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Determining the Facts

Reading 4: John Marshall on "My Dearest Polly"

John’s last written statement for and about Polly was penned at his home on December 25, 1832, exactly one year after her death. It reveals much about the deep feelings the chief justice had for his "Dearest Polly."

This day of joy & festivity to the whole Christian world is to my sad heart the anniversary of the keenest affliction which humanity can sustain. While all around is gladness my mind dwells on the silent tomb, & cherishes the remembrance of the beloved object which it contains. On the 25th of December 1831 it was the will of Heaven to take to itself the companion who had sweetened the choicest part of my life, had rendered toil a pleasure, had partaken of all my feelings & was enthroned in the inmost recesses of my heart. Never can I cease to feel the loss & to deplore it. Grief for her is too sacred ever to be profaned on this day, which shall be during my existence devoted to her memory.

On the 3rd of January 1783 I was united by the holiest bonds to the woman I adored. From the hour of our union to that of our separation I never ceased to thank Heaven for this its best gift. Not a moment passed in which I did not consider her as a blessing from which the chief happiness of my life was derived. This never dying sentiment, originating in love, was cherished by a long & close observation of as amiable & estimable qualities as ever adorned the female bosom.

To a person which, in youth, was very attractive, to manners uncommonly pleasing, she added a fine understanding & the sweetest temper which can accompany a just & modest sense of what was due herself.

I saw her first the week she attained the age of fourteen & was greatly pleased with her. Girls then came into company much earlier than at present. As my attentions, though without any avowed purpose, nor so open nor direct as to alarm, soon became ardent & assiduous her heart received an impression which could never be effaced. Having felt no prior attachment, she became, at sixteen, a most devoted wife. All my faults, and they were too many, could never weaken this sentiment. It formed a part of her existence. Her judgement was so sound & so safe that I have often relied upon it in situations of some perplexity. I do not recall ever to have regretted the adoption of her opinion. I have sometimes regretted its rejection. From native timidity she was opposed to everything adventurous, yet few females possessed more real firmness. That timidity so influenced her manners, that I could rarely prevail on her to display in company the talents I knew her to possess. They were reserved for her husband, & her select friends. Though serious as well as gentle in her deportment, she possessed a good deal of chaste, delicate & playful wit, and, if she permitted herself to indulge this talent, told her little story with grace, & could mimic very successfully the peculiarities of the person who was the subject. She had a fine taste for belle lettre reading, which was judiciously applied in the selection of pieces which she admired. This quality by improving her talents for conversation contributed not inconsiderably, to make her a most desirable & agreeable companion. It beguiled many of those winter evenings during which her protracted ill health & her feeble nervous system, confined us entirely to each other. I can never cease to look back on them with deep interest and regret. Time has not diminished & will not diminish this interest or this regret. In all the relations of life she was a model which those to whom it was given, cannot imitate too closely. As the wife, the mother, the mistress of a family & the friend, her life furnishes an example to those who could observe it intimately which will never be forgotten. She felt deeply the distresses of others & indulged the feeling liberally on objects she believed to be meritorious.

She was educated with a profound reverence for religion which she preserved to her last moment. This sentiment among her earliest & deepest impressions, gave a color to her whole life. Hers was the religion taught by the Savior of man. Cheerful, mild, benevolent, serious, humane, intent on self improvement & the improvement of those who looked to her for precept or example. She was a firm believer in the faith inculcated by the church in which she was bred, but her soft & gentle temper was incapable of adopting the gloomy & austere dogmas which some of its professors have sought to engraft on it. I have lost her! And with her I have lost the solace of my life! Yet she remains still the companion of my retired hours,--still occupies my inmost bosom. When I am lone and unemployed, my mind unceasingly turns to her. More than a thousand times since the 25th of December 1831, have I repeated to myself the beautiful lines written by Gen. Burgoyne under a similar affliction, substituting Mary for Anna.

Encompassed in an angel’s frame,
An angel’s virtues lay;
Too soon did Heaven assert its claim
And take its own away.
My Mary’s worth, my Mary’s charms
Can never more return.
What now shall fill these widowed arms?
Ah, me! My Mary’s urn!
Ah, me! Ah, me! My Mary’s urn!!!

Questions for Reading 4

1. What aspects of his relationship with Polly did John recall in this document?

2. What characteristics of Polly’s personality were revealed by John in this document?

3. What qualities or virtues of Polly were most valued by John?

4. What impressions of Polly do you derive from this letter? What is suggested about her strengths or weaknesses?

5. What qualities of John Marshall are evident in his essay about his wife?

Reading 4 was compiled from the collection of the Association for the Preservation of Virginia Antiquities at the Virginia Historical Society, Richmond, Virginia.

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