"Biographical Sketch of the Judges of the Court of Appeals"

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Biographical sketch of Judge Wythe, in vol. 4 of Reports of Cases Argued and Decided in the Court of Appeals of Virginia, ed. Daniel Call (Richmond, VA: Robert I. Smith, 1833).

Biographical sketch of George Wythe written by Daniel Call for the fourth volume of the second edition of his Reports of Cases Argued and Decided in the Court of Appeals of Virginia (1833).[1]

Article text, 1833

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MR. WYTHE'S parents, on both sides, were of respectable families: but, as he had little reverence for the merit of ancestry in others, he put no value on it, in his own case. The following sketch of his life, was probably furnished by the same hand, which drew that of Mr. Pendleton.[2]

"GEORGE WYTHE, chancellor of Virginia, was born in the county of Elizabeth City in 1726. His mother possessed uncommon strength of mind and knowledge, and taught him the Latin language. His education in other respects was defective. At the age of thirty, he abandoned a course of dissipation to which he had addicted himself, and devoted his attention to the acquisition of knowledge. After accomplishing himself in the languages and sciences, he studied law, and commenced its practice. At the opening of the revolution, he, with Pendleton, Henry, Mason and the Lees, espoused the cause of liberty, and was one of the distinguished men who were the leaders in Virginia during that struggle. He was, for some time, speaker of the house of burgesses, and in 1775, elected a member of congress, and signed the declaration of independence. In 1776, he was appointed one of the committee to revise the laws of Virginia, and had a principal share in preparing the code, which, with some alterations, was adopted in 1779. He was soon after appointed one of the three judges of the high court of chancery, and afterwards sole chancellor, in which station he continued till his death. He was a member of the convention of Virginia which considered the constitution of the United States, and exerted his influence to obtain its adoption; and he was twice one of the electors of president and vice president of the United States. He died in 1806, on the 8th of June; it was supposed by poison. Chancellor WYTHE was one of the most eminent of the great statesmen and jurists among his contemporaries. His mind was uncommonly vigorous and rapid in its perceptions, his knowledge of law profound, his uprightness and impartiality preeminent, and his patriotism ardent. He was unambitious of wealth, plain and frugal in his method of life, and condescending and amiable in his manners." Lemp. Biogr. Dict.[3] This delineation, like that in the case of Mr. Pendleton, is in the main correct;

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but there are slight errors, and some omissions, which it will be proper to notice: and that will be best done by a more general account of his life.

Mr. Keith, a quaker gentleman of a good fortune, migrated from Great Britain to the town of Hampton in Virginia, about the year 1690. He was well educated, and I have seen, in Mr. WYTHE'S library, a folio volume written, by him, upon mathematical and other subjects.[4] He had five daughters: One of whom married Mr. Walker, a wealthy gentleman on Back river near Hampton, whose son afterwards removed to the county of Brunswick; another married Mr. Wray of Hampton, the ancestor of the present family of that place; another married Mr. Dewee a lawyer of distinction,[5] who settled in the county of Prince George, about four miles below Petersburg, and died without issue; another married Mr. Taylor, the captain of a merchant ship, who likewise settled in the county of Prince George near Petersburg, and was possessed of a moderate, but independent estate; and the other married Mr. Wythe of the town of Hampton, who owned a good farm on Back river, and died intestate, survived by his wife, a daughter and two sons, Thomas the eldest, who was his heir at law, and GEORGE, the subject of this essay, a small boy. As the widow and her son GEORGE were not left wealthy, she undertook his education herself; but only, taught him the Latin grammar, and to read the colloquies of Corderius very imperfectly, as he told me. After which, she sent him to Prince George, to study law, under Mr. Dewee; who treated him with neglect, and confined him to the drudgery of his office, with little, or no, attention to his instruction in the general science of law. So that, upon his return to Elizabeth City, in the course of a year or two, he had made little progress; but he then applied himself, with great assiduity, unassisted by any tutor, to the study of the law, the dead languages, and liberal sciences, until the death of his mother; and that of his brother, who died intestate, and without issue. Upon the happening of which events, he succeeded to a comfortable estate; and, from that period, the following sketch, taken from the Encyclopedia, may be considered as, tolerably, correct.

