George Wythe Essay, Research Paper “No man has ever left behind him a character more venerated than George Wythe,” praised Thomas Jefferson of his tutor. “His virtue was of the purest tint; his integrity inflexible, and his justice exact; of warm patriotism, and, devoted as he was to liberty, and the natural and equal rights of man, he might be called the Cato of his country” (Lincoln 1).
George Wythe Essay, Research Paper
“No man has ever left behind him a character more venerated than George Wythe,” praised Thomas Jefferson of his tutor. “His virtue was of the purest tint; his integrity inflexible, and his justice exact; of warm patriotism, and, devoted as he was to liberty, and the natural and equal rights of man, he might be called the Cato of his country” (Lincoln 1). George Wythe was a very influential man in the shaping of the United States because he tutored some of the most important men in Revolutionary era, served in many official capacities of great importance, and was a leader in the formation of the new nation.
George Wythe was born in 1726 in Elizabeth City, Virginia, to Thomas and Margaret Walker Wythe. His father, a well to do plantation owner, died shortly after George s birth, and Wythe was raised by his mother, who, according to Imogene Brown, had a profound influence on him (American Aristides, A Biography of George Wythe 18). Margaret Wythe, a Quaker, was an unusually well educated woman for her time. She tutored young George in Latin and Greek, as well as other subjects, and by the time he was a teen, George had an excellent education. She also instilled many Quaker ideas in George which he was later to address in his public life, including the treatment of minorities and women, and religious liberty in relation to the separation of church and state.
At the age of sixteen, George went to study law with his Uncle, Stephen Dewey, who was the king s attorney for the county of Charles City. Because of Dewey s heavy schedule, he had little time to give George one-on-one instruction. Instead, he set the young man to copying many tedious documents, including wills and deeds. However, George occasionally was able to attend General Court proceedings with his uncle, and there he had the opportunity to see and learn from some of the ablest lawyers of the time.
By 1746, when he was 20, George had learned enough to pass oral examinations successfully and begin the practice of law. At first, upon inheriting the Wythe family estate, George practiced in his hometown, Elizabeth City. Soon, however, he entered into a practice with Zachary Lewis in Spotsylvania County. Zachary Lewis was prominent in legal circles, and Wythe enjoyed many advantages of study and experience in his company. Within a year, George qualified to practice law in the four Virginia Counties of Spotsylvania, Caroline, Orange, and Augusta. Living with Lewis also had another advantage for George. Lewis s daughter, Anne, and George fell in love, and they were married the day after Christmas, 1747. The following August, however, Anne became sick a with fever and died.
Shortly after her death, the grief-stricken George moved to Williamsburg to be tutored under Anne s influential uncle, Benjamin Waller. Waller already knew that George was advanced in Greek and Latin and that he had accumulated invaluable firsthand experience under Lewis. Because of this, Waller made no secret of his pride in George, and on October 28, while attending the fall session of the Assembly in the capital, George was made clerk of two standing committees in the House of Burgesses.
In 1754, Governor Dinwiddie appointed George Attorney General of the House of Burgesses. This was an astounding promotion for George, considering he was not yet even a member of the House. However, that situation was soon remedied when George was elected a burgess in August, 1754. Having become prominent in society, George became one of the most eligible young men in the capital, and it was here that he met, courted, and married Elizabeth Taliaferro, an accomplished woman of high status.
Like most prominent attorneys, Wythe took aspiring students into his office and helped them prepare for a career in the law. In 1760, seventeen-year-old Thomas Jefferson began studying as a private student under George Wythe, now thirty- four. Their age difference did not diminish their friendship; rather, they had more of a father-son relationship. Jefferson was deeply influenced by Wythe. While under Wythe s tutelage, he embraced the concepts of equality, religious liberty, free co-education, and the controversial union of the colonies, which were to shape his life work. When Wythe died, the younger man reflected upon Wythe, saying he was “my earliest and best friend to him I am indebted for first impressions which have had the most salutary influence on the course of my life” (Blackburn 33). Other prominent men under Wythe s instruction included John Marshall, whom some consider the greatest Chief Justice in the history of the United States (Lincoln 2), James Monroe, St. George Tucker, and Henry Clay.
Wythe was appointed to the board of the College of William and Mary in 1768, and on December 1 of that year, he was elected as Williamsburg s mayor. He also became a alderman of Bruton Parish Church in 1760 and was appointed clerk of the House of Burgesses on July 16, 1769. He attended the First Continental Congress and remained House clerk until 1775, when he was elected a delegate to the Second Continental Congress.
