Published Humanitas, Volume XXXII, Nos. 1-2, 2019

By any conventional measure, Chief Justice John Marshall’s Life of George Washington (1804) was a flop. Intended to be the authoritative biography of the nation’s most celebrated general and president, the work was widely derided at the time of its overdue publication, and since then has been largely forgotten. Surely the sense of personal embarrassment Marshall experienced must have been keen, for he admired no public figure more than Washington. Amid his Supreme Court duties, he labored for years on the Life, digging deep into American military and political history in hopes of etching in the minds of his fellow citizens the memory of the republic’s foremost founder. Yet in spite of his efforts, on no other occasion were Marshall’s failures more total and public. At one point, Marshall expressed the desire to publish the work anonymously, and one wonders if his wish was motivated less by self-effacement than a faint premonition of the biography’s failure.

Yet however unfortunate the legacy of the Life may be, we should hesitate to dismiss its insights for understanding Marshall or his understanding of leadership. After all, we see a different side of our nation’s arguably most famous Chief Justice…

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