For background on the on connection between 1801 F Street and the Supreme Court, see my article, “If Walls Could Talk,” Journal of Supreme Court History, vol. 47: 2 (March 2022)
Most of the justices on the Supreme Court knew Tench Ringgold, United States marshal for the District of Columbia since 1818, keeper of the keys to Capitol building offices, and close friend of President James Monroe. John Marshall may also have appreciated him for his connections to the Lee family of Virginia, Ringgold having taken as a second wife one of the daughters of Thomas Ludwell Lee of Coton plantation, Loudoun County. Marshall’s mother’s Randolph family was related to the Lees, as were all the great families of Virginia.
When Ringgold came into the crosshairs of President Andrew Jackson after he took office in 1829 and lost his job as marshal in the early February 1831, Marshall wrote his wife Polly soon after, “I suppose you have heard we have lost our marshal. Poor Ringgold is out of office, and I fear greatly that his family and himself will be distressed. He just left us. Brother Story and myself condole with him very sincerely, and he is grateful to us for our friendly regard.” 1
Marshall was not the only one in the Capitol building to take pity on Ringgold’s situation. Richard Peters, the Court reporter, was also concerned, and working with Ringgold, who must have been more than happy with the suggestion, Peters proposed to Marshall that he and the other justices board at the Ringgolds’ big house during the Court term beginning in January 1832. It was located on the corner of 18th and F Streets, on other side of the White House, and further from the Court than the other houses they were accustomed to board at. As he put it in a letter to his good friend Justice Joseph Story, “You may not like being out of the center of the city. [But] I am told that our accommodations as to rooms will be convenient, and as to everything else you know they will be excellent.” 2
By December the stay at Ringgold’s house was settled. Ringgold sought help from the Monroe family (the former president having died the summer of 1831), and at the end of the year, a cartload of provisions came from the Monroe plantation at Oak Hill, brought by John Baker, one of the family’s enslaved workers. In it were “16 turkeys, 9 geese, 34 pounds butter, 16 hams weighing 140 pounds,” according to a note in a ledger of a plantation overseer. 3
Marshall and four other associate justices arrived at the end of the year. They were Joseph Story, Gabriel Duval, Smith Thompson, and Henry Baldwin. (John McLean made other arrangements, and William Johnson was too ill that term to leave his home in South Carolina.) They were allotted several of the upstairs bedrooms (at that time as many as five of Ringgold’s seven children were living at home) and were looked after by Ringgold’s thirteen enslaved servants who prepared their food, cleaned their clothes, and saw that the rooms were kept warm. Ringgold was then a widower: his wife Mary had passed away in the summer of 1826.
Marshall, who was usually attended by his enslaved valet Robin Spurlock, may have left him to look after his Richmond home as his beloved wife, Polly, had died a month earlier. Despite the heavy load of Court work, these were difficult days for Marshall. In addition to his bereavement, Marshall had undergone an operation to remove kidney stones in Philadelphia that summer and was still weakened from his surgery. Story wrote his wife that one morning he came into Marshall’s room at the Ringgold house and found him in tears, commenting that Marshall’s wife must have been a remarkable woman. 4 But Marshall was an assiduous worker, and he and the other justices focused on their work. They would sit around the Ringgold’s dining room table and discuss the cases that they were deciding. Or they would resort to the south parlor room where no doubt glasses of madeira were served, rain or shine.
On this famous Court tradition, see Clare Cushman, Table for 9: Supreme Court Food Traditions & Recipes (2018), 6-10.
Marshall and Story enjoyed walking and they set out each day of the Court term to walk from the Ringgold house on 18th Street to the Capitol, where the Court met, about two miles. In February 1832 he wrote his son Edward Carrington Marshall that he could cover the distance “without fatigue.” Duvall and one or two of the other justices may have ridden the distance in the carriage lent by Ringgold. In the end, the distance from the Capitol may have proved too much for the other justices, so for the following 1833 term, only Marshall and Story remained at the Ringgold house as boarders. The “judicial fraternity” that Marshall had nurtured almost from the beginning dissolved, as one Marshall biographer put it. Soon after getting accommodated at the house in early 1833, Story suggested to Marshall that they go to the theater – which Marshall loved to do. Playing at the theater in Washington that winter was the celebrated English actress Fanny Kemble, performing as Beatrice in a production of “Much Ado About Nothing.” As Marshall entered the theater and was recognized by the audience, he was greeted with cheers. The reception cheered him up, Story wrote his wife the following day. Toward the end of the month, Marshall was also comforted by being invited to a dinner at the White House by President Jackson, to whom, in March, he would swear in as president for a second term. At that time, Story wrote his wife, Marshall “The Chief Justice looked more vigorous than usual. He seemed to revive and enjoy anew his green, old age.”
Marshall and Story left Ringgold house at the end of term around April, and returned to their homes, Marshall to Richmond and Story to Salem, Massachusetts. In the fall, Ringgold wrote them that he would be unable to accommodate them in the house, and they would need to look elsewhere for quarters. Ringgold had failed to pay off the mortgage on the house he owed to his daughter, and the courts foreclosed on him. He moved out to a small farm he purchased across the river in Alexandria County, now known as Arlington County. But the memory of Marshall and the justices at Ringgold’s house in Washington was treasured by all its subsequent owners, and still is to this day.
Readers wishing to learn more about Marshall and the Court during the time they were staying at Ringgold’s House, now known as DACOR Bacon House, see the webinar “Intended to Endure: Marshall and the Court” presented by Angela Dickey (Vice President of the DACOR Bacon Foundation and Chair of 2025 Task Force) and Jennifer Hurst-Wender (Director of Museum Operations for President Virginia) available on YouTube.
1 Charles Hobson, ed., The Papers of John Marshall Digital Edition (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, Rotunda, 2014), vol. 12, 17.
2 Ibid., vol. 12, 124 (letter dated November 10, 1831).
3 “References to James Monroe’s Slaves with a Focus on Loudoun County, Virginia,” compiled by Lori Kimball and Wynne Saffer, Loudoun County, Virginia, p. 1.
4 The Papers of John Marshall, op. cit., vol. 12, Preface, xxii.
Terence Walsh is an independent scholar and historian of DACOR Bacon House. He is the author of “If Walls Could Talk: The Supreme Court and DACOR Bacon House: Two Centuries of Connections” that appeared in the Journal of Supreme Court History 47 no 1 (2022). He also authored “The Enslaved Household of Tench Ringgold,” White House Historical Society.