The Second Continental Congress proved to be one of the most important meetings in the history of the United States. Many of the delegates came to the convention with the hope that the colonies would not have to declare independence from Britain, but, in the end, that is what they decided to do. George Wythe deserves much credit for helping the idea of independence to be accepted by his fellow delegates. He had long and actively held the position that the colonies should break free from Britain, saying that “the Parliament had no more power over the colonies than the colonies had over Parliament” (Founders of Freedom in America 237). Jefferson, Wythe s prize student, composed the Declaration of Independence. This profound document included one important belief instilled in Jefferson by Wythe, which was “Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed” (Enduring Vision v). Wythe heartily agreed with the Declaration of Independence, and so, on August 27, 1776, he traveled to Philadelphia from Virginia, where he had been drafting that state s constitution, and pledged his life, fortune, and sacred honor by signing the Declaration of Independence as Virginia s primary delegate.
Wythe was elected speaker of the House of Delegates of the Virginia state legislature in 1777, but that same year retired to become the judge of the High Court of Chancery of Virginia. Two years later, in 1779, through the efforts of Thomas Jefferson, now the governor of Virginia, the College of William and Mary established the first professorship of law at any American college. Wythe was hired to fill this chair, but he also remained Chancellor of Virginia. During his time as a professor, Wythe taught classes, presided over moot courts, and conducted mock legislatures, preparing his students to be qualified leaders for the future.
One of Wythe s most important rulings as Chancellor came in a case that he heard before the Court of Appeals of Virginia in November, 1782. In this case, he established the precedent, later used by the United States Supreme Court, that the courts could hold a law to be unconstitutional. In his opinion he stated:
“Nay, more, if the whole legislature, an event to be deprecated, should attempt to overleap the bounds prescribed to them by the people, I, in administering the public justice of the country, will meet the united powers, at my seat in this tribunal; and, pointing to the constitution, will say to them here is the limit of your authority; and hither shall you go, but not further” (Founders of Freedom in America 237).
In August, 1787, Elizabeth Wythe, George s wife of 33 years, died. After this, he was described by his student, Nathaniel Tucker, as “never being the same; he moved through the world as if unconscious” (Blackburn 115). Although stunned by grief, he did not remain idle and returned to his teaching in October.
Wythe retired from his professorship at the college in 1789 but remained the Chancellor of the courts of Virginia. As the single judge of the Chancery Court, he held four sessions a year, which meant traveling regularly between Richmond and Williamsburg. As he aged, traveling became more and more difficult, so he moved to Richmond in 1791. Always one who abhorred slavery, Wythe liberated the slaves formerly belonging to him and Elizabeth, and soon he took the opportunity of one of his cases to try to cripple the institution of slavery. In the case, he ruled that Virginia s Declaration of Rights included African-Americans among the “all men born free and equally independent.” They should, Wythe said, be considered free until proven otherwise. However, his ruling did not survive appeals. Although his attempt to stifle slavery was unsuccessful, it holds importance because it was one small step by a prominent figure towards the goal for the equality of all.
At the age of 80, on June 8, 1806, Wythe died at his home in Richmond after several weeks of suffering because he drank a cup of coffee that had been poisoned with arsenic. Because he was childless, Wythe had bequeathed the bulk of his estate to his grand-nephew, George Wythe Sweney. It seems that Sweney, a gambler perpetually short of money, tried to hasten the death of Wythe in order to receive his inheritance earlier. However, during the days of sickness before his death, Wythe changed his will, mentioning the suspicious death of one of his freed Negroes who would have benefited by his will, and cutting Sweney out of the will altogether. His action indicated that he believed that Sweney was guilty of poisoning both of them. Sweney was soon brought to trial for the murder of George Wythe, but because his guilt could not be proven, he was acquitted. However, suspicion continued to linger that justice for the death of one of America s founding fathers had been miscarried.
If George Wythe had accomplished nothing more than signing the Declaration of Independence and teaching Jefferson, he would have earned a place in history. However, his entire life was crowded with achievement. He was a Williamsburg alderman and mayor, a member of the House of Burgesses, and the House Clerk. He was Virginia s Attorney General, twice a delegate to the Continental Congress, speaker of Virginia s House of Delegates, the nation s first law professor, and a framer of the Federal Constitution. The honorable George Wythe needs no other monument to his memory than the faithful and beneficial services he rendered to his country.
Blackburn, Joyce. George Wythe of Williamsburg. New York: Harper & Row, Publishers, 1975.
Boyd, Julian P., and W. Edwin Hemphill. The Murder of George Wythe. Williamsburg: The Institute of Early American History and Culture, 1958.
Boyer, Paul S., Clifford E. Clark, Joseph F. Kett, Neal Salisbury, Harvard Sitkoff, and Nancy Woloch. The Enduring Vision. Lexington: D. C. Heath and Company, 1996.
Brown, Imogene E. American Aristides, A Biography of George Wythe. Toronto: Associated University Presses, Inc., 1981.
Campbell, Charles. History of Virginia. Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott and Co., 1960.
Founders of Freedom in America. Broadview: Photopress, Inc., 1964.
Lincoln, P. “George Wythe.” Biography of George Wythe. Online. Erols. 13 Sept. 1999.
McReynolds, Jessica. George Wythe, a Biography. New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1989.
Williams, Pamela. George Wythe, America s Forgotten Founding Father. New York: Oxford University Press, 1988.
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