George Wythe (1726-1806)

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Biographical Sketch

George Wythe was born in 1726/1727 in Elizabeth City County, Virginia, the son of Thomas Wythe and Margaret Walker Wythe. His early education is credited to his mother who likely influenced his early Latin and Greek learning.[1] He was sent to study law under his Uncle Stephen Dewey but Wythe later admitted he learned less about the law and more on clerking. Much of his legal education was due to his own reading. [2] In 1820, Thomas Jefferson wrote of his former mentor's education "he had not the benefit of a regular education in the schools, but acquired a good one of himself, and without assistance; insomuch as to become the best Latin and Greek scholar in the state. It is said that while reading the Greek testament, his mother held an English one to aid him in rendering the Greek text conformably with that. he also acquired by his own reading a good knowledge of mathematics, of natural and moral philosophy."[3] While Wythe is listed as a student at the College of William and Mary c. 1746 in A Provisional List of Alumni, Grammar School Students, Members of the Faculty, and Members of the Board of Visitors of the College of William and Mary in Virginia, from 1693 to 1888 which was issued in 1941 by Earl Gregg Swem "published solely as a request for corrections and additional information", there appears to be no supporting extant primary source documentation to confirm this.

Wythe married "Mrs. Anne Lewis" (unknown - August 8, 1748) December 26, 1747[4] who died less than 8 months after the union. In 1754 he married Elizabeth Taliaferro (c. 1739 – August 14, 1787) of Powhatan Plantation in James City County, Virginia. It is through this marriage he obtained life rights to the home in Williamsburg, Virginia which bears his name[1] There was no issue from either marriage.

In addition to mentoring some of Virginia's most promising young attorneys, he was a practicing attorney and held numerous offices in Royal Colony and the Commonwealth of Virginia. Some of his roles included being a member of the Virginia House of Burgesses, King's Attorney General of Virginia, Delegate at the Virginia Conventions and Continental Congress, signer of the Declaration of Independence, and the first professor of law at the College of William and Mary 1779-1790, and Judge of Virginia High Court of Chancery. He was attended the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia in 1787, but his attendance was brief; his wife's illness and subsequent death prevented him from returning. Wythe was awarded an honorary degree by the College of William and Mary in 1790. "In 1791, the year after Wythe resigned his professorship, his chancery duties caused him to move to Richmond, the state capital. He was reluctant to give up his teaching, however, and opened a private law school. One of his last and most promising pupils was young Henry Clay.

In 1806 Wythe died at Richmond under mysterious circumstances, probably of poison administered by his grandnephew and heir, George Wythe Sweeney. Wythe lived long enough to disinherit Sweeney who was tried for murder, but not convicted due to the fact that the key witness to the crime, Lydia Broadnax, was enslaved. 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 in Richmond." [5]

The Marshall-Wythe School of Law at William and Mary is named in his honor, as well as his student and Supreme Court Chief Justice John Marshall.

Material in the Special Collections Research Center

References

  1. Alonzo Thomas Dill. George Wythe Teacher of Liberty. (Virginia: Virginia Independence Bicentennial Commission, 1979), p. 7.
  2. Robert Bevier Kirkland, "George Wythe: Lawyer, Revolutionary, Judge" (Michigan: University Microfilms International, 1983PhD diss., University of Michigan, 1983), p. 40
  3. Thomas Jefferson: Notes for the Biography of George Wythe., ca. 31 Aug. 1820, 31 August 1820, Founders Online, National Archives, transcription last modified March 30, 2017, http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Jefferson/98-01-02-1484. See original document at https://www.loc.gov/resource/mtj1.052_0217_0219/.
  4. William Armstrong Crozier, Virginia County Records, Vol. I (Canada: College of Arms, 1912), p. 85. Accessed May 3, 2017 through Internet Archive https://archive.org/details/virginiacountyre01croz.
  5. National Archives, "The Founding Fathers of Virginia", last modified September 29, 2016, https://www.archives.gov/founding-docs/founding-fathers-virginia

Further Reading

News from William & Mary

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Questions? Contact the SCRC at spcoll@wm.edu or 221-3090, or visit the Special Collections Research Center in the Earl Gregg Swem Library at the College of William and Mary (hours).

A Note About The Contents Of This Wiki
Unfortunately, many of the early original records of the College of William and Mary were destroyed by fire, military occupation, and the normal effects of time. The information available here is the best available from known documents and sources at the time it was written. Information in this wiki is not complete as new information continues to be uncovered in the SCRC's collections and elsewhere. Researchers are strongly encouraged to use the SCRC's access tools for their research as the information contained in this wiki is by no means comprehensive.