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George Wythe - History

George Wythe - History



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Wythe, George

George Wythe was born in 1726 in Elizabeth City County, Virginia. He gained a strong knowledge of the classics from his mother and also studied at a grammar school operated by the College of William and Mary. When he was somewhat older, he studied law in Prince George County. He was admitted to the bar in 1746 when he was twenty years old.

Wythe moved to Williamsburg in 1748 and began an intense study of law and the classics. He was a member of the House of Burgesses from around 1755 until 1775, and served as mayor of Williamsburg in 1768. During this period of time, Wythe also became a respected teacher of law. One of his most famous students was Thomas Jefferson. Wythe attended the Continental Congress from 1777 until 1776, but remained rather uninvolved, preferring to dedicate his energies to state politics.

Teaching was always Wyth's greatest passion, and the nation's first chair of law was created for him in 1779 at the College of William and Mary. As a professor, he went on to instruct some of America's most famous early lawyers, including John Marshall, James Monroe, and Henry Clay.

Wythe was eighty years old when he passed away in 1806. He was buried in Richmond's St. John Episcopal Church.


A Biography of George Wythe 1726-1806

George Wythe, the second of Thomas and Margaret Wythe's three children, was born in 1726 on his family's plantation on the Back River in Elizabeth City County, VA. Both parents died when Wythe was young, and he grew up under the guardianship of his older brother, Thomas. Though Wythe was to become an eminent jurist and teacher, he received very little formal education. He learned Latin and Greek from his well-educated mother, 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 age 20, he joined the bar, moved to Spotsylvania County, and became associated with a lawyer there. In 1747 he married his partner's sister, Ann Lewis, but she died the next year. In 1754 Lt. Gov. Robert Dinwiddie appointed him as acting colonial attorney general, a position that he held for only a few months. The next year, Wythe's brother died and he inherited the family estate. 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 wife, Elizabeth Taliaferro. They married in 1755, and 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. He served in the House of Burgesses from the mid-1750s until 1775, first as delegate and after 1769 as clerk. In 1768 he became mayor of Williamsburg, and the next year he sat on the board of visitors of the College of William and Mary. During these years he also directed the legal studies of young scholars, notably Thomas Jefferson. Wythe and Jefferson maintained a lifelong friendship, first as mentor and pupil and later as political allies.

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 delegates modified it before adoption. Wythe was one of the first to express the concept of separate nationhood for the colonies within the British empire.

When war broke out, Wythe volunteered for the army but was sent to the Continental Congress. Although present from 1775 through 1776, Wythe exerted little influence and signed the Declaration of Independence after the formal signing in August 1776. That same year, 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 Virginia House of Delegates.

An appointment as one of the three judges of the newly created Virginia high court of chancery followed in 1778. For 28 years, during 13 of which he was the only chancellor, Wythe charted the course of Virginia jurisprudence. In addition, 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. In 1787 he attended the Constitutional Convention but played an insignificant role. He left the proceedings early and did not sign the Constitution. The following year, however, he was one of the Federalist leaders at the Virginia ratifying convention. There he presided over the Committee of the Whole and offered the resolution for ratification.

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, in his eightieth year, Wythe died at Richmond under mysterious circumstances, probably of poison administered by his grandnephew and heir, George Wythe Sweeney. 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.


Letter to George Wythe

— Your favors of Jan. 10 & Feb. 10, came to hand on the 20 th & 2d of May. I availed myself of the first opportunity which occurred, by a gentleman going to England, of sending to Mr. Joddrel a copy of the Notes on our country, with a line informing him that it was you who had emboldened me to take that liberty. Madison, no doubt, informed you of the reason why I had sent only a single copy to Virginia. Being assured by him that they will not do the harm I had apprehended, but on the contrary may do some good, I propose to send thither the copies remaining on hand, which are fewer than I had intended. But of the numerous corrections they need, there are one or two so essential that I must have them made, by printing a few new leaves & substituting them for the old. This will be done while they are engraving a map which I have constructed of the country from Albemarle sound to Lake Erie, & which will be inserted in the book. A bad French translation which is getting out here, will probably oblige me to publish the original more freely, which it neither deserved nor was ever intended. Your wishes, which are laws to me, will justify my destining a copy for you, otherwise I should as soon have thought of sending you a hornbook for there is no truth there that which is not familiar to you, and it’s errors I should hardly have proposed to treat you with.

