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Richmond Times-Dispatch                      February 10, 1935


Home    >    Newspaper Articles    >    John Marshall and Thomas Jefferson - Rivals in Everything




John and Tom -- Rivals in Everything

Jurist, Lucky in Love, Wins for Girl-Wife,
Daughter of Maid Who Jilted Sage of Monticello
Latter Signs License

By Georgia Bennett


One hundred and thirty-four years ago, and separated by but a few days, occurred two outstanding events in the careers of two great Virginians.

The first of these events was the appointment of John Marshall, native of Fauquier County, as chief justice of the Supreme Court. This was followed a scant three weeks later by the election of the founder of the Democratic party, Thomas Jefferson, to the presidency of the United States. It was on the thirty-sixth ballot when the House of Representatives broke the tie between Jefferson and Aaron Burr with a vote of 10 to 4 in favor of the Virginian.

Thus, within a few days, occur the most important dates in the lives of two of the most bitter and most illustrious political rivals of all history. The contrasting beliefs and frequently crossing paths of these two men often brought forth sparks that showered their own age with color and still glow in the black and white pages of history books.

Not only in politics, however, did their lives meet, but there is also a strange connection in their love affairs. By some ironical twist of fate, John Marshall married the daughter of the woman who "turned down" Thomas Jefferson. And for the finishing touch, Jefferson, as Governor of Virginia, had to sign their wedding license!

In public life, fame, and service to their country, these two rivals probably broke even, but in love the tall, awkward, unassuming juror came out with the honors. His courtship was a whirlwind one that took the castle by storm, whereas his more versatile rival twiddled his thumbs over his law books, mooned away a whole summer, and finally proposed to his lady only to find that she was already promised to another.


*          *          *


Marshall's romance began in the fall or early spring of 1779-80 when, being temporarily without a command, he went to Yorktown to visit his father, Colonel Thomas Marshall. The town was a-titter with excitement at the expectation of meeting the dashing captain who had proved his valor at Germantown, Valley Forge and Brandywine. Especially excited was the family of Rebecca Burwell and Jacqueline Ambler, a man known for his brilliance as well as his pretty daughters. From their mother's side came no mean heritage of beauty or glamour, for it was she who jilted Thomas Jefferson.

Living next door to Colonel Marshall, the pretty daughters realized that they would have first shot at the new game. In one of her letters, Eliza, the eldest daughter, said: "We had been accustomed to hear him spoken of by all as a very paragon . . . On his arrival our expectations were raised to the highest pitch and the little circle of York was on tip-toe. Our girls were particularly emulous who should be first introduced."

Alas, when the famed captain arrived the high hopes fell in ashes. His ill-fitting clothes, his gaunt face, his lack of social grace did not fit at all the pattern the Yorktown belles had made for him. "I, expecting an Adonis, lost all desire of becoming agreeable in his eyes when I beheld his awkward figure, unpolished manners, and total negligence of person," wrote Eliza Ambler of her disappointment in the new-comer.

Molly, the youngest Ambler, however, was not daunted. Although just 14, she boldly announced to her sisters that she had set her cap for the young soldier and would attend the ball, even though she had not yet been to dancing school.


Chief Justice John Marshall


And so, clinging to his arm and affording a charming contrast to his stalwartness, she attended not only the first ball, but many others with the captain, and was rewarded by his immediate capture of all hearts, including her own. His personality soon made up for the manner in which his clothes hung on him; his awkwardness was forgotten in his kindness and gentle ways. He "took" Yorktown with a dispatch and a completeness that Cornwallis knew only in his dreams.

The young Molly flirted openly with him. She gave him a lock of her hair, went to church with him, went walking with him. Along those famous sands where now, in warm weather, the hot-dog stand rules in its pristine glory and young collegians sprawl around in abbreviated bathing suits, this odd couple probably strolled hand in hand. Doubtless the moon shone benignly down on them, and the miniature waves of the blue York River lapped softly at their feet. How the stalwart, Scotch-natured Marshall must have marveled at the fragility of his little sweetheart as she leaned on his strong arm and blinked her blue eyes at him.

In fact, the spell was so complete that later in the spring, when the future Chief Justice was attending law classes under the famous George Wythe at William and Mary College, the face of the fair Molly often blotted out the law on the page before him. It is known that in his notebook the words "Molly" and "Maria Ambler" and "M. Ambler" occur frequently. A woman's pretty face and sweet nature had taken the flavor from the study of law for the man who for 34 years was the chief interpreter of the laws of his country.


