John Marshall Letters Document Writing of George Washington's Biography

By Meghan Bryant - Frances Lightfoot Robb Head of Special Collections Public Services & Instruction

In December 2016, David B. Wolf, a New York attorney and collector interested in John Marshall and his biography of George Washington, donated three letters that join an existing collection of John Marshall Papers (Mss. 39.1 M34). Two of the letters were written and signed by John Marshall and the third is from George Washington’s nephew, Bushrod Washington, to Tobias Lear at Mount Vernon. The letters document John Marshall’s writing of the biography of George Washington, of which the Special Collections has a first edition copy. Recent scholarship suggests that writing the biography was an honor for which Tobias Lear, in particular, passionately vied and one that ultimately eluded him (see Ray Brighton, The Checkered Career of Tobias Lear).

Bushrod Washington, who studied under George Wythe at William & Mary, and who was President Washington’s closest relative, was left responsible for all of his uncle’s military, civil, and private papers after Washington’s death. Yet Tobias Lear was present at George Washington’s death and upheld his promise to George Washington to sort his presidential papers. The two men, it seems, were both in a position to claim some authority for using Washington’s papers to pen a definitive biography of the nation’s first president. Yet Bushrod took it upon himself to determine who would author the work, and Tobias later faced suspicion of destroying some of Washington’s papers.[1]

In Bushrod’s letter to Tobias Lear, dated June 13th, 1800, he mentions that he is “extremely anxious to see this work [Washington’s biography] commenced & finished as well upon your account as my own….But as pecuniary considerations are less operative with me than many others, I cannot be otherwise than very nice in selecting a proper person to be the author. As soon as I hear from these gentlemen & have made a decision respecting them I will inform you.” One can only imagine Tobias’s feelings about Bushrod being the decision maker, as Tobias had served as George Washington’s executive secretary, tutor to Martha Washington’s grandchildren, and “was integrated into the Washington household both during and after the presidency.”[2] Though Bushrod Washington had encouraged the writing of a biography, and Tobias Lear was eager to complete the task, John Marshall agreed to write it and Bushrod allowed Marshall to take temporary possession of many of the president’s papers while he worked on the biography.[3]


John Marshall signature. (John Marshall to John Lawrence, 21 February 1834 (2017.014 / SC 00134))
John Marshall signature (John Marshall to John Lawrence, 21 February 1834 (2017.014 / SC 00134)).

The other two letters are from John Marshall to Henry Lee and John L. Lawrence, two men who had written to him about the biography after its publication. His letter to Henry Lee provides clarifications and specifications about various details in his biography of George Washington. Likewise, in his letter to Lawrence, Marshall thanks the man for providing insight and information on “the small body of militia assembled near Jamaica in Long Island in August 1776” and General Woodhull’s involvement in the battle. Marshall states that “it is to me matter for deep concern and self reproach that the Biographer of Washington should, from whatever cause, have misstated the part performed by any individual in the war of our revolution. Accuracy of detail ought to have been, and was, among my primary objects.”

John Marshall to Henry Lee, 11 August 1833. (2017.014 / SC 00134)
John Marshall to Henry Lee, 11 August 1833. (2017.014 / SC 00134)


As part of the Marshall Papers collection, these documents join letters between the Chief Justice and his family, with one of the highlights being his book of law notes. Among his notes is his doodle of his beloved’s name, Polly Ambler. The volume is currently on exhibit at the National Constitution Center.

[1] J. Dennis Robinson, “The Rise and Fall of Tobias Lear” [a “condensed version of The Checkered Career of Tobias Lear by Ray Brighton], Seacoast NH,

[2] Meredith Eliassen, “Tobias Lear,” George Washington’s Mount Vernon,

[3] Maria Kimberly, “George Washington’s Papers,” George Washington’s Mount Vernon,


In December 2016, David B. Wolf generously donated the following letters: John Marshall to Major Henry Lee (2017.014 / SC 00134); John Marshall to John L. Lawrence (2017.014 / SC 00134); and Bushrod Washington to Tobias Lear (2017.015 / SC 00135).