Immediately on the receipt of your letter, I wrote to a correspondent at Florence to inquire after the family of Tagliaferro as you desired. I received his answer two days ago, a copy of which I now inclose. The original shall be sent by some other occasion. I will have the copper-plate immediately engraved. This may be ready within a few days, but the probability is that I shall be long getting an opportunity of sending it to you, as these rarely occur. You do not mention the size of the plate but, presuming it is intended for labels for the inside of books, I shall have it made of a proper size for that. I shall omit the word agisos, according to the license you allow me, because I think the beauty of a motto is to condense much matter in as few words as possible. The word omitted will be supplied by every reader. The European papers have announced that the assembly of Virginia were occupied on the revisal of their code of laws. This, with some other similar intelligence, has contributed much to convince the people of Europe, that what the English papers are constantly publishing of our anarchy, is false as they are sensible that such a work is that of a people only who are in perfect tranquillity. Our act for freedom of religion is extremely applauded. The ambassadors & ministers of the several nations of Europe resident at this court have asked of me copies of it to send to their sovereigns, and it is inserted at full length in several books now in the press among others, in the new Encyclopedie. I think it will produce considerable good even in these countries where ignorance, superstition, poverty, & oppression of body & mind in every form, are so firmly settled on the mass of the people, that their redemption from them can never be hoped. If the Almighty had begotten a thousand sons, instead of one, they would not have sufficed for this task. If all the sovereigns of Europe were to set themselves to work to emancipate the minds of their subjects from their present ignorance & prejudices, & that as zealously as they now endeavor the contrary, a thousand years would not place them on that high ground on which our common people are now setting out. Ours could not have been so fairly put into the hands of their own common sense had they not been separated from their parent stock & kept from contamination, either from them, or the other people of the old world, by the intervention of so wide an ocean. To know the worth of this, one must see the want of it here. I think by far the most important bill in our whole code is that for the diffusion of knowlege among the people. No other sure foundation can be devised, for the preservation of freedom and happiness. If anybody thinks that kings, nobles, or priests are good conservators of the public happiness send them here. It is the best school in the universe to cure them of that folly. They will see here with their own eyes that these descriptions of men are an abandoned confederacy against the happiness of the mass of the people. The omnipotence of their effect cannot be better proved than in this country particularly, where notwithstanding the finest soil upon earth, the finest climate under heaven, and a people of the most benevolent, the most gay and amiable character of which the human form is susceptible, where such a people I say, surrounded by so many blessings from nature, are yet loaded with misery by kings, nobles and priests, and by them alone. Preach, my dear Sir, a crusade against ignorance establish & improve the law for educating the common people. Let our countrymen know that the people alone can protect us against these evils, and that the tax which will be paid for this purpose is not more than the thousandth part of what will be paid to kings, priests & nobles who will rise up among us if we leave the people in ignorance. The people of England, I think, are less oppressed than here. But it needs but half an eye to see, when among them, that the foundation is laid in their dispositions for the establishment of a despotism. Nobility, wealth & pomp are the objects of their adoration. They are by no means the free-minded people we suppose them in America. Their learned men too are few in number, and are less learned and infinitely less emancipated from prejudice than those of this country. An event too seems to be preparing, in the order of things, which will probably decide the fate of that country. It is no longer doubtful that the harbour of Cherburg will be complete, that it will be a most excellent one, & capacious enough to hold the whole navy of France. Nothing has ever been wanting to enable this country to invade that, but a naval force conveniently stationed to protect the transports. This change of situation must oblige the English to keep up a great standing army, and there is no King, who, with sufficient force, is not always ready to make himself absolute. My paper warns me it is time to recommend myself to the friendly recollection of Mrs. Wythe, of Colo. Tagliaferro & his family & particularly of Mr. R. T. and to assure you of the affectionate esteem with which I am Dear Sir


Blackburn, Joyce. George Wythe of Williamsburg. New York: Harper & Row, [1975].

Boyd, Julian P. The Murder of George Wythe. Philadelphia: Philobiblon Club, 1949.

------. "The Murder of George Wythe." William and Mary Quarterly 3rd Ser., 12 (October 1955): 513-42 Kirtland, Robert B. "George Wythe: Lawyer, Revolutionary, Judge." Ph.D. dissertation, University of Michigan, 1983.

Brown, Imogene E. American Aristides: A Biography of George Wythe. Rutherford, [N.J.]: Farleigh Dickinson University Press, 1981.

Clarkin, William. Serene Patriot: A Life of George Wythe. Albany: Alan Publications, 1970.

Dill, Alonzo Thomas. George Wythe, Teacher of Liberty. Edited by Edward M. Riley. Williamsburg, Va.: Virginia Independence Bicentennial Commission, 1979.

Kirtland, Robert B. "George Wythe: Lawyer, Revolutionary, Judge." Ph.D. diss., University of Michigan, 1983.

------. George Wythe: Lawyer, Revolutionary, Judge. New York: Garland, 1986.


George Wythe

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George Wythe, (born 1726, Elizabeth City county, Virginia [U.S.]—died June 8, 1806, Richmond, Virginia, U.S.), American jurist who was one of the first judges in the United States to state the principle that a court can invalidate a law considered to be unconstitutional. He also was probably the first great American law teacher his pupils included such well-known figures as Thomas Jefferson, John Marshall, and Henry Clay.

Admitted to the bar in 1746, Wythe was a member (1754–55, 1758–68) and clerk (1769–75) of the Virginia House of Burgesses. In 1764 he drew up a forceful remonstrance from Virginia to the British House of Commons against the Stamp Act. In 1776 Wythe, as a delegate to the Continental Congress, signed the Declaration of Independence. Also in that year he was appointed, with Jefferson, Edmund Pendleton, and George Mason, to revise the laws of Virginia. He was a member of the Constitutional Convention (1787) and of the Virginia convention (1788) that ratified the federal Constitution.

A chancery judge from 1778, Wythe became sole chancellor of Virginia in 1788. As an ex officio member of the state supreme court, Wythe, in the case of Commonwealth v. Caton (1782), asserted the power of courts to refuse to enforce unconstitutional laws.

