Portrait of George Wythe

George Wythe (1726 or 1727–1806)

George Wythe was a member of the House of Burgesses (1754–1755, 1758, 1761–1766) and the Conventions of 1776, 1787, 1788, a member of the Second Continental Congress during the American Revolution (1775–1783), Speaker of the House of Delegates (1777–1778), and judge of the High Court of Chancery (1778–1806). His signature is first among Virginians on the Declaration of Independence. Born in Elizabeth City County, Wythe was educated by his mother and read the law under the guidance of an uncle, eventually building a lucrative practice in Williamsburg, where he mentored a young Thomas Jefferson. He supported independence during the Revolution and served on a General Assembly committee with Jefferson and others charged with revising Virginia's laws. In 1778, the assembly elected Wythe to serve on the newly created High Court of Chancery, where he stayed the rest of his life, even after receiving offers of seats on higher courts. He twice used his position to rule that slavery was unconstitutional, including in Pleasants v. Pleasants (1799), but was twice overruled by the Court of Appeals. He later freed his own slaves. From 1780 to 1789 he taught law at the College of William and Mary, becoming the first law professor at any American university; John Marshall was one of his students. He served briefly in the U.S. Constitutional Convention and then appealed for its ratification in Virginia. Wythe died in Richmond in 1806, likely poisoned by his great-nephew, George Wythe Sweeney Jr. MORE...

 

Early Years

Wythe was born late in 1726 or early in 1727, almost certainly at Chesterville, the family plantation on Back River in Elizabeth City County. He was probably the youngest of the three children of Thomas Wythe and Margaret Walker Wythe. The Wythes were a substantial but not wealthy family. For four generations their enslaved laborers had cultivated tobacco at Chesterville, and four generations of Thomas Wythes had sat on the Elizabeth City County Court, including George Wythe's older brother. Although there was a wharf at Chesterville the family also purchased a half interest in a wharf in the town of Hampton.

Wythe's father died in 1729. His will entailed the family land to the elder son, and as a result when Wythe was a young man he had to find another means of support than farming. His mother, who did not remarry and reared him until her death in about 1746, was certainly the most formative influence in his early life. Unlike most women in Virginia at the time, she was literate. She was the daughter of George Walker and Anne Keith Walker, who educated their children regardless of gender. Wythe's great-grandfather was the fiery college-educated Scot George Keith, a colonial Quaker missionary who had been a crusader against slavery. Wythe owned at least one book his great-grandfather wrote and had probably read Keith's militant pamphlet on slavery. Wythe's passionate devotion to liberty for his country and all its inhabitants thus likely also welled up out of his mother's tutelage. Wythe learned reading, writing, arithmetic, and the basics of Latin at his mother's knee. Whether he ever had any formal schooling is uncertain, but he loved learning, apparently taught himself Greek, geometry, and natural history (that is, science), studied Hebrew in the 1790s, read voraciously all of his life, and eventually became a teacher. Latin and Greek words pepper his judicial opinions.

Choosing to be a lawyer, Wythe had a pedestrian experience studying under his uncle Stephen Dewey and essentially taught himself law with the aid of Benjamin Waller, an accomplished Williamsburg attorney. In June 1746 Wythe received his license to practice law and moved to Fredericksburg to work with Waller's eminent brother-in-law Zachary Lewis. On December 26, 1747, Wythe secured a marriage license and on that date or soon thereafter married his law partner's daughter Anne Lewis. Wythe's practice blossomed but on August 8, 1748, his wife died, probably of complications of pregnancy. Devastated, Wythe took to drink, but with the help of friends soon pulled himself together and moved to Williamsburg, where his Waller connections aided him to build a lucrative law practice.

Political Career and Revolution

In October 1748 members of the House of Burgesses named Wythe clerk of the important committees of Privileges and Elections and of Propositions and Grievances. In the next assembly, which first met in February 1752, Wythe again was appointed to the influential clerkships. Late in January 1754 the lieutenant governor appointed Wythe acting attorney general of the colony. He served until early in 1755 and again from November 1766 to June 1767.

In the autumn of 1754 Wythe won a special election to fill a vacant seat in the House of Burgesses representing Williamsburg and served on the Committee for Courts of Justice as well as the Committees of Privileges and Elections and of Propositions and Grievances, for both of which he had formerly been clerk. Early the following year, after Wythe's brother died childless, he inherited Chesterville and succeeded his brother on the Elizabeth City County Court. About the same time on an unrecorded date Wythe married Elizabeth Taliaferro, the teenaged daughter of a James City County planter. They had no children and lived in Williamsburg in what became known as the Wythe House, which his father-in-law designed and gave him a life estate in. During probably the happiest time of Wythe's life he formed close social and intellectual friendships with William Small, a young professor at the College of William and Mary, the learned lieutenant governor Francis Fauquier, and, when he arrived in the 1760s to be Wythe's student, Thomas Jefferson. The four dined together often. Jefferson was the first of several young men who studied law under Wythe.