"The death of both his parents, before he came of age, and the uncontrolled possession of a large fortune, led him, for some time,

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into a course of amusement and dissipation. At the age of, thirty, however, his conduct underwent an entire change. He applied himself vigorously to the study of law; and soon after his admission to the bar, his learning, industry, and eloquence made him eminent. For several years previous to the revolution, he was conspicuous in the house of burgesses; and, in the commencement of the opposition to England, evinced an ardent attachment to liberty. In 1764, he drew up a remonstrance to the house of commons, in a tone of independence too decided for that period, and which was greatly modified, by the assembly, before assenting to it. In 1775, he was appointed a delegate to the continental congress, in Philadelphia. In the following year, he was appointed, in connexion with Mr. Jefferson and others, to revise the laws of Virginia; a duty which was performed with great ability. In 1777, he was elected speaker of the house of delegates; and, during the same year, was appointed a judge of the high court of chancery of the state. On the new organization of the court of equity, in a subsequent year, he was appointed sole chancellor. A station which he filled for more than twenty years. In 1787, he was a member of the convention which formed the federal constitution; and, during the debates, acted, for the most part, as chairman. He was a strenuous advocate for the instrument adopted. He, subsequently, presided twice successively in the college of electors, in Virginia. His death occurred on the 8th of June 1806, in the eighty-first year of his age. It was supposed he was poisoned; but the person suspected was acquitted by a jury. In learning, industry and judgment, chancellor WYTHE had few superiors. His integrity was never stained even by suspicion; and, from the moment of his abandonment of the follies of his youth, his reputation was unspotted. The kindness and benevolence of his heart were commensurate with the strength and attainments of his mind." Encyclop. Americ.[6]

The following additional circumstances will not be uninteresting.

The independent conduct of Mr. WYTHE never lost him the esteem of government; for he was intimate with all the royal governours, except lord Dunmore, whose want of literature and habits were not agreeable to him. He was several times clerk of the house of burgesses, which was considered as an honourable office; and in his election to that and the speaker's chair he was supported

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by the government party. His great reputation and literary attainments made Mr. Jefferson, at leaving William & Mary college, desirous of studying law, under his instruction: Which, by the intervention of one of the professors, with whom Mr. WYTHE was very intimate, was effected; and, during that period, a friendship was formed between them, which was ardent and uninterrupted through life. He was one of the most active men of the time in favor of the revolution; wore a hunting shirt, carried a musket, and joined the military parades, which took place at Williamsburg, during the latter part of lord Dunmore's government. As a judge of the high court of chancery, he was, necessarily, one of the judges of the first court of appeals; where he was the most forward, in favour of the power of the court to declare an unconstitutional law void: and his argument, upon that subject, in the case of the Commonwealth against Caton and others, will ever remain a monument to his honour. In 1781, he was appointed professor of law in the college of William & Mary; and performed the duties of the office, with great ability and usefulness, until the year 1789, when he resigned it, and removed to the city of Richmond; that he might be nearer to the scene of his judicial occupations, and more convenient to those, who had occasion to apply to him, as judge, during vacation. He possessed a good constitution; but exposed it too much, even to the last years of his life, to cold and hardship, in order to save time, and not molest others. He died venerated by his country; was honoured with a public funeral; and his eulogy was pronounced by Mr. William Munford one of his pupils, and then a member of the executive council.

Mr. WYTHE'S person was handsome, and his manners polished. In private life, he was every way amiable: a dutiful son, affectionate brother, fond relation and benevolent man. Always polite, modest and upright.* Sometimes facetious with his friends, his general deportment was reserved; for although he neither lacked quickness of parts, nor colloquial talents, his temper was cautious and taciturn, unless roused by some improper remark; when he was apt to retort with great severity. For he possessed dry humour

* No man ever better merited the character drawn by Suetonius, the historian, "Fuit morum lenissimorum, verecundiæ virginatis, formae pulchrae, pietatis erga matrem et sororem et amitam exemplo sufficientis. Fuit frugi et pudicus.[7]

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and considerable wit; indulged in sarcasm, when in treated with indignity or irreverence.*

In debate, Mr. Pendleton was more captivating, Mr. WYTHE more argumentative. "Cæsar ne priorem, Pompeius ve parem,"[8] was a question which produced no animosity between them, but which the world never decided. Patrick Henry, however, gave a remarkable proof of his estimation of Mr. WYTHE, when he said "shall I light up my feeble taper, before the brightness of his noon tide sun? It were to compare, the dull dewdrop of the morning, to the intrinsic beauties of the diamond."[9]

As a judge, Mr. WYTHE was industrious, and attentive to the business of the court. He possessed clear discernment, great powers of investigation, and deep learning, as well in the municipal law of his own country, as in the civil law, and that of nature and nations. Independent in his judiciary, as well as in every other situation, he was inflexibly just and impartial in his decisions; and gave the first judgment that was ever rendered, here, in favour of the right of a British subject to recover, under the treaty of peace, debts due, to him, before the revolution: which, for the moment, created some disgust; but the recollection, of his firmness and integrity, soon wiped off the impression, and restored him to the esteem and affections of his countrymen.