The future president Thomas Jefferson studied law in Wythe’s office, at Williamsburg, Virginia, in the 1760s. Appointed through Jefferson’s influence, Wythe held (1779–89), at the College of William and Mary, the first U.S. professorship of law. One of his students there in 1780 was John Marshall, later chief justice of the United States Supreme Court. Wythe’s appointment as chancellor of Virginia required him to resign from the college and move to Richmond, where he opened a private school of law. Among his pupils in Richmond, and clerk of his court, was the future U.S. senator Henry Clay.

Wythe died of poisoning. A grandnephew and heir, George Wythe Sweeney, was acquitted of the murder in a trial in which the only witness was, as an African American, disqualified from testifying.

The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica This article was most recently revised and updated by Amy Tikkanen, Corrections Manager.


George Wythe (1726-1806)

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.


George Whythe

(1726-1806)
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George Wythe was born in 1726 on a Virginia plantation.

He attended the College of William and Mary and studied law.

He entered political life by serving in the Virginia legislature and as mayor of Williamsburg.

He signed the Declaration of Independence and worked actively for the Revolution.

In 1779, he was named the first professor of law in a U.S. college.

Although he was well respected for his knowledge and high ethical standards, he did not contribute greatly to the Philadelphia Convention, leaving early because of other obligations.

He did not sign the Constitution, but he supported ratification at the Virginia ratification convention.

Wythe died in 1806 under mysterious circumstances.

He was probably poisoned by his grandnephew and heir, George Wythe Sweeney.


Elizabeth Wythe

George Wythe (pronounced “with”) was born in 1726 on his family’s plantation on the Back River in Elizabeth City County, Virginia. George’s father died when George was three years old, but fortunately, his grandfather had given his mother an excellent education, and George received his early education from her. She instilled in her son a love of learning that served him all his life.

In his teens, Wythe entered the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg. He was poor, however, and his stay was necessarily brief. A family connection opened the door for him to study in the law office of Thomas Dewey, and at age twenty he was admitted to the bar.

Admitted to the Virginia bar in 1746, moved to Spotsylvania County, and worked with the prominent lawyer Zachary Lewis. In 1747, Wythe married Zachary’s daughter Ann. Wythe was admitted to the York County bar January 16, 1748. Ann Lewis Wythe died on August 8 the same year.

In 1755, George Wythe married Elizabeth Taliaferro (pronounced “Tolliver”). She was the daughter of respected planter and builder Richard Taliaferro, who built a dignified house on the Palace Green in Williamsburg – now called the George Wythe House. Taliaferro gave his daughter and her new husband life rights to the house, and they lived there for many years. 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. In 1755, George’s brother died and he inherited the family plantation, but George continued to live at Williamsburg, where he had been elected to represent the town in the House of Burgesses the previous year. He served in the House of Burgesses from the mid-1750s until 1775, first as delegate and after 1769 as clerk.

In 1759, when Thomas Jefferson was a 16-year-old freshman at the College of William and Mary, he met George Wythe, then 35, a lawyer and member of the House of Burgesses representing the college. Jefferson’s father had died two years earlier, and Wythe and his wife, Elizabeth, who had no children of their own, took Jefferson in.

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 formal statement to Parliament so harsh that his fellow delegates modified it. Wythe was one of the first to express the concept of a separation of the colonies from the British empire. Yet, despite Virginia’s deepening disputes with the Crown, Wythe maintained close friendships with governors Francis Fauquier and Norborne Berkeley, baron de Botetourt.

Wythe was appointed to William and Mary’s board in 1768, and was elected Williamsburg’s mayor on December 1 of that year. He was appointed clerk of the House of Burgesses July 16, 1767, and took the oath of office on March 31, 1768. He remained house clerk until 1775, when he was elected to the Second Continental Congress.

Wythe continued to accept law students as boarders in his home, and treated them like the sons he never had. In 1772, he took James Madison (cousin of later President James Madison) into his home. Another student was Bermuda-born St. George Tucker, who later became United States judge for the District of Virginia. Among Wythe’s other law pupils were John Marshall, perhaps the greatest chief justice of the United States.

But Wythe’s greatest pupil was Thomas Jefferson. The two men together read all sorts of material other than law from English literary works, to political philosophy, to the ancient classics. Wythe also instilled in Jefferson a love for books. An avid collector, Wythe accumulated an excellent library. In later years, a friendly rivalry developed between Wythe and Jefferson, as each sought to develop the best private library in Virginia.

As the War for Independence drew near, the controversies with Great Britain helped to crystallize Wythe’s thoughts on liberty. Wythe’s emphasis on the importance of liberty under the law helped to check Jefferson’s fiery spirit. Wythe argued that due to the slowness of communications with England, the American legislatures should be allowed to make laws to meet local needs. The growth in power of the colonial assemblies was part of the whole process of the mid-1700s, which saw the lower houses grow in power, confidence, and ability to govern.

Wythe’s mature political philosophy was similar to that of John Adams and James Madison. Wythe believed in the necessity of a “mixed government,” in which several “factions” checked each other’s power and influence. Ultimately, this concept found its practical expression in the three branches of government and in the relationship between the states and the national government. In 1776, at Wythe’s prompting, John Adams wrote his Thoughts on Government, in which he put forth the concept of separation of powers.

