The Virginia Museum of History and Culture explores the legacy of the chief justice of the United States, John Marshall 

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Supreme Court justices wear black robes for one reason: John Marshall thought red robes — de rigueur for English justices — looked too aristocratic.

Marshall fought for independence in the Revolutionary War before serving in all three branches of the government. After his appointment as chief justice of the United States in 1801, he transformed the federal judiciary by putting it on an equal level with the president and Congress. At that time, there was so little regard for the judicial branch that when the government moved to Washington, there were no plans for a judicial building. 

"Hamilton" may be able to tell the story of a Founding Father in two acts, but Marshall's life would be challenging to condense. "John Marshall: Hidden Hero of National Union," the new exhibit at the Virginia Museum of History and Culture, delves into the story of the Virginian who came of age with the young country.

"One reason John Marshall is a hidden hero is that he accomplished his most important work in public life as part of a team," explains Kevin Walsh, president of the John Marshall Foundation. "Like a good team captain in sports, he was a strong leader. But what mattered was how his team did, not how many dazzling plays he pulled off on his own."

The exhibit is laid out as a biography highlighting moments in Marshall's long and storied life, including more than 34 years as chief justice, the longest tenure in history. During that time, he wrote 619 Supreme Court opinions, contributed to thousands of decisions and, notably, dissented in only one case.

Ruth Bader Ginsburg he was not.

Of the personal objects in the exhibition — his eyeglasses, the Chippendale slant-front desk and books — probably none is as unusual or telling as the bladder stones he had removed in Philadelphia when he was 76 years old. Refusing anesthesia, Marshall endured the removal of thousands of small particles by a medical instrument similar to the one on display "without flinching," according to sources.

No doubt equally as challenging was the five-volume, 3,200-page biography of George Washington that Marshall spent five years writing while serving as chief justice. He'd taken on the momentous project at the request of his close friend, Washington's nephew and a fellow Supreme Court justice, Bushrod Washington.

Two volumes of the book are included in the exhibition, including one inscribed by Marshall, "To the Virginia Historical and Philosophical Society" on the occasion of Marshall being asked to serve as the institution's first president. Bringing it full circle, the Virginia Historical and Philosophical Society, formed to preserve the records of illustrious Virginians, is now the Virginia Museum of History and Culture.

Curator Bill Rasmussen stresses that Marshall's importance to the young nation can't be overstated. "He was a modest man who didn't push his legacy," he explains. "His concern was keeping the country together. Had he not lived, the nation might not have made it."

Befitting a contemporary examination of a Founding Father, the exhibition reveals that Marshall was not without fault. Despite writing that slavery is "contrary to the laws of nature," between his multiple properties, Marshall owned close to 200 slaves on his plantations in Henrico County and Fauquier County and at his house in Richmond, where 18 enslaved people worked for him. As such, he's an example of the disconnection between our political ideals and historical reality, a problem Virginia still struggles with today.

But the exhibition, which takes in Marshall's life as a whole, makes it clear the man's most important and lasting contributions to the nation were as chief justice, in large part because when the Constitution was written, the article about the role of the judiciary branch was the briefest of the sections.

"It fell to him to explore what powers the founders wanted the courts to have," Rasmussen says. "He developed the judiciary into a powerful arm of the federal government, one able to match and control both executive and legislative branches, as well as the individual states." It was Marshall who introduced the practice of issuing an opinion by the court rather than individual justices writing their own statements.

The judicial robe in the exhibit was loaned by current justice Samuel Alito, who wrote, "All of the work of the Supreme Court rests on the foundation John Marshall laid."

For Walsh, Marshall is even more worthy of 21st-century attention than Alexander Hamilton, who some historians believe was not the staunch abolitionist that Broadway paints him to be.

"What Marshall really needs is a miniseries," he says.

"John Marshall: Hidden Hero of National Union" through Sept. 29 at the Virginia Museum of History and Culture, 428 N. Boulevard. virginiahistory.org.


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