GEORGE WYTHE was born in 1726 near Yorktown, Virginia.His father was a wealthy plantation owner and he grew up in
luxury and comfort.When he reached the
proper age he was placed in school but the knowledge that he obtained was very limited and superficial. Fortunately for young Wythe, his mother possessed
unusual intelligence and she supplemented his early education.By her assistance, the powers of his mind,
which were originally strong and active, rapidly unfolded.He became well versed in the Latin and Greek
languages, and made commendable achievements in several of the sciences.
The uncontrolled possession of a large fortune caused young Wythe to indulge in the
extravagant amusements and pleasures that his wealth made easily
obtainable.Losing his parents at such
a rebellious age, he was deprived of their example and guidance and his
literary pursuits were almost entirely neglected.In 1748, upon the death of his wife, the former Ann Lewis to
whom he was married for about a year, Wythe moved to Williamsburg where, at the
age of twenty-six, he became a member of the Virginia House of Burgesses.At the age of thirty, the principles that had been instilled into his mind by his parents asserted power over his indulgences and he reformed himself.He
abandoned his youthful follies and applied himself with unrelenting diligence
to his studies.
Wythe studied law under John Lewis, an eminent
lawyer and quickly rose to the fore front of the Virginia bar.In 1755, he married Elizabeth Taliaferro,
whose father had built a dignified house on the Palace Green that they occupied
for many years before it became legally theirs at his death.He continued to expand his flourishing law
practice and was already a leader in the Virginia bar when Thomas Jefferson
came to Williamsburg to study law under his tutorage.
Wythe continued to exert all his influence in favor of the
independence of the colonies.He
loathed the Stamp Act is credited with writing "Resolutions of Remonstrance"
which was the strongest protest sanctioned by the Virginia legislature.In 1775, he was elected to the Virginia
provincial congress and in August, was appointed a delegate of the Continental
congress.He openly supported Richard
Henry Lee's fight for independence and he signed the Declaration of
Independence on August 27, 1776.
In 1777, Wythe was elected speaker of the House of
Delegates, and during the same year was appointed judge of the high court of
chancery of Virginia. On the reorganization of the court, he was appointed sole
chancellor, a station that he filled, with great ability, for more than twenty
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, he lost most of his slaves who were placed in
the hands of the British.But by cost-cutting
and careful management Wythe was able to payoff his debts and preserve his
financial independence by combining what was left of his estate with his salary
as chancellor.In 1779, he accepted the
professorship of law in 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, and in later years when his
judicial duties caused him to reside in Richmond, he had a law school
there.Of his eminent law students,
Jefferson worked with him longest, John Marshall and Henry Clay studied with
Late in his life, Wythe freed all his slaves and
provided them a means of support until they were able to support
themselves.In his eighty-first year,
while still fulfilling his duties as chancellor and full of vitality, he was
poisoned.The death of this learned,
liberal and respected man was believed to have been caused by his grandnephew,
George Wythe Sweeny, the chief beneficiary of his will.Wythe apparently drank some coffee that had
been laced with arsenic.Although
Sweeny was tried for his crime, he was acquitted.
Wythe died on June 8, 1806 in Richmond, Virginia,
leaving all of his books to his friend, President Jefferson.
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