When the war began, though 50 years old, Wythe volunteered for Virginia’s army, but was instead called to serve in the Continental Congress. In Philadelphia, Wythe emphasized that “we must declare ourselves a free people.” Following instructions from the Virginia Convention in Williamsburg, Richard Henry Lee, another member of the Virginia delegation, rose at the Second Continental Congress and moved for American independence.

Thomas Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence was approved July 4, but the document was not ready for signing until August 2, 1862. By that time, Wythe had been called back to Virginia to help set up the new Commonwealth. Yet, George Wythe’s signature appears first among the Virginia signatories on the Declaration. He was so highly respected by his fellow Virginians that the other delegates left a space above their names so that Wythe could sign it when he returned.


George Wythe’s Signature
On the Declaration of Independence

In 1777, George Wythe returned to Virginia to revise the colonial laws and adapt them to her new status as a sovereign state. Unlike the revolutionaries in France and Russia, Wythe sought to build American laws on English precedents, confirming Edmund Burke’s observation that “the Americans are not only devoted to liberty, but to liberty according to English principles and ideas.” Wythe clearly saw the danger of disinheriting America from the Magna Charta, the English Bill of Rights, and England’s unique contribution to the progress of liberty.

George Wythe’s real love was teaching. In 1779, he accepted the appointment as professor of law and police in now-Governor Jefferson’s reorganization of the College of William and Mary. Wythe thus became the first professor of law in an American institution of higher learning. He held this position until 1790. In that position, he educated America’s earliest college-trained lawyers.


George Wythe House
Elizabeth Taliaferro’s father gave his daughter and her new husband life rights to this house on Palace Green in Williamsburg, Virginia, and they lived there for many years. It also served as General George Washington’s headquarters just before the Siege of Yorktown.

Wythe’s chief aim as an educator was to train his students for leadership. In a letter to his friend John Adams in 1785, Wythe wrote that his purpose was to “form such characters as may be fit to succeed those which have been ornamental and useful in the national councils of America.” Mr. Wythe’s School – both in his study and in the Wren Building at the College of William and Mary – produced a generation of lawyers, judges, ministers, teachers, and statesmen who helped fill the need for leadership in the young nation.

Late in the 1780s, student William Munford preserved a glimpse of Wythe’s domestic establishment. “Old as he is,” Munford wrote, “his habit is, every morning, winter and summer, to rise before the sun, go to the well in the yard, draw several buckets of water, and fill the reservoir for his shower bath, and then, drawing the cord, let the water fall over him in a glorious shower. Many a time have I heard him catching his breath and almost shouting with the shock. When he entered the breakfast room his face would be in a glow, and all his nerves were fully braced.”

During the Revolution, Wythe’s wealth suffered greatly. His devotion to public service left him little opportunity to attend to his private affairs. Due to the dishonesty of his superintendent, most of his slaves were placed in the hands of the British. But by cost-cutting and careful management, Wythe was able to pay off his debts and preserve his financial independence by combining what was left of his estate with his salary as chancellor.

In 1787, Wythe was chosen to be part of the Virginia delegation to the Constitutional Convention, joining what Jefferson called an “assembly of demigods.” George Washington appointed Wythe along with Alexander Hamilton and Charles Pinckney to draw up rules and procedures for the Convention. Delegates from the American States met in Philadelphia and began framing the Constitution of the United States. George Wythe was among those illustrious patriots – yet he was in the convention for only ten days.

He was called home by what he said was “the only” cause that “could have moved” him, the illness of his beloved wife. Elizabeth fell sick early in the summer, and on June 4, Wythe left the convention and headed back to Williamsburg.

Despite his best efforts, Elizabeth Taliaferro Wythe died on August 14, 1787, “after a long and lingering sickness which she bore with the patience of a true Christian.” She was 47 years old, and had been his wife for more than 30 years.

His wife gone, and having no children, Wythe once again answered the call of duty and fought for the passage of the Federal Constitution at the Virginia State Convention. Wythe’s prestige and influence, as well as the votes of five of his former students, helped to overcome strong opposition from the Antifederalists, led by Patrick Henry. Later, Wythe helped to develop the Bill of Rights, basing his work on George Mason’s Virginia Declaration of Rights.

In a dispute with the administration, Wythe resigned from the college in 1789, and accepted an appointment as judge of Virginia’s Court of Chancery. In 1791, his chancery duties caused him to move to Richmond, the state capital, and he turned his home in Williamsburg over to the Taliaferro heirs. Wythe was reluctant to give up his teaching, however, and opened a private law school in Richmond. One of his last and most promising pupils was the future U.S. senator from Kentucky, Henry Clay. Wythe resigned as chancellor in 1792.

Wythe had grown to hate slavery, and after his wife died in 1787, he began to free his slaves and to provide for their support. In Richmond, Wythe lived with two of his former slaves: his cook Lydia Broadnax, 66, and a 16-year-old mulatto boy named Michael Brown. Wythe was convinced that blacks were as intelligent as whites and, given the same opportunities, would be just as successful.

Also living with him was his great-nephew George Wythe Sweeney, who was in line to inherit most of Wythe’s estate. The brash and irresponsible young man came and went as he pleased, and Wythe tried to exert a positive influence on him without much success. Sweeney was a regular at Richmond’s notorious gambling dens, and to pay his debts, he was not above selling books stolen from Judge Wythe’s library or forging his uncle’s name on checks. The judge finally threatened to cut his nephew out of his will if he didn’t change his ways.