Wythe was among the original trustees for the colony's hospital for the mentally ill, a Williamsburg alderman for two decades, and the city's mayor in 1768–1769. He did not win reelection to the House of Burgesses in 1756, but in 1758 the president and professors of the College of William and Mary chose him to represent the college, and he won elections in 1761 and 1766 to represent Elizabeth City County. Wythe served on the same committees as in his first term and beginning in 1764 on the Committee on Trade. He was one of the most active members of the House. From March 1768 to the end of the colonial period, Wythe was the last clerk of the House of Burgesses.

Wythe had opposed Patrick Henry's resolutions against the Stamp Act in 1765 because he believed them too strong, but he did not approve of the law. He was a member of the committee that residents of Williamsburg elected late in 1774 to enforce the Virginia and Continental Associations adopted to pressure English merchants to force an alteration in Parliamentary policies. The Virginia Convention of July–August 1775 elected Wythe a delegate to the Second Continental Congress. Along with John Adams, Samuel Adams, and Richard Henry Lee, he proved to be one of the strongest advocates for American independence. Wythe's signature is the first of the Virginians' signatures on the Declaration of Independence. Late in June before Congress voted on independence, he returned to Williamsburg to serve during the final weeks of the Convention of 1776 that adopted the first written constitution for Virginia.

On November 5, 1776, the House of Delegates named Wythe, Jefferson, Edmund Pendleton, and two others who declined to participate to a committee to revise Virginia's laws consistent with revolutionary principles. In June 1779 they submitted 126 comprehensive bills to the General Assembly, and during the following decade the assembly passed most of them, some of them after modification.

Judge and Law Professor

Wythe represented Williamsburg in the House of Delegates during the 1777–1778 sessions and on May 8, 1777, was elected Speaker of the House. On January 14, 1778, the General Assembly elected Wythe a judge of the newly created High Court of Chancery. When Virginia created a Supreme Court of Appeals in 1789 he chose to remain as the state's sole chancellor and served until his death. He was resourceful, forward-looking, courageous, and immune to popular pressure as a judge. In Commonwealth v. Caton (1782) Wythe made one of the earliest and most persuasive arguments for the power of the courts to rule statutes unconstitutional. In Page v. Pendleton (1793), to the consternation of the many Virginians who owed pre-Revolutionary debts to British creditors and believed that victory had meant cancellation of them, Wythe ruled that the debts were indeed payable. He twice confounded the legal basis of white Virginia's prosperity by holding that under the language in the Commonwealth's Bill of Rights—"all men are by nature equally free"—slavery was unconstitutional, but the Court of Appeals overruled Wythe's assertion in Pleasants v. Pleasants (1799) and Hudgins v. Wright (1806).

Wythe was professor of law and police at the College of William and Mary from 1780 through 1789, the first law professor at an American university, and among his students was John Marshall. He taught against slavery during the decade. After Wythe's wife died on August 18, 1787, he began freeing some of his slaves and owned none at his death. Moreover, he paid those who stayed to work for him. He was shunned by many for these views.

In December 1786 the General Assembly named Wythe a member of the state's outstanding delegation to the Constitutional Convention. His only major contribution to that august body was the rules of procedure because he was called home by the illness of his wife less than a month after the convention had met. Consumed with grief at her death Wythe did not return to Philadelphia. In 1788 his York County neighbors surprised him by selecting him as a delegate to the Virginia Ratification Convention. Wythe ably chaired the Committee of the Whole during the intensive debate, then stepped down to endorse the Constitution and move its adoption. It passed by a vote of 89 to 79.

Later Years

In 1791 Wythe moved to Richmond where he bought a home. He had had a bad experience with his overseer at Chesterville, who proved to be a British spy and apparently pillaged the property. Wythe allowed his chosen heir, his sister's son George Wythe Sweeney, and his wife to enjoy the estate from 1786 to 1792, but Wythe's trust proved misdirected. In 1792 Wythe sold Chesterville to a Richmond merchant who was unable to maintain payments. Wythe was forced to buy the property at a tax sale in 1801 and sold it again in 1802.

Wythe's familial attention turned to his great-nephew, George Wythe Sweeney Jr., who moved into his home by 1806 following the deaths of his parents. In his will Wythe made the young man the residuary legatee of his estate. A gambler, rake, and thief, Sweeney poisoned Wythe for the inheritance. The only witness against Sweeney was an African American woman who under Virginia's laws could not give testimony against a white person, so Sweeney was not convicted. George Wythe lived long enough to disinherit Sweeney before dying at his Richmond home on June 8, 1806. After his body laid in repose at the Capitol, he was buried in the cemetery at what later came to be known as Saint John's Church.

