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Christopher Lee Philips

John Marshall on George Washington: An Episode in American Political Biography

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Virginia patriot and jurist John Marshall wrote the first authorized biography of George Washington, Commander-in-Chief of the Continental Army, first President of the United States and Father of His Country. Published from 1804 through 1807 and sold by subscription, Marshall’s Life of Washington is a 3,200 page door-stop, more history than biography, and a work Thomas Jefferson privately considered “a five volumed libel.”
When an objective biographer renders upon a president the judgment of history, critics usually question the author’s degree of access to their subject, cooperation among members of the president’s inner circle, and, more conspicuously, any hint of political bias. When the author is a confidante, a political ally, or even a protégé, critics often dismiss the work as entirely suspect, politically motivated, replete with vendettas to launch and old scores to settle. Imagine John Roberts writing a fair and balanced biography of George W. Bush or William Rehnquist waxing objective on the presidencies of Richard Nixon or Ronald Reagan and you can begin to comprehend the controversy that surrounded John Marshall’s Life of Washington, written early in Marshall’s tenure as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court.
The biographical enterprise taken up by John Marshall with his friend Bushrod Washington proved less successful than they had hoped. Only about seven thousand sets of the Life of Washington were eventually sold. Nevertheless, all parties involved fared well financially, and throughout his later years Marshall regularly contemplated publication of a revised edition of the Life of Washington. Marshall’s long-standing friendship with Bushrod weathered their joint publishing experience, and they remained staunch allies throughout their tenure on the Supreme Court, where Marshall’s vigorous defense of the Constitution reigned until 1835.
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