On Sunday morning May 25, 1806, Wythe followed his usual routine at his home in Richmond’s fashionable Shockoe Hill neighborhood. He doused himself with a bucket of ice-cold water from the well in his backyard, then returned to his room to dress and read the newspapers until Lydia Broadnax brought him his breakfast of eggs, toast, sweetbread, and hot coffee.

Lydia carried the breakfast tray upstairs, and then returned to the kitchen to have a cup of coffee with Michael Brown. A few minutes later, she was stricken with horrific pains, and Brown collapsed on the table. Upstairs, Wythe finished his coffee and then vomited. When a doctor arrived to find all three in terrible agony, the judge raised himself up on the pillows of his bed and said in a hoarse whisper, “I am murdered.”

When Sweeney discovered that Wythe had willed part of the family property to Broadnax and Brown, Sweeney had poured arsenic into the coffee that Wythe, Brown, and Broadnax drank. Richmond’s three most renowned physicians, James McClurg, William Foushee and James McCaw, all showed up to tend to the members of the Wythe household.

The doctors were soon convinced that the symptoms exhibited by their three patients – sudden, severe stomach cramps, vomiting, diarrhea and acute pain – pointed to cholera. Cholera was often fatal within 48 hours, and as that deadline came and went, Broadnax began to recover, though the trauma she experienced permanently damaged her eyesight. Brown and Wythe remained in critical condition.

Wythe insisted that he and his housemates had been poisoned by his ne’er-do-well 18-year-old grandnephew. On June 1, Michael Brown died. Wythe lived on in agony for two weeks. Gravely ill and overwhelmed with grief, Wythe sent for his lawyer and wrote his nephew out of his will.

On June 2, Sweeney was arrested on forgery charges and incarcerated in the Henrico County jail. Wythe refused Sweeney’s request to post the $1000 bail.

George Wythe died from the poison Sweeney had given him on June 8, 1806, at the age of eighty, and Richmond prepared an elaborate funeral, the largest held in the state’s history to that time. Hundreds of somber official mourners – members of Congress, state legislators, judges and lawyers – crammed the statehouse on June 11 for the eulogy. Businesses in the city shut down for the day, and thousands of Virginians quietly lined Main Street as the funeral procession passed.

But one very important person was not in attendance: Because of slow mails, President Jefferson did not learn of his dear friend’s death until the day after the funeral. The president was also saddened by the death of Michael Brown, whom he had agreed to take in as a White House boarder if Wythe should die while the young man was still in his care.

Wythe was buried at St. John’s Episcopal Church in Richmond, where Patrick Henry made his “Liberty or Death” speech. Wythe bequeathed his treasured collection of books to President Jefferson, adding to the collection that would form the basis of the Library of Congress in 1815.

A grand jury indicted Sweeney for murder. Lydia Broadnax was thought to have been in the kitchen when the coffee was poisoned, but by Virginia law blacks could not testify against whites. Lydia was not allowed to tell the court that she saw Sweeney put something in the coffeepot the morning she and the others became ill.

That left the prosecution with a circumstantial case against Sweeney. After less than an hour’s deliberation, the jury returned a verdict of not guilty. However, disinherited and dishonored, Sweeney soon left Virginia and was never heard from again.

George Wythe was perhaps the quintessential Founding Father. He was Virginia’s foremost classical scholar, dean of its lawyers, a Williamsburg alderman and mayor, a member of the House of Burgesses, and house clerk. He was the colony’s attorney general, a delegate to the Continental Congress, speaker of the state assembly, the nation’s first college law professor, and Virginia’s chancellor.

Thomas Jefferson wrote:

No man ever left behind him a character more venerated than George Wythe. His virtue was of the purest tint his integrity inflexible, and his justice exact of warm patriotism, and, devoted as he was to liberty and the natural and equal rights of man, he might truly be called the Cato of his country.

I had reserved with fondness, for the day of my retirement, the hope of inducing [Wythe] to pass much of his time with me. It would have been a great pleasure to recollect with him first opinions on the new state of things which arose soon after my acquaintance with him to pass in review the long period which has elapsed since that time.


George Wythe Monument
The namesakes of William and Mary’s affiliated law school, John Marshall and George Wythe (right), stand proudly in front of the law school, now ranked 30th in the US.


The Mysterious Death of Judge George Wythe

George Wythe sat up in bed on the morning of May 25, 1806, and rubbed his eyes with his thin, bony fingers. Frail, stooped and nearly bald at age 80, he hardly looked like one of the most respected men in America. A much younger George Wythe had earned the moniker “the father of American jurisprudence” and counted among his protégés such leading intellects as James Monroe, John Marshall and Henry Clay. But Wythe’s prize pupil was President Thomas Jefferson, who credited his “faithful and beloved mentor” as having made him “the honest advocate of my country’s rights.” In turn, Wythe had the honor of topping the list of seven Virginians who, in 1776, signed Jefferson’s magnum opus: the Declaration of Independence.