In 1795, he published a work under the title of "Chancery Decisions," in order to review particular sentences of the court of appeals, reversing some decrees made by himself. The book is written in a stiff and affected style; but is very caustic; and animadverts, with great asperity, upon the judgments of the court of appeals.

Mr. WYTHE, even after death, continues to benefit mankind, as a noble example to rising generations, of what virtue, industry and

* This quality, as well as the intrepidity of his character, was shewn one day in the general court, where lord Dunmore the governour presided, of course, as chief justice. The occasion was as follows; Mr, WYTHE and Mr. Nicholas were engaged on one side of a cause, Mr. Pendleton and Mr. Mason on the other. The suit being called, Mr. WYTHE urged the trial of it; Mr. Pendleton wished it continued, as Mr. Mason was absent, and there were two counsel on the other side, When lord Dunmore, forgetting the dignity of his situation, had the indelicacy to say to Mr. Pendleton, go on; for you'll be a match for both of them, "With your lordship's assistance," answered Mr. WYTHE, bowing politely. The governour and court felt the stroke; but neither had any thing to say: for the sting was deserved, and the spectators were delighted, at the pang, it produced.

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perseverance, unaided by tutors and adventitious circumstances in the acquisition of knowledge, and promotion of the public service, can effect; evincing the remark of Buonaparte, that "every man in this world is the child of his own actions."*[10]

* In hoc viro tanta vis animi ingeniique fuit, ut quocumque loco natus esset, fortunam sibi isse facturus fuisse videretur.—Invicti à cupiditatibus animi, and rigidæ innocentiæ; contemptor gratiæ, divitiarum; in parsimonia, in patientia laboris periculique, ferrei prope corporis animique: quem ne senectus quidem, quae solvit amnia, frigerit. Lev. lib. xxxix. cap. xl.[11]

See also


  1. Daniel Call, "Biographical Sketch of the Judges," in Reports of Cases Argued and Decided in the Court of Appeals of Virginia, 2nd ed. (Richmond, VA: Robert I. Smith, 1833), 4:x-xv. The title of the second edition differs slightly from the first.
  2. Call says of Pendleton's entry in Lempriere: "The foregoing sketch was probably furnished by a distinguished gentleman of this state, who knew Mr. PENDLETON well" (p. viii).
  3. John Lemprière, "Wythe, George," in Lempriere's Universal Biography, (New York: R. Lockwood, 1825), 2:834.
  4. The book Call saw in Wythe's library may have been a volume containing one or more of Keith's essays, including An Essay for the Discovery of Some New Geometrical Problems (1697), and Geography and Navigation Compleated: Being a New Theory and Method Whereby the True Longitude of any Place in the World May be Found (1709).
  5. Wythe's uncle, Stephen Dewey, was burgess for Prince George Co., 1752-55; he later moved to North Carolina.
  6. Francis Lieber, ed., Encyclopædia Americana, (Philadelphia: Carey, Lea, and Blanchard, 1833), 13:287.
  7. Suetonius, De Viris Illustribus, "The Life of Aulus Persius Flaccus": "He was very gentle in manner, of virginal modesty and very handsome; and he showed an exemplary devotion to his mother, sister, and aunt. He was good and pure."
  8. Lucan, Pharsalia, Book I, line 125: "Caesar could brook no superior, Pompey no equal."
  9. This would seem to be the first appearance of this comparison from Henry; in the Annual Reports of the Virginia State Bar Association for 1922 says this statement happened "in the Convention of 1775."
  10. Lieber (1832) has: "It is, however, indifferent whether Napoleon was descended from an emperor or a cobbler. He himself had little pride of ancestry. In the year 1807, the municipality of Treviso having laid before him a collection of documents which showed the importance of his forefathers in that city, he replied, 'Every man, in this world, is the child of his own actions: my tides, moreover, I hold from the French people.'" This, however, appears to draw upon Sir Walter Scott's Life of Napoleon (1827).
  11. Livy, Ab Urbe Condita Libri (The History of Rome), Book 39, chapter 40. Livy says of Marcus Porcius Cato: "This man possessed such ability and force of character that in whatever station he had been born he must have been a fortunate and successful man," and he was "absolute master of his passions, of inflexible integrity, and indifferent alike to wealth and popularity. He lived a life of frugality capable of enduring toil and danger, with a mind and body tempered almost like steel, which not even old age that weakens everything could break."

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