Historical Reminiscing with Robert B. Hitchings
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Chief Justice John Marshall’s Robe

How many of you ever wondered why all the American judges in our country wear black robes? Are they in mourning for the defendant? Why do they all wear black?

It all started with John Marshall, (1755-1835) Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. In the recent article (Fall/Winter 2021) magazine of Virginia History & Culture, there is a most interesting article on John Marshall’s judicial robe. John Marshall’s judicial robe has been returned back to his residence (The John Marshall House) in Richmond, Virginia. The silk garment robe was given to the John Marshall House by his granddaughter in 1913. However, due to its frailness, a group of conservationists decided that this historic robe needed extensive restoration to remove the brittleness caused by the use of an unstable dye that darkened the garment. This old silk garment is the property of Preservation Virginia which also owns the John Marshall House and is on display there for many to see.

John Marshall (1755-1835) was the longest serving Chief Justice on the Supreme Court. He had a remarkable 34 years of service. When John Marshall was named the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court by John Adams in 1800, many politicians were upset that President Adams filled the vacancy of chief Justice at the stroke midnight just before he left the office of Presidency. Years later Adam would state that “My gift of John Marshall to the people of the United States was the proudest act of my life.”

Marshall was born in a log cabin in German Town, a rural county in Virginia. He died in Philadelphia and is buried next to his wife Mary “Polly” Willis Ambler (1783-1835) in Shocko Hill Cemetery, Richmond, Virginia. When he died the Liberty Bell mourned his loss and the bell cracked.

As a young man John Marshall was present at the Battle of Great Bridge along with his father Thomas Marshall. It was here he was known as Silver Heels because his socks had a silver color on the heels that were knitted by his mother. Marshall was also present at the Battle of Brandywine and Valley Forge during the harsh winter.

During Marshall’s first session of court in 1801, all the justices came into court with their red garments like those used in England. They quickly noticed that Chief Justice Marshall wore a simple plain black robe. Marshall chose this color introducing black robes to represent republican simplicity. By the next session of court all justices wore black.

Today all judges in America wear black robes and it was one individual man who started it all, Chief Justice John Marshall of Virginia in 1801.

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Robert B. Hitchings is a seventh generation Norfolk resident, graduating with an Associate's Degree in Biology from Old Dominion University and BA in history from Virginia Wesleyan University. During his studies he was awarded a scholarship at Emmanuel College, Cambridge, England, and he was an exchange student at Brooks-Westminster College, Oxford, England. From 1999-2014 he worked as head of the Sargeant Memorial History Room at Norfolk Public Library, and since then has headed the Wallace History Room at Chesapeake Public Library. He is also the President of the Norfolk County Historical Society, and for six years was a columnist for The Virginian-Pilot. Robert may be reached at nchs.wallaceroom@gmail.com