No pair of public men in the upstart republic had been so close for so long as Jefferson and Wythe. In 1759, when Jefferson was a 16-year-old freshman at the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg he met Wythe, then 35, a lawyer and member of the House of Burgesses representing the college. Jefferson’s father had died two years earlier, and Wythe and his wife, Elizabeth, who had no children of their own, took a special liking to the brilliant but emotionally rudderless youth. After completing his studies, Jefferson served as Wythe’s law clerk for five years and sat in on state legislative sessions, where he met George Washington, Patrick Henry and George Mason. Jefferson and Wythe would serve in the legislature together, and from 1776-79, the two spearheaded an effort to overhaul and rewrite the code of laws in Virginia.

After the death of his wife, Wythe left Williamsburg for the new state capital in Richmond in 1791, where he continued to dispense legal wisdom as the chief judge of the Virginia Chancery Court. On this Sunday morning, the elderly magistrate followed his usual routine at his elegant home in Richmond’s fashionable Shockoe Hill neighborhood. He doused himself with a bucket of ice-cold water from the well in his backyard, then returned to his room to dress and read the newspapers until his maid, Lydia Broadnax, brought him his breakfast of eggs, toast, sweetbread and hot coffee.

Broadnax, 66, had been Wythe’s faithful servant since he freed her from slavery two decades earlier. She carried the breakfast tray upstairs and then returned to the kitchen to have a cup of coffee with Michael Brown, a 16-year-old mulatto boy who lived in the house and was Wythe’s latest intellectual protégé. A few minutes later, Broadnax was stricken with horrific pains, and Brown collapsed on the table. Upstairs, Wythe finished his coffee and then vomited. When a doctor arrived to find all three in terrible agony, the judge raised himself up on the pillows of his bed and said in a hoarse whisper, “I am murdered.”

For the next 3 1/2 months, all of Richmond would be fixated on the fate of one of its most famous residents and on what turned out to be an increasingly bizarre tale of familial greed, incompetence on the part of attending physicians and local officials, and grandstanding lawyers. Overshadowing the affair were intractable race laws that Wythe and Jefferson had failed to untangle when they revised the Virginia Code and which ultimately contributed to a tragic miscarriage of justice.

Richmond’s three most renowned physicians, James McClurg, William Foushee and James McCaw, all showed up to tend to the members of the Wythe household. The doctors had trained at the world’s finest medical school at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland, and had helped Virginians through smallpox and yellow fever epidemics during the past 10 years. They were soon convinced that the symptoms exhibited by Wythe, Broadnax and Brown—sudden, severe stomach cramps, vomiting, diarrhea and acute pain—pointed to cholera, not attempted murder. All three victims had eaten strawberries the night before, and the fruit had a whitish hue that looked like mold. Though cholera was usually caused by contaminated water, it had also been linked to overripe fruits and vegetables.

Cholera was often fatal within 48 hours, and Richmond resi­dents stood by with bated breath, waiting to see if an epidemic threatened. As that deadline of fear came and went, Broadnax began to recover, though the trauma she experienced permanently damaged her eyesight. Meanwhile Brown and Wythe remained in critical condition, the judge all the while stubbornly rejecting the doctors’ original diagnosis. Wythe insisted fervently that he and his housemates had been poisoned by his ne’er-do-well grandnephew and namesake, 18-year-old George Wythe Sweeney.

Sweeney, the grandson of Wythe’s sister Anne, was a frequent visitor to the Wythe home. He sometimes stayed for weeks or months and had assumed an air of entitlement, as if he were Wythe’s own son. The brash, headstrong and irresponsible young man came and went as he pleased, and Wythe tried to exert a positive influence on him without much success. Sweeney was a regular at Richmond’s notorious gambling dens, and to pay his prodigious debts, he was not above selling books stolen from Judge Wythe’s prized library or even kiting checks using his uncle’s name. The exasperated judge finally threatened to cut his profligate nephew out of his will if he didn’t change his ways.

The night before the mysterious illness descended on the Wythe household, Broadnax had come upon Sweeney in the judge’s office, reading his will. Moreover, she told the doctors and others who came to visit the ailing judge, Sweeney acted mighty peculiar the morning everyone took sick. He insisted that Broadnax, whom he called “Aunt Liddy,” fix him some toast before she made his uncle’s breakfast. While she was busy at the griddle, Sweeney poured himself a cup of coffee. She noticed him fiddle with the coffeepot’s lid and toss a small piece of paper into the stove. Then he quickly ate the toast, finished his coffee and hurried out the door.

Two days later, Sweeney cashed a $100 check with his uncle’s signature at the Bank of Richmond. Knowing the judge’s grave condition—and aware that Sweeney had passed bad checks on at least six other occasions—the bank president called for a constable. With Sweeney already under suspicion of forgery, Wythe’s doctors agreed to search the young man’s room for evidence of poison. They found a bowl of strawberries and a glass vial that contained a suspicious white powder.

On June 1, Michael Brown died. He was the last in a long line of young men that Wythe had taken under his wing and tutored over the years. Back in Williamsburg, the Wythe house was always full of students and their guests, surrogate children to George and Elizabeth. White students weren’t the only ones to benefit from this largesse. Wythe was convinced that blacks were as intelligent as whites and, given the same opportunities, would be just as successful. Moreover, he was so fond of Brown that he had planned to leave part of his considerable estate to him. Now, with Brown’s death, that share was slated to be added to Sweeney’s inheritance.

