John Marshall House

So in continuing my John Marshall tour of Richmond, I went to his home last Friday (having gone to Monumental Church, where he attended, the day before and the previous post to this one).

I was provided a good tour of the house and as my mind is attune to the details of architecture (undergrad degree is in historic preservation), I have to also say the house was amazing. It’s as formal as it is vernacular and I have a great interest in that.

Tours are provided by Preservation Virginia. That organization, formerly the Association for the Preservation of Virginia Antiquities (APVA) saved the house  when John Marshall’s granddaughters sold the lot in 1907 to the City of Richmond. Richmond intended to tear down the house to build John Marshall High School but instead APVA saved the building in 1911 and began running tours there. Thankfully the house remained in the Marshall family and so they have original furnishings and the building was not drastically altered or interior appointments replaced over the years. Recently they have upgraded their HVAC, painted the rooms the colors they were historically when John Marshall was living there, and almost finished repapering the walls in the house with reproduction wallpaper provided by Adelphi Paper Hangings.

So the Marshall house in its set up is fairly typical of a house museum: saved by a group of concerned citizens, the story revolves around a great white man (Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, John Marshall), and house restored to reflect occupation by the best known person of the household.

Yet the tour I got  was fairly inclusive of women (elite and working) and enslaved people. I’d say I learned more about John Marshall, the man, than I did about his work as chief justice.

In the basement (where tours begin), I was told about a woman named Harriet, whom Marshall owned but it is not clear what she did. Discussion included how the basement was originally used. We exited the building and talked a bit outside about the house’s construction costs, when the house was finished, and the addition added to the house which was a large room for a hired housekeeper who was to keep an eye out for Mary “Polly” (Ambler) Marshall, John’s wife.

As I entered the house’s passage, I was taken by the house’s architectural features and decorative finishes and furnishings. Instead of diverging into every little piece of furniture of what was original or not, I was told about Robin Spurlock, the enslaved manservant and household butler for Marshall. All of the Marshall household members (wife, Polly and their children) were introduced. I was shown the small butler closet where Marshall worked and where once there was a dumbwaiter. At present, there is a profile portrait of Robin’s daughter, Agnes, in the passage. Though the portrait was done in Agnes’ later years (post-slavery), she was born into slavery and owned by Marshall and sent to live with Marshall’s less-than-stellar son and his John’s daughter-in-law. While Agnes did end up becoming free as a result of the Civil War and stayed working for the Marshalls in Fauquier County, she was not presented as merely being loyal to the Marshalls but rather it was suggested that she did what she knew best (caring for the folks who once owned her) and thus was able to make some sort of existence in the aftermath of the war. It was also noted that she would find it difficult regardless where she moved, she would face problems.

We moved into the large dining room, which clearly is the most spectacular room in the building. Perhaps because the room’s dining table was into it’s parts (it’s an extension table), the focus centered on the diverse entertainment held in the room, inclusive of Marshall’s Sunday afternoon lawyer dinners. Again Robin Spurlock’s labors were discussed and noted that there would have been other enslaved men and women contributing to making food and getting those dishes from the exterior kitchen into the house. There was also a discussion about John Marshall selling a slave and that man running away after being removed to the mines out in the western part of Virginia. Why he escaped I postulated back and forth with the tour guide. The largest reason I suggested (beyond a desire to not be enslaved) was that the work in the mines was radically different than urban slave life. The tour guide offered that the work was grueling and that he would have been unaccustomed to it. Obviously, he also wished not to be enslaved (and I just feel the need to say that again).

In the family dining room and drawing room, more about Marshall’s character was revealed through discussion about his dress (which Robin again was discussed), his early life and Revolutionary war, study of law and adoration of George Washington to the point of writing a multi-volume biography of him, and his interest in embracing relatively new technology (love the Argand lamps).

On the second floor, are bedchambers and in the north chamber, the Marshalls daughter, Mary, was discussed alongside Robin. Marshall’s will gave options to Robin and Mary figured into that. The discussion was honest and enriching. In John and Polly Marshall’s bedroom, John’s involvement with the American Colonization Society was discussed.

I left wanting to know more about John Marshall as a husband, father, slaveholder, and member of Richmond’s society. There was no mere furniture tour or a celebratory conversation about John Marshall and his family. I do believe I’ll end up going back there and suggest you check it out too.

Photographs and more information can be seen at



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5 responses to “John Marshall House

  1. Bobbie

    Emanuel, I so enjoyed our conversation at the JMH. You paid us such a great compliment by putting us on your blog and being so honest about how we can stress more that Israel, the man who ran away from the lead mines and slavery wanted his freedom. That is definitely number one and while I thought this was understood, it cannot be stated enough! Thank you for your compliments and we hope that we can continue to uncover more information about the lives of the Spurlock’s and other enslaved members of the John Marshall Household. By the way, I would like to sign up for your tour. How do I do this?

    • Bobbie,

      Thanks for checking out the blog!

      I went back this past week and took another tour. The house is just amazing.

      I’ll be e-mailing you about upcoming programming. Keep up the good work at the Marshall house.

      • Bobbie

        Come back anytime, Emmanuel!

      • Bobbie

        May we use an excerpt of your blog about The John Marshall House on our Facebook or on our blog, Emmanuel? I wonder if you would like to be a guest blogger on Preservation Virginia’s site, sometime? You have so many great insights into history.

      • Thanks Bobbie!

        Feel free to use highlight the post through Preservation Virginia’s social media outreaches.

        Perhaps in the future I could serve as a guest blogger for Preservation Virginia.

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