*          *          *


When Jacqueline Ambler became treasurer and moved to Richmond, Marshall abandoned his studies completely in order to start practicing law at once and marry his Molly. In 1783 Thomas Jefferson signed the marriage license of the man and woman who were both so strangely linked with his own life.

The Marshall's soon moved into their house at the corner of Ninth and Marshall Streets. It was within sight of the Ambler home on Tenth Street. In that neighborhood then lived Benjamin Bott and Alexander McRae, Colonel John Harvie, Mr. and Mrs. John Wickham, the Brokenbroughs, and many other well known families of Virginia. This section of the city was known as Court End. Here lived the elite of society. John Marshall, with his nondescript clothes and odd ways, often gave them subject for much wagging of tongues. When he went to market, instead of being followed at a discreet distance by a servant with a basket, he carried his own purchases, and it was not unusual to see the judge coming down the street with a turkey in his arms, a sausage trailing from one pocket, and a bag of potatoes bulging in the other.

Soon after her marriage, Mrs. Marshall became in invalid. Her husband's devotion to her was a legend in the city. He was known even to go about the house and yard in his stocking feet in order not to disturb her. And so Sundays the neighbors liked to see him carry his small wife, her smiling face framed in a crisp, white bonnet, out to the carriage and drive her to church.

And, for many years, John Marshall and the daughter of the woman who jilted Thomas Jefferson lived happily in their shining, trim little house which to this day seems to hold some faint recollection of their romance.

*          *          *

Like his famous rival, Thomas Jefferson found in his courting days that love and law do not mix well. It was when he was attending William and Mary from 1760 to 1762 that he met Rebecca Burwell. As the son of Jane Randolph, he had access to all the fashionable homes in and around Williamsburg, and it was probably at some of their parties that he met the vivacious Becky. Or it might have been at a ball in the Appolo Room in the Raleigh Tavern. Standing before that splendid fireplace, etched by a black circle of admiring young gentlemen, she was a picture to melt the heart of any mortal man.

Jefferson, however, preferred discussions of art and philosophy and the sciences to the brilliant social affairs, and so was easily outdistanced by the more fiery Jacqueline Ambler. The young scholar particularly admired Professor William Small, George Wythe and Governor Francis Fauquier, and though his elders, they liked his company. Together they discussed the nature of the universe, the turning of a phrase, or the culture of ancient Greece.

However familiar were his terms with Plato and Aristotle, Miss Rebecca Burwell was, to the young Jefferson, one to be approached with fear and trembling. He wrote to a friend that, having lost the watch paper she made for him, he longed to possess another, but dared not ask her for it.

Although he doubtless knew many formulas for mathematics, he seemed to have no formula to draw the affections of this proud lady. It takes no strong imagination to see Jefferson, tall, bony, red-headed, hanging on the outskirts of her admirers when she visited her cousins at Carter's Grove. Or perhaps he rowed down the silent James on a warm night and gazed dreamily at her window, while she dreamed of others or giggled with her cousin Betsy over his courting. Or, in a moment of inspiration, he might have brought his violin and serenaded her from the shadows of those giant oak trees. For, in addition to knowledge of Latin, French, Italian, law, science and architecture, Jefferson was a skilled musician. When his home at Shadwell burned during his absence, on his return he anxiously asked an old slave if any of his beloved books had been saved. The Negro answered in the negative, but triumphantly brought forth his violin.


President Thomas Jefferson


After his two years at William and Mary, the future President went home to study law, but Becca Burwell mingled with the torts and statutes. Finally, in October, he went to attend the general court in Williamsburg and also to propose to Rebecca, but he found her already engaged to Jacqueline Ambler.

He was not the man to pine away with disappointment, however, and returned to his studies with more zeal than ever. Nine years later, at the age of 29, he married the lovely widow, Martha Skelton, on New Year's Day, 1772. After their wedding they started for Monticello, but the snow became deeper and deeper and they had to proceed on horseback. They arrived hours after they were expected and found the lights all out, the servants retired to their quarters. A cold reception, indeed, for a new bride. They had cold meat and wine and biscuits for supper by the light of one smoky lamp, and probably laughed a great deal in the silence of the great house.

Thus ran the course of the love affairs of those two great Virginians, Thomas Jefferson and John Marshall. Their ups and downs in love, their minor disappointments, and their personalities make the doctrine of judicial supremacy and the Declaration of Independence seem a little more closely connected with the ordinary course of daily life.




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