Gravely ill and overwhelmed with grief, Wythe sent for his lawyer, Edmund Randolph, and wrote his nephew completely out of his will. The next day, June 2, Sweeney was arrested on forgery charges and incarcerated in the Henrico County jail. Wythe refused Sweeney’s request to post the $1,000 bail.

George Wythe died on June 8, and Richmond prepared an elaborate funeral, the largest held in the state’s history to that time. Hundreds of somber official mourners—members of Congress, state legislators, judges and lawyers—crammed the statehouse on June 11 for the eulogy by William Munford, another Wythe protégé. Businesses in the city shut down for the day, and thousands of Virginians quietly lined Main Street as the funeral procession traveled the three miles to the gravesite at St. John’s Church, where Patrick Henry had given his famous “Give me liberty or give me death” speech. But one very important person was not in attendance: Because of slow mails, President Jefferson did not learn of his dear friend’s death until the day after the funeral.

Sweeney was soon ordered to stand trial for the murders of Wythe and Brown, and the circumstantial evidence against him was damning. The morning after he was arrested for forgery, a slave belonging to Richmond jailer William Rose found pieces of paper and clumps of white powder in the garden just a few feet from the jail wall. Dr. McCaw determined it was arsenic. Taylor Williams, a friend of Sweeney, claimed that Sweeney had asked him for advice on procuring poison. Assuming Sweeney wanted to kill rats, which ran amuck all over the city, Williams suggested ratsbane, a common arsenic-based poison. Richmond Mayor William DuVal, a friend of Wythe, told police he had found what he believed to be arsenic powder in a shed on the judge’s property. Two slave carpenters working there had watched Sweeney grind a chunk of something with an ax into powder.

At first the case against Sweeney appeared to be open-and-shut, especially since Philip Norborne Nicholas, Virginia’s highly regarded attorney general, would be the chief prosecutor. But just before the trial was set to start on Sept. 1, 1806, Sweeney was astonished to learn that he had two volunteer attorneys: William Wirt, an ambitious and brilliant young trial lawyer looking to make a name for himself, and even more surprising, Wythe’s longtime friend Edmund Randolph.

Wirt craved fame and power and was eager for a high-profile case. In a letter to James Monroe, he admitted he was convinced of Sweeney’s guilt: “The young villain had been in the habit of robbing his uncle with a false key, had sold three trunks of his most valuable law books, had forged his checks on the bank to a considerable amount and wound up his villainies by this act.” Getting an obviously guilty defendant off the hook, Wirt confided to his wife, would “give me a splendid debut in the metropolis.”

Randolph, on the other hand, was trying to reclaim his once-promising career. Appointed by President George Washington as the first attorney general of the United States in 1789, he subsequently served as secretary of state until 1795, when he resigned after being accused of passing along privileged information to the French ambassador to the United States. Two years later, it was alleged that while attorney general, he had “misplaced” $50,000, and the U.S. government ordered him to pay it back. If he could win the Sweeney case, Randolph could jumpstart his legal career and start paying down his government debt.

The key to the prosecution’s case was testimony from the medi­cal dream team of McClurg, Foushee and McCaw who performed autopsies on Wythe and Brown. The effects of arsenic poisoning on the body were well known and relatively easy for trained eyes to detect. In arsenic cases, blood vesicles in the gastrointestinal tract rupture, causing severe inflammation in the stomach. The doctors testified that the stomachs of both victims were inflamed and full of bile, another sign of arsenic poisoning.

Under cross-examination, however, the doctors quickly found themselves hedging their conclusions. Dr. McClurg, always eager to ingratiate himself with important political figures, had given the autopsy results to Virginia Governor Thomas Cabell that summer. And Cabell passed those results along to his brother-in-law—William Wirt—enabling the defense to put together a careful line of questions that revealed the doctors had conducted only a cursory examination of the victims and could not identify the cause of death with any certainty. McClurg was forced to admit that the presence of bile in the stomach also indicated other bowel troubles of the kind he had often treated the elderly Wythe for. He also admitted that the build-up of bile in such a young man as Brown was unusual but not impossible.

What turned out to be most damning was the shocking revelation that the doctors did not examine the lungs or hearts for evidence of inflammation caused by arsenic. Nor did they check for any external signs of poisoning such as conjunctivitis in the eyes or a blackening of the penis. They performed none of the well-known chemical tests to detect arsenic.

Conventional wisdom held that arsenic took the lives of its victims in three or four days, but Brown lived for seven days, and Wythe for 14. Therefore, McClurg, McCaw and Foushee each testified, arsenic might have killed Wythe and Brown, but it was also possible that the stomach bile was the culprit. They could not be absolutely sure.

The defense also had little difficulty casting doubt on the material evidence—the arsenic found in Sweeney’s room and in the packet he’d tossed over the jailhouse wall. Wirt and Randolph pointed out that half the residents of Richmond had arsenic in their homes for the legitimate purpose of killing rats.

Finally, the law itself played into the hands of the defense. Since 1732, Virginia had prohibited blacks, free or slave, from testifying against whites, a provision in the state code that Wythe and Jefferson let stand. None of the black witnesses could be called by the prosecution. Lydia Broadnax could not tell the court that she saw Sweeney put something in the coffeepot the morning she and the others became ill. Neither could any of the whites that she’d told her story to because even second-hand testimony from blacks was inadmissible.

That left the prosecution with a very circumstantial case against Sweeney. After less than an hour’s deliberation, the jury returned a verdict of not guilty.

