Wythe, George (1726-1806)
George Wythe (1726-1806)
Legal educator and innovator
Background. George Wythe (rhymes with “Smith”) was born in Elizabeth City County, Virginia, in 1726, the second son of Thomas and Margaret Wythe. His father, a prosperous farmer, died when Wythe was three years old. His mother, Margaret, a devout Quaker, taught him Latin and Greek and instilled in him an enthusiasm for learning. Wythe’s mother died when he was in his early adolescence, and he moved into the care of a family relation, a prominent lawyer named Stephen Dewey. He became an apprentice to Dewey and undertook a rigorous program of reading and self-education. In 1746, at the age of twenty, he passed the oral examination and was admitted to the practice of law.
Lawyer. Wythe joined John Lewis in the practice of law, riding the circuit through largely rural Virginia, enduring the punishing experience of travel on the primitive colonial roads. In December 1747 he married Lewis’s sister Ann, but she died a year later. Six years later he moved to Williamsburg, Virginia’s capital and educational center. Wythe brought with him a superb and wide-ranging education as well as a reputation for great legal skill and integrity. Wythe would refuse any case or client if he had the slightest doubt about the righteousness of the cause. He represented Williamsburg in the House of Burgesses in 1754 and 1755 and again from 1758 to 1761. He also served as mayor of Williamsburg in 1768. Wythe’s position as a political and social leader in the capital city was firmly established by his marriage in 1755 to Elizabeth Taliaferro, daughter of a prominent family.
Jefferson. Wythe occasionally took on young men for private instruction in the law. His most famous student was Thomas Jefferson, who began his studies in 1762. Jefferson joined Wythe’s lively social world—a world inhabited by local luminaries like Royal Governor Francis Fauquier and mathematics professor William Small—and later recalled Wythe as his “earliest and best friend” of whom “I am indebted for first impressions which have had the most salutary influence on the course of my life.”
Political Activity. When tensions began to emerge between the colonies and England, Wythe joined with those who asserted independence. In 1764 he wrote the Remonstrance to the House of Commons against the stamp tax. Wythe was a careful man not given to making quick decisions. In contrast to the more bombastic Patrick Henry, Wythe urged a calm, cautious approach. He was elected to the Continental Congress in 1775 and served through 1776. He signed the Declaration of Independence but then devoted himself to the reform and codification of the laws of his native Virginia.
A Loyal Son of Virginia. Wythe collaborated on a four-year project to collate the laws of the Virginia colony and participated with Jefferson and Edmund Pendleton in the process of revising the laws of the State of Virginia. As a member of a special committee to design a seal for Virginia, Wythe is believed to have been responsible for its design and motto: Sic semper tyrannis (Thus Ever to Tyrants). He was strongly against slavery, and in his will he provided for the liberation of his slaves.
Teacher of Law. Wythe’s most lasting contribution to the law was his tenure as the first law professor at the College of William and Mary. Then-governor of Virginia Thomas Jefferson recommended him for the position in December 1779. Wythe’s actual title was Professor of Law and Policy, a title reflecting the clear link between the practice of law and the maintenance of social order. Based on the William and Mary model, other law professorships were established at the College of Philadelphia and Brown College, Rhode Island, both in 1790; Columbia College, New York, in 1794; Yale College, Connecticut, in 1801; and Middlebury College, Connecticut, in 1806. Wythe referred to his classes as “a training ground for republican leadership.” Wythe’s curriculum for the study of law included Sir William Black-stone’s Commentaries on the Laws of England (1765–1769) and Francis Bacon’s The Elements of the Common Lawes of England (1630). Wythe’s method of instruction was notable for two reasons. First, although he used Blackstone and Bacon as the basis of readings in the law, he did not require rigid acceptance of the old common law. Rather, Wythe encouraged a process of inquiry which became one of the early efforts in adapting the common law to American needs. Wythe’s second innovation was the regular conduct of moot courts and mock legislatures to provide his students with practical experience. Through the use of mock legislatures Wythe helped his students realize the importance of lawmakers in the adaptation of laws to meet contemporary needs.
Judicial Review. Wythe resigned his position at William and Mary in 1790 and moved to Richmond, where he continued to serve as chancellor on the Virginia High Court of Chancery, a position he had held since 1778. Wythe was an early proponent of the idea of judicial review. In the case of Commonwealth v. Caton in 1782 Wythe declared that if the legislature acted improperly he would point “to the Constitution … and say to them, ‘here is the limit of your authority; and hither shall you go no further.’” His tenure as a judge is perhaps best remembered for his publication of his legal opinions, a spirited challenge to the reasoning of the Court of Appeals which often overturned him.