Time Line

  • 1726 or 1727 - George Wythe is born, almost certainly at Chesterville, the family plantation on Back River in Elizabeth City County.
  • October 1729 - Thomas Wythe, the father of George Wythe, dies.
  • ca. 1746 - Margaret Walker Wythe, the mother of George Wythe, dies.
  • June 18, 1746 - George Wythe takes the oath of an attorney in Caroline County Court but makes his home in Fredericksburg.
  • December 26, 1747 - George Wythe and Anne Lewis obtain a marriage license in Spotsylvania County.
  • August 8, 1748 - Anne Lewis Wythe, the wife of George Wythe, dies in Fredericksburg.
  • October 28, 1748 - George Wythe is appointed clerk of the House of Burgesses committees of Privileges and Elections and Propositions and Grievances.
  • February 1752 - George Wythe again serves as a clerk to influential committees in the House of Burgesses.
  • 1754–1755 - George Wythe serves as acting attorney general of Virginia.
  • Autumn 1754 - George Wythe wins a special election to the House of Burgesses representing Williamsburg. He replaces Armistead Burwell, who died in office.
  • 1756 - George Wythe is defeated for election to the House of Burgesses from Elizabeth City County, receiving only a single vote.
  • 1758 - George Wythe is defeated for election to the House of Burgesses in Elizabeth City County, but professors at the College of William and Mary name him as their burgess.
  • 1761–1766 - George Wythe serves in the House of Burgesses, representing Elizabeth City County.
  • November 1766–June 1767 - George Wythe serves as acting attorney general of Virginia.
  • 1768–1769 - George Wythe serves as the mayor of Williamsburg.
  • March 1768–May 1776 - George Wythe serves as the last clerk of the House of Burgesses.
  • May 10, 1775 - The Second Continental Congress meets in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Representing Virginia throughout the Congress are Richard Bland, Benjamin Harrison, Patrick Henry, Thomas Jefferson, Francis Lightfoot Lee, Richard Henry Lee, Thomas Nelson Jr., Edmund Pendleton, Peyton Randolph, George Washington, and George Wythe.
  • August 2, 1776 - Delegates to the Second Continental Congress sign the Declaration of Independence, including Carter Braxton, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Harrison, Francis Lightfoot Lee, Richard Henry Lee, Thomas Nelson Jr., and George Wythe.
  • November 5, 1776 - The House of Delegates names George Wythe, Thomas Jefferson, Edmund Pendleton, and two others who decline to participate to a committee to revise Virginia's laws.
  • 1777–1778 - George Wythe represents Williamsburg in the House of Delegates.
  • May 8, 1777 - George Wythe is elected Speaker of the House of Delegates.
  • January 14, 1778 - The General Assembly elects George Wythe a judge of the newly created High Court of Chancery. He serves until his death in 1806.
  • June 1779 - George Wythe, Thomas Jefferson, and Edmund Pendleton submit 126 bills to the General Assembly, which had tasked them with revising the state's laws.
  • 1780–1789 - George Wythe teaches law and College of William and Mary.
  • December 1786 - The General Assembly names George Wythe a delegate to the Constitutional Convention.
  • May–September 1787 - The Constitutional Convention of 1787 meets in Philadelphia to amend the Articles of Confederation. Virginia delegates include George Washington, John Blair, James Madison, George Mason, Edmund Randolph, and George Wythe. Patrick Henry is elected to the convention but declines to attend, later explaining, "I smelt a rat."
  • August 18, 1787 - Elizabeth Taliaferro Wythe, the second wife of George Wythe, dies at their home in Williamsburg.
  • 1788 - George Wythe is elected a delegate from York County to the state convention called to consider ratification of the U.S. Constitution.
  • January 25, 1797 - George Wythe manumits Benjamin, an adult slave who will continue to live with him in Richmond. He will also be named a beneficiary in Wythe's will.
  • September 12, 1798 - Chancellor George Wythe rules in Pleasants v. Logan that all Pleasants family slaves thirty or older in 1782 were entitled to their freedom.
  • May 6, 1799 - In Pleasants v. Pleasants, the Virginia Court of Appeals rules in favor of Robert Pleasants, who is attempting to manumit the family slaves according to his late father's wishes.
  • April 1803 - George Wythe signs his will.
  • May 24, 1806 - George Wythe eats an evening meal of milk and strawberries, which some people will later guess to have been poisoned.
  • June 8, 1806 - George Wythe dies of an apparent poisoning in Richmond. He is buried at Saint John's Church in that city.
  • September 2, 1806 - A jury in the Richmond District Court acquits George Wythe Sweeney Jr. of murdering his great-uncle George Wythe and the free African American Michael Brown.

References

Further Reading
Blackburn, Joyce. George Wythe of Williamsburg. New York: Harper & Row, 1975.
Dill, Alonzo Thomas. George Wythe: Teacher of Liberty. Williamsburg: Virginia Independence Bicentennial Commission, 1979.
Holt, Wythe. "George Wythe: Early Modern Judge." Alabama Law Review 58 (2007): 1,009–1,039.
Cite This Entry
  • APA Citation:

    Holt, W. W., Jr., & the Dictionary of Virginia Biography. George Wythe (1726 or 1727–1806). (2017, December 18). In Encyclopedia Virginia. Retrieved from http://www.EncyclopediaVirginia.org/Wythe_George_1726_or_1727-1806.

  • MLA Citation:

    Holt, Wythe W., Jr. and the Dictionary of Virginia Biography. "George Wythe (1726 or 1727–1806)." Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, 18 Dec. 2017. Web. READ_DATE.

First published: December 12, 2017 | Last modified: December 18, 2017