Sweeney still faced forgery charges that carried a sentence of several years in prison. There was little doubt that, in the language of Virginia’s forgery law, he was able to “falsely and deceitfully obtain or get into his hands or possession” money from his uncle’s account by using a “false token or counterfeit letter.” But Sweeney’s forgery trial started—and ended—the day after his murder acquittal when the defense told the jury and the courtroom full of startled spectators that the law applied to forgery against a person, not an institution like a bank. When Wythe and Jefferson had revised the Virginia Code in the late 1770s, there were no commercial banks in the state, and in the intervening 30 years, no one had thought to amend the law to include public financial institutions. Sweeney, therefore, could not be tried for breaking a law that did not exist. The judge dropped the forgery charges. George Wythe Sweeney was a free man.

A few weeks after Wythe’s death, Richmond Mayor William DuVal sent a touching letter to President Thomas Jefferson. “I believe that the great and good Mr. Wythe loved you as sincerely as if you had been his son his at­tachment was founded on his thorough knowledge of you, personally,” DuVal wrote. Some years ago, he mentioned that if there was an honest man in America, Thomas Jefferson was that person everything he said has been verified.”

Jefferson wrote back to DuVal: “I had reserved with fondness, for the day of my retirement, the hope of inducing [Wythe] to pass much of his time with me. It would have been a great pleasure to recollect with him first opinions on the new state of things which arose soon after my acquaintance with him to pass in review the long period which has elapsed since that time.” The president was also saddened by the death of Michael Brown, whom he had agreed to take in as a White House boarder if Wythe should die while the young man was still in his care: “I sincerely regret the loss of Michael not only for the affliction it must have cost Mr. Wythe in his last moments, but also as it has deprived me of an object for attention which would have gratified me unceasingly with the constant recollection and execution of the wishes of my friend.”

Wythe bequeathed his treasured collection of books to the president, adding to Jefferson’s voluminous collection that would form the basis of the Library of Congress in 1815.

George Wythe Sweeney left Richmond soon after the trial. He drifted to Tennessee, where he was later convicted of horse theft and served several years in prison. After his release, Sweeney vanished without a trace from the historical record.

The Virginia legislature was quick to amend its forgery laws within months of the Sweeney trial, but was unmoved in its stance against allowing blacks to testify against whites, even though it appeared obvious the murderer of one of the nation’s most influential figures had walked free as a result.

Three decades earlier, George Wythe and his protégé Thomas Jefferson had broached the thorny issue of the legal status of blacks when they revised the Virginia Code, and even introduced an amendment calling for the emancipation of slaves, although they knew it would never be passed. Wythe and Jefferson also discussed changing court procedures for blacks—a move that could have greatly altered the outcome of Sweeney’s murder trial. But the two greatest legal minds in Virginia quickly dismissed the idea. “The public,” said Jefferson, “would not yet bear the proposition.”

New laws allowing the testimony of blacks in legal proceedings in Virginia were finally passed in 1867 under a Reconstruction government.


Wythe House


The George Wythe House / Rob Shenk

According to the Colonial Williamsburg website:

The George Wythe House on Palace Green belonged to George Wythe (pronounced &ldquowith&rdquo), a leader of the patriot movement in Virginia, a delegate to the Continental Congress, and Virginia&rsquos first signer of the Declaration of Independence. The house also served as General George Washington's headquarters just before the British siege of Yorktown, and French General Rochambeau made the home his headquarters after victory at Yorktown. In 1776, the house accommodated Virginia General Assembly delegate Thomas Jefferson and his family.

Architectural information

Perhaps the most handsome colonial house in Williamsburg, the two-story brick residence is believed to have been designed in the mid-1750s by George Wythe's father-in-law, the surveyor, builder, and planter Richard Taliaferro (pronounced "Tolliver"). Taliaferro built the addition to the Governor's Palace about the same time.

  • Four rooms on each of two full stories
  • Floors centrally divided by large stair passage
  • Two great chimneys between the paired rooms afford a fireplace in all eight rooms
  • Ratioof 1:2 between height and breadth of façade
  • Masonry features Flemish bond brickwork with rubbed jambs, corners, and water table, and gauged-brick belt course and splayed brick arches
  • Second-floor windows shorter and narrower than first floorwindowsbut contain the same number of window panes as those on the first floor givingillusionof larger structure
  • Outbuildings: smokehouse, kitchen, laundry, poultry house, lumber house, well, dovecote, and stable
  • Fine symmetrical gardens

Wythe family background

One of the most influential men of the Revolutionary era, George Wythe ranks among colonial America&rsquos finest lawyers, legal scholars, and teachers. Among the young men Wythe trained in the law were Thomas Jefferson, St. George Tucker, and John Marshall. In 1779, Wyt

he joined the College of William & Mary faculty to become the first law professor in the United States. He taught classes in the vacant Capitol after Virginia's government moved to Richmond in 1780.

Richard Taliaferro's daughter Elizabeth and her husband, George Wythe, lived in the home for more than thirty years. In 1779, Taliaferro's will gave George and Elizabeth use of the property for life. Elizabeth died in 1787, and George moved to Richmond in 1791 to serve as a judge on Virginia&rsquos court of Chancery.


Watch the video: George Wythe and American Independence (August 2022).