THE GREATEST AND BEST: BROTHER JOHN MARSHALL
-by- Thomas P. Tignor, Junior Deacon, Virginia
Grand Secretary, Grand Chapter, Royal Arch Masons
and Scottish Rite Bodies of Richmond
The greatest and best of men in all ages
have been encouragers and promoters of the
Art; and have never deemed it derogatory to
their dignity to level themselves with the
Fraternity, extend their privileges and
patronize their assemblies. James Anderson
When we started our Masonic journey, we heard these
words. They were true when George Washington heard
them and they are true today. We will be considered "the
greatest and best" by our future reviewers.
Without fear of contradiction, I believe every man here
this morning will know the one Brother who I will try to
present in a little different manner.
We know him as a great soldier, a great lawyer, a great
diplomat, a great government servant, and the greatest
Supreme Court Justice this country has ever known. Yes,
John Marshal is the greatest and best for my remarks this
As I look around this Lodge I know several of you take
great pride in the fact that you are members today of the
two Masonic Lodges and Royal Arch Chapter that
numbered John Marshall as a Brother and Companion some
two hundred years ago. I know we have members of this
Lodge who are members of Richmond Lodge No. 10 and
Richmond Randolph Lodge No. 19 as well as Richmond
Royal Arch Chapter No. 3. We take pride in the fact that
John Marshall was also a member of these three great
Masonic bodies. May we bring as much honor to our great
fraternity as he did.
John Marshall was born in a log cabin in Fauquier
County near Germantown, Virginia on September 24, 1755,
the oldest of 15 children of Colonel Thomas Marshall and
Mary Randolph Marshall. Mrs. Marshall's family tree
included the Jeffersons, Randolphs, and Lees. John Marshall
came from the right Virginia stock. His father was a long
time friend of George Washington. In fact he was one of
George's surveyors on the great Fairfax estate. His father
also served in the House of Burgess at Williamsburg with
Patrick Henry, George Washington, George Wythe and
Thomas Jefferson. From this family background John
Marshall had his beginnings.
John Marshall did not see a school until he was some 10
or 12 years of age. His mother was well educated and she
was the one who taught him and his 14 brothers and sisters
their early education. When John was 12 he was tutored by
Rev. James Thomson of Scotland. After his outstanding
military service to his country, he took courses in law for six
to eight weeks at the College of William and Mary in
Williamsburg under George Wythe. He was admitted to the
bar on August 28, 1780 and Thomas Jefferson, who was
then Governor of Virginia, signed Marshall's license to
His distinguished military service to his state and his
country is often overshadowed by his great judicial
accomplishments. Let's briefly review his military record. He
began his military service as a lieutenant in the Fauquier
County militia. He held the rank of lieutenant and later
captain in both the Culpeper Minutemen and the Virginia
Continental army. His combat experience in the Revolution
carried him from the Battle of Great Bridge near Norfolk in
1776, to Brandywine, Delaware; Germantown, Pennsylvania;
Monmouth, New Jersey and on to Valley Forge. At
Germantown he was wounded. At Valley Forge he learned
to revere George Washington as the symbol of the
American cause. He also met Alexander Hamilton and
renewed friendship with James Monroe. He suffered the
cold winter at Valley Forge. He fought the British at
Monmouth Courthouse, New Jersey in June 1778 in 100o
heat. In July and August 1779 he fought along the Hudson
River at Stony Point. This completed his military service to
his country. The events of his military career and the
military career of his father had great influences on their
While serving with Washington at Valley Forge, John
Marshall determined that his future should be in the legal
profession. He had been appointed deputy judge advocate
responsible for the prosecution of court-martials. At Valley
Forge he took affidavits, handled witnessing proceedings and
settled minor disputes. He was in effect the county court
judge. This was the beginning of his judicial career.
Remember it was at Valley Forge he started his journey to
greatness as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of the
His military career also had the greatest effect on his
personal life. One could build a great love story on John
Marshall. It started at Yorktown and ended here in
Richmond. From the autumn of 1779 until Christmas day of
1832, for almost 53 years, Polly Ambler was the one who
shared his life as a loving wife, companion, mother and
His father, Colonel Thomas Marshall, was stationed at
Yorktown in command of a Virginia artillery unit. It was
here John Marshall met and fell in love with a fourteen year
old, Mary Ambler, known to her friends as Polly. Polly
Ambler, at that early age knew what she wanted and
announced it while going to a ball in honor of Captain
Marshall that she was resolved to set her cap for him.
