Telling the tale of John Marshall – from Raleigh judge to the nation’s chief justice

Chief Justice John Marshall, depicted here in a portrait by Alonzo Chappel (AP Photo)
Chief Justice John Marshall, depicted here in a portrait by Alonzo Chappel (AP Photo)

I still look forward to our neighborhood block party even though the chef from Margaux’s Restaurant has moved away – the only thing better than his heavenly hummus was his transcendent baklava. A big reason now is it allows me to catch up with J. Rich Leonard, dean of Campbell’s law school.

In addition to being an accomplished jurist, the Welcome native loves North Carolina history. A decade ago, when he was a federal bankruptcy judge, Leonard oversaw the meticulous restoration of the courthouse at the corner of Martin and Fayetteville streets – if the law hadn’t called, he could have been a terrific interior designer.

In 2012 he published a children’s book, “The House by the Creek,” set in our state during the Revolutionary War. At the block party he told me about his recent article in the Campbell Law Review that describes a little known chapter in early American history – the three decades (1801-35) during which legendary Supreme Court Justice John Marshall served as a circuit judge in Raleigh.

Filled with fascinating facts about the city’s early days and references to once formidable men who still live on as place names, Leonard rekindles a charming ember of our past.

In the early 19th century, the federal government was blessedly small and weak; most legal issues were state and local issues. The entire state of North Carolina had only one federal district judge, who heard cases that usually involved counterfeiting, “maritime crimes, forgery, and tax violations.” Appeals of his decisions were heard by a two-member circuit court composed of that very same district judge (yes, he heard appeals of his own decisions) and a member of the Supreme Court – who would hear appeals of the circuit court’s rulings on the High Court!

Twice a year Chief Justice Marshall drove the 165-miles from his home in Richmond by himself on a horse-drawn gig – a “seat anchored between two wheels” – to hold court in Raleigh. He once fell asleep and had to be extricated from a sapling by a Good Samaritan.

Leonard evocatively describes the Raleigh to which Marshall traveled in 1802 as “barely more than a village in a wilderness” with a thousand inhabitants and 120 houses. Marshall always stayed at a Spartan boarding house that boasted a bed, two chairs, “a cracked pitcher and a broken bowl.” He was often seen collecting firewood.

Marshall heard cases in the courthouse located on a “half-acre lot donated by Theophilus Hunter and James Bloodworth.” Bloodworth insisted that the land revert to his heirs if it was no longer used for a courthouse. Leonard wryly notes this helps explain why the current courthouse is the fifth to occupy that location.

In return for installing window glass and maintaining the building, a local innkeeper was allowed to use the building for overflow guests when court was not in session.

The most surprising tidbit Leonard reports is while no official manuscripts of Marshall’s opinions survive, a wealth of information was recorded in the three – yes three! – newspapers that served the village.

Marshall’s most interesting case involved a land dispute brought by the heirs of the English aristocrat, Lord John Carteret, later the Earl of Granville, who claimed millions of acres had been granted to him by the Crown — including all of present-day Wake County. This was a major issue. Historians believe local population growth was held down by American fears that their land might revert back to the Brits. Granville’s heirs were represented by William Gaston; counsel for the defendant landowners was Duncan Cameron. The Supreme Court ultimately dismissed the matter.

But the case lives on thanks to Leonard’s superb article, which reminds us that as much as things stay the same, they also change.

Contributing columnist J. Peder Zane can be reached at jpederzane@jpederzane.com.

Correction: An earlier version of this column misstated the size Lord John Carteret’s land claim. It was millions of acres, not 300,000.