Last Years. Elizabeth Taliaferro Wythe died in 1787; her only child with Wythe had died in infancy. The legal scholar was alone in his last years except for three devoted household servants whom he intended to free upon his death. The old teacher continued to educate himself and took up the study of Hebrew—his seventh language—at the age of eighty. Wythe’s death was a tragic one. His grandnephew from his first marriage, George Wythe Sweeney, had run into financial difficulties. Greed compelled Sweeney to accelerate the time of his inheritance from Wythe and to eliminate the servants who were to share in his great-uncle’s will. Sweeney poisoned Wythe and the household servants with arseniclaced coffee. The youngest servant, Michael Brown, died quickly; the two others survived. Wythe lingered long enough to disinherit his murderer. He died on 8 June 1806 and was buried in Richmond.
Joyce Blackburn, George Wythe of Williamsburg (New York: Harper & Row, 1975);
Dumas Malone, Jefferson the Virginian (Boston: Little, Brown, 1948).
WYTHE, GEORGE. (1726?–1806). Signer, statesman, jurist, law professor. Virginia. Born on the family plantation in Elizabeth City County, Virginia, perhaps in 1726, Wythe was educated by his mother. After studying law with his uncle, he was admitted to the bar in 1746. In 1753 he replaced Peyton Randolph as Virginia's attorney general. After receiving only one vote when he ran for the Burgesses from his home county, Wythe moved to Williamsburg, representing the town in the assembly in 1754–1755.
Wythe's brilliant career was closely related to those of several exceptional men who were his intimate friends or, later, students. In 1758, after being admitted to the bar of the General Court, he started a profitable friendship with the new lieutenant governor, Francis Fauquier. Another close friend at this time was William Small, professor of mathematics and natural philosophy at William and Mary. Later he was to be a friend and teacher of Thomas Jefferson, James Monroe, and Henry Clay.
During the years leading up to the break with England, Wythe was a representative in the House of Burgesses (1754–1755, 1758–1768), clerk of that body, 1769–1775, and mayor of Williamsburg (1768). In the controversy leading to Patrick Henry's triumph in the Parson's Cause, Wythe presided over the court that upheld Virginia's action against the claim of the Reverend Thomas Warrington for damages. In 1764 he drafted a protest to the Stamp Act (1765) that so far exceeded most of his colleagues' ideas of permissible candor that they toned it down considerably before adoption. In 1774 he served on the Williamsburg committee that enforced the nonimportation agreements.
In 1775 Wythe showed a wisdom surpassing that of the political majority when he recommended that Virginia organize a regular army and not a militia. As a delegate to the Continental Congress in 1775–1776, he ably supported Richard Henry Lee's resolution for independence and signed the Declaration. With Jefferson and Edmund Pendleton, he accomplished the monumental task of revising the laws of Virginia; their committee reported 126 bills in 1779, though the assembly rejected many of them. Meanwhile, Wythe was speaker in the House of Delegates in 1777 and the next year assumed the title of chancellor when he became one of three judges in the state's high court of chancery. Like most states, Virginia had a bicameral assembly, the House of Delegates and the Senate, the names they still use today. On 4 December 1779 he was named to a chair of law at William and Mary, the first chair of law established in an American college. He held the position until 1790.
Though elected to the Constitutional Convention in 1787, Wythe had to resign his seat and return home due to the fatal illness of his wife. The following year he was elected to Virginia's ratifying convention, even though he did not run for the office. His influence at the convention in favor of the Constitution is often credited with swaying many votes. His opinion that slavery violated the Virginia bill of rights received a less favorable hearing.
His death was tragic and bizarre. Wythe had moved to Richmond in 1791. In his will he left most of his estate to his only sister's grandson, George Wythe Sweeney, with a legacy for a servant that was to pass to Sweeney if the servant died. In 1806, tired of waiting for his inheritance, Sweeney poisoned some coffee with arsenic in order to kill both the servant and Wythe. The servant died first, but Wythe lived long enough to disinherit Sweeney. The latter escaped conviction for murder since the testimony of the principal witness, Wythe's freedwoman cook, was not admissible in court since she was black.
SEE ALSO Parson's Cause; Virginia, Military Operations in.
Blackburn, Joyce. George Wythe of Williamsburg. New York: Harper and Row, 1975.
Dill, Alonzo T. George Wythe: Teacher of Liberty. Williamsburg: Virginia Independence Bicentennial Commission, 1979.
revised by Michael Bellesiles
George Wythe (1726-1806), American jurist and law teacher, was one of the foremost legal authorities of the Revolutionary period.
George Wythe was born into a prominent Virginia planting family. At his father's death in 1729 the family estate went to an elder brother, and George did not enjoy the advantages of considerable wealth until his brother died in 1755. George's education was therefore largely informal; he learned Latin and Greek from his mother and studied law while working with an attorney.