In the spring of 1780 while on "inactive interval' from the
Army John Marshall studied law at the College of William
and Mary at Williamsburg under George Wythe. Was it law
or Polly which attracted him to the College of William and
Mary? If you can remember your romantic days, you can
best answer this question.
Incidentally these six or eight weeks at the foot of
George Wythe was the formal legal studying of John
Marshall. Think about that Ä Six to eight weeks at the
College of William and Mary. On Marshall's Law Notes are
written the name "Ambler, Polly Ambler, Polly, Miss Maria
Ambler." Yes John had more on his mind than law and
The Amblers moved to Richmond, Virginia to be near
the new State capital when John Marshall was studying at
William and Mary. Somehow Marshall immediately moved
to Richmond about the same time. Although John Marshall
was admitted to the bar in Fauquier County, Virginia on
August 28, 1780 he soon moved to Richmond and lived
there the remainder of his life. Needless to say, from the
time he moved to Richmond the courtship of Polly Ambler
and his career as a lawyer was enjoined.
They were married on January 3, 1783 in the parlor of
"the Cottage" in Hanover, County, Virginia. The bride was
almost seventeen and the groom was twenty-seven. In time
they became parents of ten children, six of whom lived to
From January 3, 1783 until Christmas Day of 1831, a
period of 44 years as husband and wife, as mother and
father, as companions, as friends, and, yes as lovers, the
romance of Polly and John Marshall was always one of the
strongest forces and influences of his life. This ended on
Christmas Day of 1831 for John Marshall. He simply could
not accommodate the shock of Polly's death. He mourned
in private. One of his Associate Supreme Court Justices,
Joseph Story, once found him in tears and the Chief Justice
told his close friend, Story, that he rarely passed a night
without weeping over Polly.
On Christmas Day 1832, a year after his wife's death
these words express his feelings "It was the will of Heaven
to take to itself the companion who had sweetened the
choicest part of my life, had partaken of all my feelings and
was enthroned in the innermost recess of my heart. Never
can I cease to feel the loss and to deplore it. I have lost her.
And with her I have lost the solace of my life." Yes she
remained the companion of his retired hours. When he was
alone and unoccupied, his mind unceasingly turned to her.
What greater love.
There are many unbelievable events of a personal nature
associated with John Marshall. One of the most interesting,
which clearly demonstrates his fortitude and will power, is
the incident in which he decided to be inoculated against
smallpox. Virginia discouraged inoculation and persons
desiring to take this precaution against contracting the
disease were required to have written consent of every living
adult within a two mile radius. When Marshall considered
the extent of these restrictions he was persuaded to go to
Philadelphia where it was believed inoculation laws were
more liberal and physicians better qualified and skilled.
Marshall walked the couple of hundred miles to Philadelphia
and, after recovering from the illness caused by the
inoculation, he walked home again. He walked 35 miles a
day. Is this fortitude as we hear in the Entered Apprentice
Now for the real purpose of this paper and, also, the
hardest part. The Masonic life of John Marshall.
It has been very difficult to assemble Masonic
information on John Marshall. From the limited resources
available to me here in Richmond, I have been able to
convince myself that, in many ways John Marshall carried
the banner of Freemasonry to higher heights than many of
us realize. The research has been difficult but the results
have been most rewarding for the researcher and, I trust will
be interesting to you, especially to the Brethren of
Richmond No. 10, Richmond Randolph No. 19 and the
Companions of Royal Arch Chapter No. 3, all of Richmond,
The starting point should be easy. When and where was
Marshall raised a Master Mason? Believe it or not, we
cannot determine the time and place.
Richmond Lodge No. 13, now No. 10, claims John
Marshall and perhaps this is correct; however, no dates and
places are indicated. It is believed he became a Freemason
while in the Revolutionary Army, perhaps while serving that
winter at Valley Forge with George Washington. Although
we cannot find the specifics, we know he was a Master
Mason, a member of Richmond No. 10. He was also a
member of Richmond Randolph No. 19. Richmond Royal
Arch Chapter records indicate he became a Royal Arch
Mason in the period 1792-1794.
