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Biographical Sketches

George Wythe
George Wythe

Virginia's George Wythe spent only about a year in the Continental Congress, never aspired to any other national office, and played a minor part in the Constitutional Convention. But he made a deep impress on legal education in the Nation and strongly influenced the government and jurisprudence of his State. A brilliant classical scholar and the first professor of law in an American college, he instructed scores of young lawyers. Included among them were Thomas Jefferson, James Monroe, John Marshall, and Henry Clay.

Wythe was born in 1726, the second of three children, on his father's plantation on the Back River in Elizabeth City County, Va., within the confines of present Hampton. He lost his parents at an early age and grew up under the guardianship of his older brother, Thomas. George acquired a knowledge of the classics from his well educated mother before her death, and he probably attended for a time a grammar school operated by the College of William and Mary.

Wythe's brother later sent him to Prince George County to read law under an uncle. In 1746, at the age of 20, he joined the bar, moved to Spotsylvania County, and became associated with a lawyer there. In December 1747, he married his partner's sister, but she succumbed the next year. In 1754 Lt. Gov. Robert Dinwiddie appointed him as acting colonial attorney general, a position he held for a few months and which likely required that he spend some time in Williamsburg. The next year, Wythe's brother died and he inherited his birthplace. He chose, however, to live in Williamsburg in the house that his new father-in-law, an architect, designed and built for him and his betrothed, whom he married about 1755. Their only child died in infancy.

At Williamsburg, Wythe immersed himself in further study of the classics and the law and achieved accreditation by the colonial Supreme Court. Like his father, he served in the House of Burgesses (mid-1750's until 1775), first as delegate and after 1769 as clerk. During this period, in 1768 he held the mayorship of Williamsburg, and the next year sat on the board of visitors of the College of William and Mary. He also had found time during the years 1762-67 to train youthful Thomas Jefferson in the law. The two men, at first as mentor and pupil and later as political allies, maintained a lifetime friendship.

Wythe first exhibited Revolutionary leanings in 1764 when Parliament hinted to the Colonies that it might impose a Stamp Tax. By then an experienced legislator, he drafted for the House of Burgesses a remonstrance to Parliament so strident that his fellow legislators modified it before adoption. Wythe was one of the first to express the concept of separate nationhood for the Colonies within the British Empire.

Although elected to Congress in 1775-76, Wythe exerted little influence in that body. He spent considerable time helping draft a State constitution and design a State seal, and was not present at the time of the formal signing of the Declaration in August 1776. Furthermore, within a few months, Wythe, Jefferson, and Edmund Pendleton undertook a 3-year project to revise Virginia's legal code. In 1777 Wythe also presided as speaker of the lower house of the legislature.

An appointment as one of the three judges of the newly created Virginia high court of chancery followed the next year. Sitting on it for 28 years, during 13 of which he was the only chancellor, Wythe charted the course of Virginia jurisprudence. In conjunction with these duties, he was an ex officio member of the State Superior Court.

Wythe's real love was teaching. In 1779 Jefferson and other officials of the College of William and Mary created the first chair of law in a U.S. institution of higher learning and appointed Wythe to fill it. In that position, he educated America's earliest college trained lawyers, among them John Marshall and James Monroe. To supplement his lectures, Wythe introduced the use of moot courts and legislatures, in which students could put their knowledge into actual practice. In 1787 he also demonstrated his love of the classics and literature by offering free to anyone interested a class in Latin, Greek, and English literature. That same year, he attended the U.S. Constitutional Convention, but played an insignificant role and did not sign the Constitution. The following year, however, he was one of the Federalist leaders at the Virginia ratifying convention.

In 1791, the year after Wythe resigned his professorship, his chancery duties caused him to move his home to Richmond, the State capital. But he was reluctant to give up his teaching and opened a private law school. One of his last and most promising pupils was a teenager named Henry Clay.

In 1806, in his eighth decade, Wythe died at Richmond under mysterious circumstances—probably of poison administered by his heir, a favorite grandnephew. Reflecting a lifelong aversion to slavery, Wythe emancipated his slaves in his will. His grave is in the yard of St. John's Episcopal Church at Richmond.

Drawing: Oil, 1876, by John F. Weir, after John Trumbull, Independence National Historical Park.

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Last Updated: 04-Jul-2004