Wythe served briefly in 1754 as attorney general of the colony of Virginia and held political office almost continuously from then until 1778. He repeatedly served in the House of Burgesses and was its clerk from 1769 to 1775. As the crisis between the Colonies and Great Britain developed, Wythe protested against the new imperial policies. He was a delegate to the Second Continental Congress in 1775 and signed the Declaration of Independence. On the state level he was a member of the committee that designed Virginia's official seal. The Virginia Legislature appointed him to work with Thomas Jefferson, Edmund Pendleton, and others on the revision and codification of the state's laws. This work resulted in the elimination of feudal land practices from the law.
Wythe's contributions to the history of American jurisprudence were especially significant. He taught law to Jefferson and to many lawyers of future importance in the new republic. In 1779 Wythe was appointed professor of law in the College of William and Mary, the first such position in any American educational institution; he held the post for 11 years. From 1778 until his death he was also a judge in the Virginia chancery (or equity) court. On at least one occasion, he gave early voice to the distinctive American doctrine of judicial review-the power of courts to require that actions of government, particularly legislative enactments, conform to basic or constitutional law.
On June 8, 1806, Wythe died in Richmond-not of natural causes. He had no direct descendants and wrote a will leaving the bulk of his estate to a grandnephew. The grandnephew, in financial difficulties, used arsenic in an attempt to eliminate a coheir. The attempt was successful, but Wythe also consumed a fatal dose of the poison. He lived long enough to disinherit his murderer, who was never convicted as the only substantial evidence against him was the word of a black cook. Because of the cook's race his evidence was not admissible in the Virginia courts of the time.
There is no biography of Wythe. He is discussed in David Mays, Edmund Pendleton (1952); Charles S. Sydnor Gentlemen Freeholders (1952); Alf J. Mapp, Jr., The Virginia Experiment: The Old Dominion's Role in the Making of America, 1607-1781 (1957); and Clifford Dowdey, The Golden Age: A Climate for Greatness, Virginia 1732-1775 (1970).
Blackburn, Joyce., George Wythe of Williamsburg, New York: Harper & Row, 1975.
Brown, Imogene E., American Aristides: a biography of George Wythe, Rutherford N.J: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1981.
Dill, Alonzo Thomas., George Wythe, teacher of liberty, Williamsburg, Va. (Box JF, Williamsburg 23185): Virginia Independence Bicentennial Commission, 1979.
Kirtland, Robert Bevier., George Wythe: lawyer, revolutionary, judge, New York: Garland, 1986. □
"There is no country in the world … such as the United States itself—in which capital, management, labor and resources may be joined together for more production, to the mutual advantage of all concerned."
George Wythe was an attorney, judge, signer of the Declaration of Independence, and first professor of law in the United States. A mentor to thomas jefferson, Wythe educated a number of men who went on to achieve prominence in law and politics.
Wythe was born in 1726 in Elizabeth City, Virginia. After his admission to the Virginia bar in 1746, Wythe settled in Williamsburg, then the seat of government in the colony. He became active in politics, serving as a member of the House of Burgesses from 1754 to 1755 and from 1758 to 1768. He later served as clerk of the house from 1769 to 1775. An ardent supporter of independence, Wythe drafted a fiery motion opposing the stamp act of 1764. However, the house was compelled to rewrite the motion and adopt a softer tone. Wythe attended the continental congress in 1775 and 1776 and signed the declaration of independence.
During these years of politics and revolution, Wythe maintained a successful law practice. Many students sought his counsel, including Jefferson, who studied law with Wythe in the 1760s and viewed him as his mentor. As Jefferson rose in stature and power, Wythe became part of his circle. In 1776 Wythe, Jefferson, george mason, and Edmund Pendleton revised the Virginia Code.
Jefferson used his influence to have Wythe appointed the first law professor in the United States. Wythe taught at the College of William and Mary from 1779 to 1789. One of his first students was john marshall, later chief justice of the United States. While teaching, Wythe also pursued a judicial career and presided as a judge in the Virginia Chancery Court from 1778 to 1788. In 1789 he was appointed chancellor of Virginia, which required him to move to Richmond. Wythe established a private law school there and had as one of his pupils the future U.S. senator from Kentucky, henry clay. Wythe resigned as chancellor in 1792. He published a selection of his court decisions in Decisions of Cases in Virginia by the High Court of Chancery in 1795.
Wythe died on June 8, 1806, in Richmond, Virginia, of poisoning. His grandnephew and heir, George Wythe Sweeney, was acquitted of the murder. At trial the only witness was an African American, who was disqualified from testifying under the laws of Virginia.
Brown, Imogene E. 1981. American Aristides: A Biography of George Wythe. Rutherford, N.J.: Fairleigh Dickinson Univ. Press.
Callahan, Dennis J. 2003. "America's First Law Professor Played Unsung Role in Marbury." Student Lawyer 31 (February).
Carrington, Paul D. 1997. "A Tale of Two Lawyers." Northwestern University Law Review 91 (winter).
Kirtland, Robert Bevier. 1986. George Wythe: Lawyer, Revolutionary, Judge. New York: Garland.