Let's assume he was raised at Valley Forge in the winter
of 1777-78 at the age of 22 or 23. We know his Masonic
activities started at an early age. We do know that on
January 2, 1786 he was appointed to a Committee by the
then City Council of Richmond to form a scheme of lottery
agreeable to an act of the General Assembly to raise a sum
of money not exceeding 1,500 pounds to erect and complete
Free Masons' Hall in Richmond. The scheme did not meet
with the expected success but the building proceeded and
was occupied by Richmond Lodge No. 10 on July 11, 1786.
Grand Lodge held its semi-annual communication there on
Oct. 27, 1786. Richmond Royal Arch Chapter met in this
building March 31, 1792 and everyone in is invited to attend
the 200th anniversary of this great Chapter on March 31,
1992. You know, Masons' Hall is located at 1807 E. Franklin
Street, and is now the home of Richmond Randolph No. 19.
This is the oldest Masonic Building in continuous use in the
United States and it should be one of our Masonic
monuments. This is another story.
Although out of order datewise, let's take a moment to
consider Masons' Hall. This is where John Marshal received
his first judicial experience. He was Recorder of Richmond
and as such acted as a Judge in Masons' Hall. He also
practiced law from this building. In 1788 the citizens met in
Masons' Hall to instruct their delegates to adopt or reject
the Constitution. It is said that John Marshall, on
instructions and urging from George Washington, had a
strong influence in getting the delegates to adopt the
Constitution over the strong opposition of Patrick Henry.
Although the vote was close, the Constitution was adopted
John Marshall presided over a visit of General Lafayette
and his son, George Washington Lafayette, given by Lodges
10 and 19 during 1824 when Lafayette toured the country.
John Marshall was present when the cornerstone was
laid for the Virginia State Capitol on August 18, 1785. He
helped to lay the cornerstone of Masons' Hall on October
5, 1785. On Oct. 27, 1786, at age 31, John Marshall was
appointed Deputy Grand Master of Masons in Virginia by
Most Worshipful Edmund Randolph. Marshall and
Randolph were members of No. 10, No. 19 and Richmond
Royal Arch Chapter No. 3.
Between 1786 and 1790, John Marshall attended 15
sessions of the Grand Lodge. Perhaps the fact that his office
was located in the same building as Grand Lodge had some
bearing on his attendance. It was reported that John
Marshall was the person responsible for the purchase of the
Master's chair for No. 10. He had it made in England and
it is still the Master's Chair for Richmond Randolph No. 19.
Two weeks ago, I sat in this chair prior to a Chapter
At Grand Lodge in 1792, John Marshall became Deputy
Grand Master a second time. This time he was the first
Deputy Grand Master to be elected. During the 1792 session
of Grand Lodge he acted as Grand Master and presided
over Grand Lodge. He had a most unusual honor in 1792
and 1793. As Deputy Grand Master he signed the
dispensation to start Marshall Lodge in Lynchburg. In 1793,
as Grand Master he signed the Charter for Marshall Lodge.
This is the only time a Deputy Grand Master signed papers
to name a Lodge in his honor. In reviewing the history of
Marshall Lodge, no record is indicated that John Marshall
ever visited Marshall Lodge. Strange but fact.
At Grand Lodge in 1793, John Marshall was elected
Grand Master at the age of 38. As Grand Master he
changed the time of Grand Lodge from October to
November. While Grand Master, Grand Lodge requested
the Grand Master to report to Grand Lodge minutes of all
his proceedings during the recess. This was the forerunner
of the Grand Master's Address to Grand Lodge.
On November 23, 1795 John Marshall presided over his
last Grand Lodge as Grand Master. Brother Robert Brooke
was elected Grand Master. One of John Marshall's first
duties as Past Grand Master was to give an account of his
proceedings during the recess of Grand Lodge. He reported
on eight Dispensations. The following resolve or motion is
quoted from the Nov. 24, 1795 minutes of Grand Lodge:
"That the Grand Lodge are [sic] truly sensible of the
great attention of our late Grand Master, John Marshall, to
the duties of Masonry, and that they entertain a high sense
of the wisdom displayed by him in the discharge of the
duties of his office, and as a token of their entire
approbation of his conduct, do direct the Grand Treasurer
to procure and present him with an elegant Past Master's
jewel." This was the first time such action was taken for a
Past Grand Master. Yes, his greatness was noted by his
In December 1799, John Marshall suffered one of his
greatest losses. On December 14, 1799, George Washington
died. It fell upon John Marshall to pay one of the greatest
tributes to George Washington as he addressed the House
of Representatives by saying: "Our Washington is no more.
