Biographia Americana

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Page with George Wythe's entry from Benjamin Franklin French's Biographia Americana (New York: D. Massey, 1825).

George Wythe's entry in Benjamin Franklin French's Biographia Americana (1825),[1] owes a great deal to earlier biographies, and borrows from (at least) Allen's American Biographical and Historical Dictionary (1809). French repeats the myth that Wythe lost years of his early life to a "career of dissipation and intemperance" and did not take up the practice of law until the age of thirty; this has been disproved by the historical record of Wythe's practice.[2]

Article text

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WYTHE, GEORGE, chancellor of Virginia, and one of the signers of the declaration of independence, was born in the year 1726, in the county of Elizabeth City, Virginia. His mother, a woman of great acquirements, superintended his education, and taught him the Latin and Greek languages. To grammar, rhetoric, and logic, he added by his own exertions, at an early age, an extensive acquaintance with civil law; a profound knowledge of mathematics, as well of natural and moral philosophy. Of these various attainments, so honourable to his industry and genius, much of the merit, no doubt very justly, is ascribed to the affectionate and tender zeal of his mother. Of this excellent parent, he was bereaved during his minority. And in a short time after, he lost his amiable father. Being thus in the possession of money like many unthinking youths, he commenced a career of dissipation and intemperance, and did not disengage himself from it before he had reached the age of thirty. He then bitterly lamented the loss of those

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nine years of his life, and of the learning which, during that period, he might have acquired. But never did any man more effectually redeem his time. From the moment, when he resolved on reformation, he devoted himself most intensely to his studies.

He commenced the study of the law in the office of the late John Lewis, Esq.[3] and at an early period was licensed to practise in the courts of Virginia. He took his station at the bar of the old general court, with many other great men whose merit has been the boast of Virginia. For a short time he continued their equal; but by reason of his extensive learning, correctness of elocution, and his logical style of argument, he quickly arrived at the head of the bar.

When the time arrived, which heaven had destined for the separation of the wide, confederated republic of America from the dominion of Great Britain, he was one of the instruments in the hand of Providence for accomplishing that great work. He took a decided part in the very first movements of opposition, and urged his fellow citizens to open resistance. With a prophetic mind he looked forward to the event of an approaching war, and resolutely prepared to encounter all its evils rather than to resign his attachment to liberty. As the controversy grew warm, his zeal became proportionally fervent. He joined a corps of volunteers, accustomed himself to military discipline, and was ready to march at the call of his country. But that country to whose interests he was so sincerely attached, had other duties of more importance for him to perform. It was his destiny to obtain distinction as a statesman, legislator, and judge, and not as a warrior. Before the war commenced, he was elected a member of the Virginia assembly. After having been for some time speaker of that enlightened and patriotic body, and rendering himself conspicuous as the vindicator of the

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rights and privileges of his injured countrymen, he was sent by the members of that body, as one of their delegates to the congress which met at Philadelphia in May, 1775, and did not separate until it had declared the independence of America. In that august assembly, he possessed no small share of influence. He was one of those who signed the memorable declaration, by which the heroic legislators of this country pledged "their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honours," to maintain and defend its violated rights.

In November following, by a resolution of the general assembly of Virginia, he was appointed one of the committee to revise the laws of the commonwealth, and to prepare bills for re-enacting them, with such alterations as the change in the form and principles of the government, and other circumstances, required of this extensive work of legislation. Wythe executed the revision of those laws which had been enacted during the period commencing with the revolution in England, and ending with the establishment of the new government here, except the acts for regulating descents; for religious freedom; and for proportioning crimes and punishments; which were part of the labours of Mr. Jefferson.

After finishing the task of new modelling the laws, he was employed to carry them into effect according to their true intent and spirit, and was appointed one of the three judges of the high court of chancery of Virginia: but on a subsequent change in the organization of the court of equity, he was constituted sole chancellor: which high station he filled with the strictest integrity for more than twenty years. Whilst in this office, he published a collection of chancery reports, which by legal characters are held high in estimation.

In 1786, he was appointed a delegate to meet the grand convention at Philadelphia to revise the federal constitution. His country never losing

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eight of his distinguished patriotism and abilities, when occasion required his services, we again find him a conspicuous member of the great public body which assembled. at Richmond in 1788, to take into view the adoption or rejection of the lately framed constitution of the United States. During the debates on this occasion, he acted for the most part as chairman. Amidst all his public services, throughout all his private life, the devotion of Wythe to his country, his scrupulous discharge of the duties of his office, and his universal benevolence of disposition, were eminently apparent. Some of the greatest luminaries at the bar, and in the senate, that Virginia has produced, were instructed in science, and led up the steep of fame by George Wythe. In the list of his pupils we may enumerate two presidents of the United States, a chief justice, and others who by their abilities and virtues are entitled to the most distinguished honours of their country. He presided twice successively in the presidential electoral college of Virginia, with great distinction and applause. His political opinions were always firmly republican. He died, after a short but very excruciating sickness, on the 8th June, 1806, in the eighty-first year of his age.

President Jefferson, who was the friend of his age, and his compatriot through life, thus draws the portrait of this extraordinary man: "No man ever left behind him a character more venerated than George Wythe. His virtue was of the purest kind; his integrity inflexible, and his justice exact; of warm patriotism, and devoted as he was to liberty, and the natural and equal rights of men, he might be truly called the Cato of his country, without the avarice of the Roman; for a more disinterested person never lived. Temperance and regularity in all his habits, gave him general good health, and his unaffected modesty and suavity of manners endeared him to every one. He was of

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easy elocution, his language chaste, methodical in the arrangement of his matter, learned and logical in the use of it, and of great urbanity in debate. Not quick of apprehension, but with a little time, profound in penetration, and sound in conclusion.

His stature was of the middle size, well formed and proportioned, and the features of his face manly, comely, and engaging. Such was George Wythe, the honour of his own, and model of future times."

By his last will and testament he bequeathed his valuable library and philosophical apparatus to his friend Mr. Jefferson, and distributed the remainder of his property among the grandchildren of his sister, and the slaves whom he had set free. He thus wished to liberate the blacks not only from slavery, but from temptations to vice. He even condescended to impart to them instruction; and he personally taught the Greek language to a little negro boy, who died a few days before his preceptor.

See also


  1. "Wythe, George," in Biographia Americana; or, A Historical and Critical Account of the Lives, Actions, and Writings of the Most Distinguished Persons in North America, From the First Settlement to the Present Time, ed. Benjamin Franklin French (New York: D. Mallory, 1825), 334-338.
  2. Allan D. Jones, "The Character and Service of George Wythe," Virginia State Bar Association Reports 44 (1932), 326-328; William Edwin Hemphill, "George Wythe the Colonial Briton: A Biographical Study of the Pre-Revolutionary Era in Virginia" (PhD diss., University of Virginia, 1937), 82-83. See also: Leon M. Bazile, "Discourse Refuting Statements Made That George Wythe at One Time Led a Life of Dissipation," n.d., Virginia Historical Society, Richmond, Virginia.
  3. Wythe worked under (and beside) Zachary Lewis, of Spotsylvania County, Virginia. John Lewis was Zachary's son, and Wythe's peer. John Meriweather McAllister, and Lura Boulton Tandy, eds., Genealogies of the Lewis and Kindred Families (Columbia, MS: E.W. Stephens, 1906), 134-136.

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