Virginia Memory, Library of Virginia
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George Wythe

GEORGE WYTHE (ca. 1726–1806)

George Wythe (1726–1806), Marble Bust by Bryant Baker, 1962. State Artwork Collection, Library of Virginia.

George Wythe taught law to Thomas Jefferson, John Marshall, and Henry Clay, twice served as acting attorney general of the colony. He was a member of and clerk of the House of Burgesses and, after July 1776, a member of the House of Delegates. He signed the Declaration of Independence and served in the Constitutional Convention of 1787 and was a member of the Virginia Ratification Convention of 1788. He was also one of the great practicing attorneys in colonial Virginia and one of the state's most learned and distinguished judges after independence.

Born at his father's plantation, Chesterville (near the city of Hampton), Wythe began his education at an early age. His mother taught him classical languages, and he became a noted expert in Greek and Latin. He practiced law and acquired a fine library of books in several languages. In Williamsburg, where he lived for many years, he tutored aspiring young men such as Thomas Jefferson who, like Wythe, was a man of the age of Enlightenment. Wythe was the founding member of the Society for the Promotion of Useful Knowledge, a Virginia counterpart of the American Philosophical Society, and he was also a member of the board of visitors of the College of William and Mary, vestryman of Bruton Parish Church, and mayor of the city. Wythe supported colonial protests of British policies during the years leading up to the American Revolution and was a member of the Continental Congress, where he signed the Declaration of Independence. He took part in the final debates on the Virginia Constitution of 1776, was Speaker of the House of Delegates in 1777 and 1778, became the first law professor in the United States (at the College of William and Mary), and served for most of the remainder of his life as one of the judges, called chancellors, of the state chancery courts. The General Assembly elected him to the Convention of 1787 that drafted the Constitution of the United States, but because of his wife's health he returned to Virginia before the convention adjourned and therefore was not present to sign the Constitution. Wythe's neighbors in Williamsburg elected him to represent them in the Convention of 1788 that ratified the Constitution, and as a member he often presided over the debates in the committee of the whole.

The Revolutionary ideals of liberty and freedom led Wythe to become an opponent of slavery. He freed four household slaves that he owned and once in his capacity as a judge declared that the Virginia Declaration of Rights made slavery inconsistent with the Virginia Constitution. From 1791 to his death Wythe lived in Richmond where the High Court of Chancery over which he presided met quarterly. George Wythe died in Richmond in 1806, allegedly poisoned by a nephew. The only witness to Wythe's poisoning was his free black servant, and under Virginia law African Americans were not permitted to testify against white people in court. Wythe's nephew was tried and found not guilty.