George Wythe

George Wythe

George Wythe (1726 – June 8, 1806), was a lawyer, a judge, a prominent law professor and "Virginia's foremost classical scholar." [Online site for [ Colonial Willimsburg] ] Wythe's signature is positioned at the head of the list of seven Virginia signatories on the United States Declaration of Independence. He was the first professor of law in America,Fact|date=June 2008 earning him the title of "The Father of American Jurisprudence."Fact|date=June 2008 Wythe served as a representative of Virginia and a delegate to the Constitutional Convention—though he left the Convention early and did not sign the final version of the Constitution. [ [ Notes on the Constitution] ]

Wythe served as mayor of Williamsburg, Virginia from 1768 to 1769. In 1779 he was appointed to the newly created Chair of Law at William and Mary, becoming the first law professor in the United States. Wythe's pupils included Thomas Jefferson, Henry Clay, James Monroe, and John Marshall.

Of these men, Wythe was closest to Thomas Jefferson -- so close that Jefferson once described Wythe as a "second father." At a time when law students often read law for a year or less, Jefferson spent five years reading law with George Wythe, and the two men together read all sorts of other material; from English literary works, to political philosophy, to the ancient classics.

Wythe was elected to the Continental Congress in 1775, voting in favor of the resolution for independence and signing the Declaration of Independence. He helped form the new government of Virginia and was elected Speaker of the Virginia House of Delegates in 1777. In 1789 he became Judge of the Chancery Court of Virginia and later designed the seal of Virginia inscribed with the motto "Sic Semper Tyrannis," it is still in use today.

In 1787, George Washington appointed Wythe along with Alexander Hamilton and Charles Pinckney to draw up rules and procedures forthe constitutional convention.

Death of an Abolitionist

A slaveholder, Wythe became an abolitionist, freeing his slaves and providing for their support. Wythe provided for his slaves, Lydia Broadnax and her son Michael Brown, in his will. The will also contained a provision for Brown's education. Jefferson biographer Fawn M. Brodie has alleged Broadnax was Wythe's concubine, and Brown was his son.

Wythe's other heir, his great-nephew, George Wythe Sweeney, decided to avoid this dilution of his fortune by poisoning the slaves with arsenic. In the process, he killed Wythe as well, though Wythe lingered long enough to change his will to eliminate his bequest to his murderer. Broadnax survived the poisoning.cite book
first=Edward W.
last=Kappman (ed)
title=Great American Trials
publisher=Visible Ink Press
location=Detroit, MI
pages= pp 75–77
id= ISBN 0-8103-9134-1

It was the only punishment his killer received. In Sweeney's trial he was acquitted of murder in Virginia, primarily because of a law that forbade the testimony of black witnesses.cite web
author=Stephen G. Christianson
title=George Sweeney Trial: 1806 - Sweeney Poisons Wythe And Is Tried For Murder
] Sweeney was tried for forgery, and convicted, but that was overturned on appeal and Sweeney is said to have gone to Tennessee, stolen a horse, and served a term in a penitentiary. The rest of his life was then lost to history.Fact|date=November 2007

Wythe, in his will, left his extraordinary book collection to Thomas Jefferson who described Wythe as "... my ancient master, my earliest and best friend, and to him I am indebted for first impressions which have [been] the most salutary on the course of my life."


Wythe's home in Williamsburg, Virginia has survived and stands next to Bruton Parish Church of which Wythe was a vestryman. [Williamsburg site, "supra"] It was acquired by the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation in 1938 and is today a museum known as the [ George Wythe House] .

Wythe County, Virginia, its county seat Wytheville, Virginia, George Wythe High School (also in Wytheville, Virginia), George Wythe High School in Richmond, Virginia, George Wythe Elementary in Hampton, Virginia (present day name of Elizabeth City County) and George Wythe College (Cedar City, Utah) are also named after George Wythe. The Marshall-Wythe School of Law at the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia, also bears his name.


External links

* [ Philosophy and Biography on Wythe at the George Wythe College website]
* [ Biography by Rev. Charles A. Goodrich, 1856]
*Find A Grave|id=2792

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