Wirt, William (1772-1834)
William Wirt (1772-1834)
Emergence. The career of William Wirt demonstrated the social, political, and literary paths by which countless young lawyers sought to achieve fame in the years following the War of 1812. The youngest son of Swiss and German immigrants who kept a tavern in Bladensburg, Maryland, he was orphaned in childhood but obtained some schooling through the assistance of his uncle and a family friend. At seventeen he took up the study of law in Montgomery County, Maryland, and upon learning of an opportunity in Culpeper County, Virginia, he moved there and after five months was admitted to the bar. In Culpeper he became attached to a genial and cultivated social circle, which included the son of Thomas Jefferson’s close friend Dabney Carr. When Wirt’s wife died in 1799 after four years of marriage, the twentyseven-year-old attorney moved to Richmond and began to participate in public life.
Jeffersonian Lieutenant. Upon his arrival in the Virginia capital Wirt was elected clerk of the House of Delegates, a post of strategic significance in the partisan machinery that he held for three sessions. In May 1800 he first achieved widespread notice as a member of the defense team that represented Jeffersonian editor James Thomson Callender in his highly publicized trial for violation of the Alien and Sedition Acts. Chosen by the state legislature two years later to ride circuit on a newly created chancery court headquartered in Williamsburg, Wirt served briefly as chancellor before settling in Norfolk and entering private practice. He built a strong professional reputation, and shortly after returning to Richmond he vaulted into prominence through his performance as a one of the lawyers prosecuting Aaron Burr for treason in 1807. Jefferson gratefully recommended that Wirt take a seat in Congress, but although elected to the House of Delegates he showed little enthusiasm for political campaigning. He actively supported the presidential candidacy of James Madison, however, and in 1816 Madison appointed him U.S. attorney for the district of Richmond.
Man of Letters. While rendering valuable services to the Jeffersonian Republicans and reaping his share of patronage, Wirt was simultaneously achieving distinction as one of the most important authors in the country. His Letters of the British Spy (1803) was a witty, genteel series of essays on Virginia manners that enjoyed sensational popularity and subsequently furnished an important model for such writers as Washington Irving and John Pendleton Kennedy. He followed this success in 1810 with another series of essays titled The Old Bachelor, and in 1817 he published one of the most interesting American biographies of the era, Sketches of the Life and Character of Patrick Henry. Although regarded as a dubious portrait by those who knew Henry, Wirt’s work was an important and original contribution to the mythology of the early republic. He depicted Henry as an embodiment of romantic nationalism, a self-made orator rising from the countryside and the common people to articulate the demand for independence.
Attorney General. About the same time that Wirt published his life of Henry, President James Monroe appointed him attorney general. He held the position for twelve years, through the administrations of Monroe and John Quincy Adams, while following the example of his predecessors by continuing to engage in private practice, most actively in Baltimore. Wirt helped to systematize the somewhat informal office of attorney general by preserving his official opinions as a body of precedents. He also participated in many of the major Supreme Court cases of the era, including McCulloch v. Maryland, Dartmouth College v. Woodward, and Gibbons v. Ogden. Wirt’s stature as an orator was recognized in 1826 by his appointment to deliver the principal address before the House of Representatives at a service in memory of John Adams and Thomas Jefferson.
Opponent of Jackson. A quintessential Whig long before the party organized, Wirt swiftly moved into opposition to Andrew Jackson after leaving office. Recommended by Daniel Webster, he ably directed the politically charged litigation campaign to forestall the removal of the Cherokees. Although he favored the candidacy of Henry Clay for the presidency in 1832, he accepted the nomination of the Anti-Masonic Party in the vain hope that he would unite the opponents of Jackson. Upon Wirt’s death two years later, Congress and the Supreme Court adjourned in recognition of his stature, and President Jackson and the cabinet attended the funeral. Popular writers similarly acknowledged him as one of the representative men of the age. John Pendleton Kennedy, whose life closely followed Wirt’s model, dedicated the important novel Swallow-Barn (1829) to him and published a two-volume biography in 1849. E. D. E. N. Southworth, one of the best-selling authors of the nineteenth century, based her novel Ishmael (1884) on Wirt’s life.
G. Edward White, The Marshall Court and Cultural Change, 1815–1835 (New York: Macmillan, 1988).
William Wirt served as U.S. attorney general from 1817 to 1829, the longest tenure in U.S. history. Wirt is recognized as one of the most important holders of that office, as he increased its prestige, established administrative record keeping, and defined the functions and authority of the attorney general that have remained unchanged.
Wirt was born on November 8, 1772, in Bladensburg, Maryland. He was educated at private schools and for a time worked as a private tutor. Wirt studied law and became a member of the Virginia bar in 1792. Though he established a private practice and showed remarkable talent as a lawyer, he was drawn into Virginia politics. He served as clerk of the Virginia House of Delegates in 1800 and in 1802 was chancellor of the eastern district of Virginia. Wirt's political involvement led to friendships with several prominent Virginians, including thomas jefferson, james madison, and james monroe.
In 1807 President Jefferson appointed Wirt prosecuting attorney in the treason trial of aaron burr. Though Burr was acquitted of all charges, Wirt had entered the national political arena. He continued to practice law, but he was also a Latin scholar and an author. In 1817 he published Sketches of the Life and Character of Patrick Henry.
In that same year President Monroe appointed Wirt attorney general. When Wirt entered his office for the first time he discovered that none of his eleven predecessors had left any books or records to document what they had done. Appalled at this lack of institutional memory, Wirt announced that he would keep a regular record of every official opinion he rendered for the use of his successors. This collection became known as the Official Opinions of the Attorney General, which has been maintained by every succeeding attorney general.
Wirt's most important contribution as attorney general was to define what activities his office could lawfully engage in and what advice it could give. Until Wirt's administration, the attorney general had routinely advised Congress and had advised executive branch department heads in matters of policy. After reviewing the judiciary act of 1789, Wirt noted that the attorney general had no authority to advise Congress, and that the advice the attorney general could give to the president and department heads must be confined to matters of law. Therefore, Wirt ceased issuing opinions to Congress and only gave legal advice, policies that his successors have, with few deviations, honored.
During his long service, Wirt argued numerous cases before the U.S. Supreme Court, including the landmark cases of mcculloch v. maryland, 17 U.S. (4 Wheat.) 316, 4 L. Ed. 579
(1819) and gibbons v. ogden, 22 U.S. (9 Wheat.) 1, 6 L. Ed. 23 (1824). In McCulloch the Court affirmed the power of Congress to charter a national bank and denied states the right to tax a federal instrumentality. In Gibbons the court upheld the right of the federal government to control matters of interstate commerce. The case involved the authority of a state to grant private individuals monopolies to operate steamboats in navigable waters over which the federal government had authority. The Court held that the U.S. Constitution's commerce clause empowered Congress to regulate interstate commerce, establishing a precedent that had farreaching effects in the economic expansion of the nineteenth century.
Wirt served in both Monroe administrations and in the administration of President john
quincy adams. He left office in 1829 and moved to Baltimore, where he practiced law. He died on February 18, 1834, in Washington, D.C.
Boles, John, ed. 1971. The William Wirt Papers—A Guide to the Microfilm Edition of the William Wirt Papers. Baltimore: Maryland Historical Society.
Jabour, Anya. 1998. Marriage in the Early Republic: Elizabeth and William Wirt and the Companionate Ideal. Baltimore, Md: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press.
Justice Department. Attorneys General of the United States, 1789–1985. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office.
Strahan, Thomas W. "William Wirt: Orphan to Attorney General." Quarterly-Christian Legal Society 7 (fall).