The hero, the patriot, and the sage of America ... the man
on who in times of danger, every eye turned and all hopes
were placed ... lives now only in his own great actions and in
the hearts of an affectionate and afflicted people." His voice
bespoke the anguish of his mind and a countenance
expressive of his deepest regret.
The next day John Marshall introduced Henry Lee's
resolution in Congress immortalizing Washington as "first in
war, first in peace, and first in the hearts of his countrymen."
Immediately after Henry Lee's eulogy to Congress, John
Marshall offered a resolution that a marble monument be
erected by the United States in the Capital City of
Washington and that the family of George Washington be
requested to permit his body to be deposited under it and
that the monument be so designed as to commemorate the
great events of his military and political life. Congress did
not appropriate money to build this monument. John
Marshall headed a private organization and was able to get
Congress to donate a site for the monument. The
cornerstone was not laid until July 4, 1848 in ceremonies
conducted by the Grand Lodge of District of Columbia. It
was finally dedicated with Masonic ceremonies on Feb. 21,
1888, 82 years after George Washington's death. Remember
the part John Marshall had in the great Washington
monument when you next see it in Washington or in print.
(As a footnote: John Marshall wrote five books on the life
of George Washington.)
Time does not permit me to review Marshall's service to
Masonry in the nineteenth century. He was an active Mason
during the 1800s serving on many Grand Lodge Committees
and at many Grand Lodge activities. Perhaps, this paper
may inspire some of you to do a little research of your own
on this great Mason.
Let me conclude with a very few comments regarding his
departure from his earthly pilgrimage.
He died on July 6, 1835 at age 80. His body was first
returned to his home at now 9th and Marshall Street in
Richmond and he is buried in Shockoe Cemetery in
Richmond where Brother Perry D. Mowbray and I visited
this week. The graves are marked. However, it is almost
impossible to read the markings on the stones. I wonder if
consideration could be given to restoring these markings so
that generations to come may be able to identify the stones.
On July 9, 1835, Masonic services were held for Mt.
Wor. John Marshall by Richmond Randolph No. 19 for the
"purpose of paying the last sad tribute of respect to our late
Worthy Brother, John Marshall, Chief Justice and late
Master of the Grand Lodge of Virginia." The procession was
formed at the Lodge and moved to the county court house
where they met the body and thence proceeded to the house
of the deceased, on the corner of Marshall and Ninth Street,
where a suitable discourse was delivered by Right Rev. R.
C. Moore, then to Shockoe burial ground, where the body
was interred with usual Masonic honors. Another great
Mason, John Dove who was Master of Richmond Randolph
No. 19, conducted the Masonic service.
Tradition states that the Liberty Bell in Philadelphia
cracked while tolling his death.
A few personal thoughts on the greatness of John
Marshall: He was a man of tremendous personal abilities.
Over and over again one ability seems to come forth. He
had the ability to Unify.
He unified his comrades at the age of 19 at Oak Hill in
Fauquier County. At Valley Forge, he unified his comrades.
His personable, winsome, and remarkable capacity for
leavening the dough of serious purpose with the yeast of
humor and diversion unified his troops. In his legal vocation,
he soon became a lawyer's lawyer. He unified his colleagues.
As a diplomat, he unified his country when he refused a
bribe to settle the French differences. This event, when he
told the American people of the attempted bribe, made
Marshall a national hero and started his distinguished career
as a public servant. As Chief Justice of the Supreme Court
he unified our government into three separate and distinct
parts. He unified the Judicial branch and made this country
a country of law and order. He unified the Supreme Court
Justices to act as one in their deliberations and decisions.
And somehow he unified the Masons into the great
Fraternity of Brotherhood under the Fatherhood of God. He
was Brotherly Love, Relief, and Truth by the way he lived
Thus ends this incomplete paper on a very small portion
of the life of one of the greatest and best of men in all ages
who was an encourager and promoter of our Art; and who
never deemed it derogatory to his dignity to level himself
with the Fraternity, extend its privileges and patronize its
For the privilege and honor of working so hard to
present this paper, I will be forever grateful. It has been a
pleasure and one of the most rewarding efforts of my life.
And to Peter Peck, I thank you for planting the seed.