George Wythe was a prominent lawyer, educator and judge who represented Virginia in the Continental Congress and signed the U.S. Declaration of Independence in 1776. He was well-educated and much respected among his contemporaries for his intelligence, wit and high moral principles. He began his career in government services, shortly after completing his legal studies. He was one of the vehement opponents of the Stamp Act of 1765, which imposed a direct tax on the colonies of British America, and wrote a letter to the parliament, condemning the Act. This incident made him a popular political figure and he was made the Mayor of Williamsburg. He also served as a burgess at The College of William and Mary where he met Professor William Small on whose suggestion he mentored Thomas Jefferson, then a young student of law. As a professor he also taught and mentored John Marshall who went on to become a Chief Justice of the United States. Along with issues related to law, he also participated in discussions on history, philosophy, and languages with other prominent personalities like Francis Fauquier and Norborne Berkeley. When the first Law College was established in Independent America, he was made its very first Professor of Law and mentored many students like James Monroe and Henry Clay who went on to become famous personalities.
Childhood & Early Life
He was the son of Thomas Wythe III and his wife Margaret Walker. His father died while George was only three and he was raised by his mother.
Hailing from a family of Quakers, his mother was a well-educated women. She educated her son at home and taught him Greek and Latin. She instilled in him love and respect for all mankind, and encouraged him to develop interest in varied subjects.
At the age of 14, he enrolled at the Grammar School at William and Mary. He went to study law under his uncle Stephen Dewey when he was 16. After two years he continued his studies on his own.
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He gave his bar exam in 1746 when he was only 20. He passed the exam, received his license to practice, and was admitted to the bar in Elizabeth City County in 1746.
He moved to Spotsylvania County where he met Zachary Lewis, the King’s attorney, who mentored him. He married his daughter Ann who died within 8 months of their marriage. Heartbroken, he returned to Williamsburg.
On returning to Williamsburg in 1748, he joined Benjamin Waller, a relative of Zachary Lewis, in his law practice.
In 1748, he was appointed as the clerk of two important committees in the House of Burgesses - Privileges and Elections and Propositions and Grievances. He also continued his law practice.
He was briefly appointed as the King’s attorney in 1754. A few months later he was chosen to fill the vacancy in the Williamsburg burgess created due to the death of Armistead Burwell.
He was elected a member of the Committee of Correspondence in 1759. The same year, he was selected as the representative of The College of William and Mary, and re-selected for the same in 1760 and 1761.
In 1765, the British Parliament passed the Stamp Act which imposed a direct tax on the colonies of British America. He strongly opposed the Act and wrote a letter to the parliament condemning this Act.
Wythe was becoming increasingly active in the political arena and he was made the mayor of Williamsburg in 1768.
In 1775, Wythe was elected as a delegate to represent Virginia in the Continental congress. His former student, Thomas Jefferson, was also a member of the Congress.
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During the independence debates held in June 1776, he voted in favour of adopting the Declaration of Independence, which was drafted by Jefferson. He affixed his signature on the Declaration in September 1776.
He was voted as the Speaker of the Virginia House of Delegates in 1777. The same year, he was made a justice of the Chancery Court, the state’s highest court, where he served till 1788.
When Thomas Jefferson became the Governor in 1779, he and the President of William and Mary College established a new Chair of Law and Police, which was the first Law College in the U.S. Wythe was made the first Professor of Law in this newly created department.
He continued his political career throughout his long life. During his later years, he fought for the abolishment of slavery, and freed many blacks held as slaves by the white families.
As a political leader, his biggest achievement was the signing of the U.S. Declaration of Independence in September 1776. He had also actively participated in all those events that eventually led to the adoption of the declaration.
He had a long and illustrious career as an educator. He had taught and mentored several young men who went on to become prominent personalities. His most notable students include Thomas Jefferson, Henry Clay, James Monroe, and John Marshall.
Personal Life & Legacy
He married Ann Lewis, the daughter of his mentor Zachary Lewis in 1747. She died of an illness a few months later in 1748.
In 1755, he married Elizabeth Taliaferro. The couple’s only child died in infancy.
By 1805, Wythe had allowed his sister's grandson, George Wythe Sweeney, to live with him. Sweeney is said to have poisoned Wythe, his housekeeper and her son. Wythe died on June 8, 1806.
He dressed in a manner that was considered very outdated for his days.
He left all his books to his favourite former student Thomas Jefferson.
The George Wythe University (GWU) was named in his honour.