For The Record

Richmond Law professor Kevin Walsh curated an exhibition to show Chief Justice John Marshall’s legacy as a key nation builder.

Richmond Law professor Kevin Walsh argues that three people were most critical to building and shaping America: George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, and Chief Justice John Marshall.

“Washington was the indispensible man for the founding, and Lincoln was essential to the union we have now,” he said. “Marshall is the bridge between the two. He learned his politics by admiring Washington and, through his writings as a justice on the Supreme Court, he would influence Lincoln and his Gettysburg Address.”

Walsh hopes visitors to the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia will start to understand his argument thanks to an exhibition he curated on the life and legacy of the fourth chief justice.

Here, Walsh explains Marshall’s crucial role.

Why should people be interested in John Marshall?
If you asked someone 10 years ago to name the greatest American nation builders, only a few would have named Alexander Hamilton. Now everyone’s heard of Hamilton, but he was always that important. Marshall’s in a similar spot. When we think of nation builders, we don’t think of a judge. But we still look to those Marshall opinions as speaking to the Constitution. We understand the judiciary to be a co-equal branch. A lot of that had to do with his leadership.

How are you reframing his story with this exhibition?
Marshall led a fascinating life. He fought in the Virginia militia. He was in the Culpeper Minutemen with “liberty or death” literally on his shirt. He was in the Continental Army and fought at Valley Forge with Washington and Hamilton. He served in the Virginia legislature. He was a diplomat to France. He was a congressman and secretary of state. All of this before he was 45. We wanted to make sure that people saw all of his contributions and how those fit together to shape his political, legal, and intellectual outlooks, to then shape his jurisprudence.

You’re also trying to show his human side. Why is that important?
When Marshall was in his mid-70s, he had bladder stones. The morning of the surgery, he’s facing this horrible, painful ordeal — one he’s not sure he’ll recover from — and the doctor’s assistant said he seemed philosophical and calm. It makes you think, “That guy is tough.” Strangely enough, those stones still exist at a museum of medical oddities. We included them to show the earthy, human side of someone who is easy to mythologize. When you mythologize, you neglect the virtues that contribute to someone flourishing in their profession.

What do you hope visitors take away?
Too often we highlight individuals, but building the nation was a group effort, too. Marshall was really good at working as part of a team — whether it’s a military unit or a legislative body or the judiciary — and people may be inspired by the fact that someone can be so successful and be a nice, likable, sociable person. Marshall was not a doormat, but he had this character trait that I’ve started to call “disagreeability,” which is the ability to disagree without being disagreeable.