army, many people were kept loyal by the army and not least by the example and persuasiveness of its Commander in Chief. Still, states typically competed to sacrifice the least in men, money, and materiel. A sluggish administration at the national level was a constant problem, especially because Congress administered finance and even war by committee. Not least galling to Washington were the fear and envy directed against the army itself. Legislators often held back prerogatives and pay, especially from the officers. One is struck by Washington’s indignation at the injustice done to those who did the most and sacrificed the most to win American independence. One is struck, too, by his patient obedience and his diplomatic but persistent pressing of his political masters to do what justice and the war effort required.
The second portion of the Life shows Washington dealing politically with what he had helped to keep in line militarily. Marshall takes readers through troubles under the Articles of Confederation, to a glimpse of the Constitutional Convention, to the work of making a paper plan into a real government. The theme of this portion is the statesmanship needed to establish the plan. Marshall supplies a checklist of the country’s immense problems at the start of Washington’s administration; and he reports how the first President addressed each and all. Economic well-being is restored by negotiating trade agreements and enforcing contracts. Credit is restored through taxes and by paying at full agreed value all public debt (state as well as federal). A mixture of patient diplomacy and decisive forcefulness deals successfully with Indians, foreign powers, and a democratic insurrection.
The context of the particular policies is a general political struggle: a point-counterpoint between Washington’s efforts and a popular party of opposition. The start of the struggle was in a constitutional question with political implications for the Presidency (the most undemocratic of political branches): did executive dismissals, as well as appointments, require assent of the Senate? Opposition to the party of the government became “systematic opposition” in reaction to Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton’s plan to assume state debts as well as federal, with its implications for federal power, and to fund them at face value, with its benefit for creditors and speculators at the cost of higher taxes. The next stage was an open extension of the attack to the hero himself. It arose in reaction to Washington’s proclaiming neutrality as France, the new voice of democratic Revolution, warred with the old monarchical Britain. It rose to a crescendo of popular meetings and invective on the occasion of Jay’s Treaty settling disputes with Britain. Could the new government really govern? Or would the final power be the torrent of popular outrage, or those rebelling in western Pennsylvania against the new taxes on liquor, or the activists in democratic societies modeled on the French revolutionary clubs—or the revolutionary French emissary Genêt, who ignored court orders and federal law while provoking indignation against the administration and authorizing French acts of war from American soil? Would the Presidency have the authority in foreign affairs marked out by, say, The Federalist’s famous discussion of executive power? Or might the Senate obtain the records of the Executive’s diplomacy, thus to publicize and baffle it? Might the Senate try to control executive appointments by disallowing the President’s dismissal of his subordinates? Could the House scuttle treaties made constitutionally—negotiated by the executive, with the Senate’s consent—by refusing to provide the enforcing legislation?
The new government succeeded, and Marshall, without claiming for the first President all the credit, emphasizes what Washington did. To begin with, Washington “was slow to commit himself”; he weighed seriously different points of view. He tried to appoint the best people (Hamilton and Jefferson sat in his cabinet), and he sought substantive counsel from his advisors. He was upright, acted out of duty, aimed to conciliate differences of party, rectified grievances, and took account of objections to his own judgments. He tried to negotiate with the Whiskey rebels, sought counsel from all sides in the heated controversy over the constitutionality of a national bank, and deliberated long and hard as to the merits of John Jay’s proposed treaty with Great Britain. But with deliberation and moderation in decision went determination when decided. Against the Whiskey rebels, for example, Washington put together an intimidating army and thus dissolved a threatening insurrection without battle or casualty. When protests against the Jay Treaty threatened to overwhelm the government, Washington approved it promptly. Confronted with executive decisiveness, the crowds subsided.
The Life concludes with one of the finer brief character sketches in American literary and historical writing. It is an economical précis, a compression of intellectual and moral virtues that in itself calls for much pondering. No one who considers this section can suppose that Marshall writes simply for political purpose, to say nothing of partisan purpose. He admires for their own sake the eleven or twelve qualities that he lays out, from Washington’s “unaffected and indescribable dignity,” to his judiciousness, the subordination of ambition to duty, the devotion to a constitutional republicanism of equal rights, and the enterprise as well as caution in military matters. But Marshall also means to call the attention of his readers to the need in democratic government for superior character in the highest offices. Of Washington he writes, “Respecting as the first magistrate in a free government must ever do, the real and deliberate sentiments of the people, their gusts of passion passed over without ruffling the smooth surface of his mind. Trusting to the reflecting good sense of the nation, he had the magnanimity to pursue its real interests in opposition to its temporary prejudices; and in more instances than one, we find him committing his whole popularity to hazard, and pursuing steadily the course dictated by a sense of duty, in opposition to a torrent which would have overwhelmed a man of ordinary firmness.”
Robert K. Faulkner
TABLE OF MAPS
PRINCIPAL EVENTS OF WASHINGTON’S LIFE
NOTE ON THIS EDITION
Just as the second edition of his Life of Washington was appearing in 1832, John Marshall wrote to his Philadelphia publishers Cary & Lea: “If I could engage in reducing The Life of Washington to a single volume for schools (I do not know of what size) I would attempt it without any view to profit.” A year later he reported: “I have at length completed an abridgment of the Life of Washington for the use of schools. I have endeavored to compress it as much as possible. . . . After striking out every thing which in my judgment could be properly excluded the volume will contain at least 400 pages.” Cary & Lea did publish the abridgment, but only in 1838, three years after Marshall died.
For this Liberty Fund republication we have eliminated some of the editorial apparatus of the original publisher, but have made no substantive changes to Marshall’s own text. We have kept editorial additions to a minimum. We have changed the subtitle chosen by the publishers in 1838 (“written for the use of schools”) in favor of a more concise indication that Marshall had produced a refined, not merely simplified, version of his larger work. (This single-volume Life was republished in the 1850s without a subtitle.) As to the text itself, a few changes in wording and punctuation have been duly noted. Spelling in general has not been changed, although some proper names have been varied to accord with modern usage; such changes have not been noted.
We have added features to clarify the order and events of the work. In addition to supplying portraits of Washington and Marshall and a new foreword, we divided the work into three parts in a new table of contents. Simple chapter titles have replaced a densely analytical table of contents, partly because the analytical summaries were repeated at the head of each chapter, where we retain them. We also added a list of maps, a list of the principal events of Washington’s life, a listing of further reading and editorial sources (Appendix A), five of Washington’s key speeches and writings, including the Farewell Address (Appendix B), and an index.
The editors’ footnotes are numbered, while Marshall’s few footnotes are marked by asterisks. Notes have been supplied only to clarify technical words, mostly military, or words now obscure, and to supply essential historical and biographical information not likely to be obvious to today’s reader.
While no maps appeared in the first twenty printings of this single-volume Life (1838 to 1849), nor in the edition published from 1857 to 1859, both editions of the full Life published under Marshall’s supervision (1804–7, 1832) included maps of the important battles and campaigns of the Revolutionary War. For this Liberty Fund edition we have supplied new maps for several important battles and campaigns.
We would like to acknowledge the assistance and support provided by Boston College and Middlebury College, specifically Patricia Gray and the Reference staff at Starr Library, Middlebury College, and Richard Saunders and Emmie Donadio of the Middlebury College Museum; the Valley Library and staff at Oregon State University, Corvallis; Thomas Schneider, for help in proofreading; and Charles Hobson, editor of The Papers of John Marshall, for unpublished copies of letters in which Marshall mentions an edition for schools (May 5, 1832 and June 13, 1833).