John Marshall was born to Thomas Marshall and Mary Randolph Keith on September 24, 1755, near Germantown, Virginia. Thomas Marshall was a foremost a planter, but also held roles as surveyor, justice of the peace, and sheriff. The eldest of 15 children, John Marshall was primarily educated by his father, who taught him poetry, history, and other subjects.
During the Revolutionary War, Marshall served first as a lieutenant in the Culpeper Minute Men (1775-1776), then as a lieutenant in the 11th Virginia Continental Regiment (1776-1780). He fought in the battles of Brandywine Creek, Germantown, Monmouth, and Stony Point, and was present at Valley Forge during the winter of 1777-1778. In 1780, he interrupted his military service in order to acquire some rudiments of a formal legal education from George Wythe at the College of William and Mary, and was admitted to the bar in the same year. He married Mary "Polly" Willis Ambler in 1783, and they had ten children, six of whom survived to maturity.
Marshall was elected to the House of Delegates in 1782 and served as a delegate to Virginia's ratifying convention in 1788. During this time, he maintained his lucrative law practice in Richmond, Virginia. After turning down several federal positions, in 1797, he accepted an appointment by John Adams to a commission formed to smooth over relations with France. His dispatches describing the corruptness of the French foreign minister gained him great popularity, which helped him secure a seat in the 6th Congress (1799-1800). In 1800, John Adams appointed Marshall Secretary of State, followed by an appointment as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court on January 27, 1801. During his long tenure, the court decided over 1,100 cases, and Marshall authored the opinions in 519 of these. Among the numerous influential cases that Marshall helped to decide were Marbury v. Madison, McCulloch v. Maryland, Cohens v. Virginia, Worcester v. Georgia, and Gibbons v. Ogden. Marshall died July 6, 1835, at the age of 79.
The John Marshall autobiography consists of a 16-page autobiographical letter, written by John Marshall to Joseph Story, at the latter's urging, in 1827. Also included is an additional letter from Marshall to Story, expressing his approval of Story's biography of him, and an undated engraved portrait of Marshall.
The autobiography begins with a description of Marshall's happy childhood and the many sources of his education, both formal and informal. Marshall then moved to the topic of the Revolutionary War, first describing his service, and then the impact it had on him: "When I recollect the wild and enthusiastic democracy with which my political opinions of that day were tinctured, I am disposed to ascribe my devotion to the union, and to a government competent to its preservation, at least as much to casual circumstances as to judgment" (p. 4). Also covered in some detail is Marshall's legal practice, which he expressed a great reluctance to leave, and his role in the XYZ Affair, including the decision "to bring the controversy before the American People and convince them of the earnestness with which the American government sought a reconciliation with France" (p. 13).
Marshall also described the process of his selection for Chief Justice, which he portrayed as surprisingly casual: "[Adams] said thoughtfully 'Who shall I nominate now'? I replied that I could not tell….After a moment's hesitation he said 'I believe I must nominate you" (p. 15). Unfortunately, Marshall ended the letter without any discussion of his work on the Supreme Court.