Edmund Pendleton

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Edmund Pendleton was born in 1721 in Caroline County. After receiving only 2 years of formal education, Pendleton entered an apprenticeship with Benjamin Robinson, clerk of the Caroline County court.[1] Over the course of his apprenticeship, Pendleton focused most of his efforts on learning tactics of debate and political pleadings rather than the principles of jurisprudence.[2] Two years into his apprenticeship, at the age of sixteen, he became clerk of the vestry of St. Mary's parish.[3] Pendleton continued his ascent three years later and was named clerk of the Caroline County Court-Martial.[4] In 1741, at the conclusion of his apprenticeship, he was admitted to practice law at the Caroline County Court.[5] Pendleton was named justice of the peace for Caroline County in 1751, and a year later won election to the House of Burgesses.[6] He served on numerous standing committees and was regarded as a legislative leader by 1754.[7] In 1766, Pendleton became involved in one of colonial Virginia's biggest scandals when he became executor of Benjamin Robinson’s estate.[8] It was discovered that Robinson had misused his political position as colonial treasurer to make favorable loans to certain planters.[9] Pendleton worked hard to redeem the name of his mentor for the rest of his life.[10]

In the time leading up to the Revolutionary War, Pendleton was seen as a moderate who sought to maintain legal order while still demonstrating a strong opposition to colonial rule.[11] Because of his more conservative tendencies, Pendleton frequently disagreed with Patrick Henry, whom he regarded as a demagogue.[12] In 1774 Pendleton represented Virginia at the First Continental Congress.[13] He participated in the Virginia Convention of 1776 and, along with George Wythe and Thomas Jefferson, revised Virginia’s colonial laws.[14] A fall from a horse in 1777 crippled Pendleton for the rest of his life and prematurely ended his legislative career.[15] He became a judge in the court of chancery and, in 1779, became president of the supreme court of appeals.[16] Pendleton was known for being a great debater, a cautious and conservative judge, and a steadfast Virginian.[17] Pendleton died in 1803.[18]

Rivalry with Wythe

Pendleton and George Wythe were bitter rivals in the courtroom and had drastically different approaches to how they applied the law. Pendleton was known for a more adept, dynamic court room presence, while Wythe exhibited a more scholarly and rigid outward appearance.[19] Wythe would often gloss over concepts and facts that he considered irrefutable, while Pendleton would explain such issues as a common man would.[20] This approach often garnered Pendleton more support in the courts and made him seem more "cool, smooth and persuasive," consistent with Thomas Jefferson's description of as "the ablest man in debate I have ever met."[21]

Henry Clay, who worked for and studied under Wythe from ? to ?, described the differences between Wythe and Pendleton thusly: "Mr. Pendleton was far less learned than Mr. Wythe, but he possessed more versatile talents, was an accomplished gentleman, and better adapted to success in general society and in the busy world."[22] Pendleton often bested Wythe in their courtroom debates and Clay once recounted a story that exhibited the nature of their rivalry:

On one occasion, when Mr. Wythe, being opposed to Mr. Pendleton, lost a case, in a moment of vexation he declared, in the presence of a friend, that he would quit the bar, go home, take orders, and enter the pulpit. You had better not do that replied his friend; for if you do, Mr. Pendleton will go home, take orders, and enter the pulpit too, and beat you there.[23]

Within months of the adoption of the Declaration of Independence, the Virginia House of Delegates appointed a committee to revise the new Commonwealth's colonial laws. The committee consisted of Pendleton, Thomas Jefferson, George Mason, Thomas Ludwell Lee, and Wythe.[24] In early 1777, the non-attorneys, Mason and Lee, resigned from the committee leaving the bulk of the work to the other three members. Jefferson assumed the task of examining ancient English laws before the settlement of the colony; Wythe, English laws passed since 1607; and Pendleton, Virginia statutes.[25]

This collaboration was short-lived, and the rivalry between Wythe and Pendleton that first arose during their time as lawyers arguing before the colony’s General Court continued to simmer. Pendleton was named Chief Justice of the newly created High Court of Chancery in 1777, where his associates were George Wythe and Robert Carter Nicholas.[26] In 1789 Pendleton left the chancery court and took on the role of Chief Justice of the Court of Appeals, the highest court in the Commonwealth.[27] Pendleton was now one level above Wythe and would go on to repeatedly overrule or reverse a majority of the opinions that Wythe authored.[28] Wythe eventually authored an unprecedented volume of reports in which he attacked Pendleton's treatment of his opinions.[29] Pendleton was incited by Wythe’s written attacks, but decided not to respond because most Virginians were unable to fully comprehend the attacks and still held both men in high esteem.[30]


  1. John E. Selby, "Pendleton, Edmund (1721–1803)," in Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, accessed February 3, 2014.
  2. Ibid.
  3. Ibid.
  4. Ibid.
  5. Ibid.
  6. Ibid.
  7. Ibid.
  8. Ibid.
  9. Ibid.
  10. Ibid.
  11. Ibid.
  12. Thomas P. Abernathy, Vol. VII, Part 2, Dictionary of American Biography ed. Dumas Malone, 417-418.
  13. Ibid. 417
  14. Ibid 418
  15. Ibid.
  16. Ibid.
  17. Ibid.
  18. Ibid.
  19. John R. Vile, "Edmund Pendleton," in Great American Lawyers: an Encyclopedia (Santa Barbara, Calif.: ABC-CLIO, 2001), 549.
  20. Ibid.
  21. Ibid., 550.
  22. Ibid.
  23. Ibid.
  24. Alonzo Thomas Dill, George Wythe, Teacher of Liberty (Williamsburg, Va.: Virginia Independence Bicentennial Commission, 1979), 37.
  25. John E. Selby, "Pendleton, Edmund (1721–1803).”
  26. Ibid.
  27. Alonzo Thomas Dill, George Wythe, Teacher of Liberty, 74.
  28. Ibid.
  29. Ibid.
  30. Ibid., 75.