The History of Virginia

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Title page of volume four of John Burk's History of Virginia (1816) continued by Skelton Jones and Louis Hue Girardin.

The History of Virginia[1] is a four-volume compendium begun by the Irish dramatist and historian John Daly Burk (ca. 1776 – 1808) and continued by the lawyer Skelton Jones (whose contribution to the project ended when he was killed in a duel in 1812) and the linguist, historian, and geographer Louis Hue Girardin, a professor at the College of William & Mary.[2] The first volume was published in 1804, beginning with the settlement of the colony, and the fourth and final volume was published in 1816, covering the primary political and military history of the revolutionary period, including George Wythe.

In addition to describing George Wythe's political distinctions and appointments to various legislative committees, Jones' and Girardin's history emphasizes Wythe's exemplary moral character and patriotic zeal. The authors explain how Wythe was an autodidact, widely known for his profound legal knowledge and philosophical reasoning; although he initially set aside his scholarly ambitions to fight for the revolutionary cause, his fellow citizens recognized his many talents and summoned him back into political service. In sketching out Wythe's career in this way, the author illuminates the complex network of Wythe's social and professional contacts, including the close relationship with his pupil and friend, Thomas Jefferson.

Excerpts from Volume IV, Chapter V

Page 81

Meeting of the Convention—E. Pendleton is appointed President

The Delegates met at Richmond on the 1st day of December. It had now become necessary for them to appoint a new President. Peyton Randolph was no more. That illustrious citizen, distinguished, at first, by the eminence of his forensic station, and afterwards by the abilities, zeal, integrity, and dignity which he displayed in the higher offices of public life, had been several times elected Speaker of the house of Burgesses. On the 20th of March, 1775, he was unanimously appointed President of the first Convention; and on the 11th of August following, first nominated one of the Delegates for Virginia to the General Congres [sic].* A new and well merited honour awaited him

* The vote stood as follows:
For P. Randolph..........89 Tomas Nelson..........66
R.H. Lee..........88 R. Bland..........61
Thomas Jefferson..........85 G. Wythe..........58
B. Harrison..........83

Page 82

there. Without one dissentient voice, he was called to preside over that great and venerable body; and while attending it, a third time, on the 22d day of October, a sudden stroke of apoplexy, deprived America of this virtuous firm, and wise patriot, in the 54th year of his age. The remains of this worthy Patriot were afterwards brought from Philadelphia to Williamsburg by Edmund Randolph, his nephew, and, in November 1776, deposited in the family vault, in the College-Chapel, with suitable funeral solemnities. A short time before his departure for the general continental Congress, the convention, observing with great concern, that he was much indisposed, recommended to him to retire for the present from the fatigues of public duty, tendering to him, at the same time, their unfeigned thanks for his unremitted attention to the important interests of his Country, and his unwearied application to, and able, faithful, and impartial discharge of the duties of his office; and assuring him that he had the warmest wishes of the Convention for a speedy return of health, and an uninterrupted enjoyment of every felicity. R.C. Nicholas was, on the following day, appointed to act as President during Mr. Randolph's indisposition or absence, an appointment which did him great honour, and upon which he reflected the splendor of his own worth, during the remainder of the Edmund session. To fill the vacancy thus produced by the lamented death of Mr. Randolph, no person was deemed better appointed qualified than the venerable Edmund Pendleton. He was accordingly elected President. After taking into consideration a dispatch from Woodford respecting his situation, and that of Lord Dunmore and his motley auxiliaries, and solemnly enjoining to the Commander of the forces actually in the field, to risk as little as possible the success of his arms, at so important a crisis, and, if his numbers should not, in his judgment, afford a moral probability of answering the purposes or the expedition, immediately to request the assistance of the troops offered by North Carolina, the Convention adjourned till Monday following, then to meet in Williamsburg. We have already stated the measures of Woodford in regard to the North Carolina reinforcements. Colonel Wells, who had joined the Patriots at the head of a few volunteers, was dispatched to meet those reinforcements, and to collect and transit certain information of every circumstance relative to their march.

Excerpts from Volume IV, Chapter IX

Page 171

The interesting scene exhibited at "Williamsburg, on the adoption of the Constitution, was renewed with additional effusions of that genuine, heartfelt joy, which flows from great national events. The pompous emblems of royal authority had already disappeared; an appropriate seal for the Commonwealth, now superceded that, formerly used by the representative of royalty, in the Colony."*

* See Appendix, No. 14

Page 187

[…] The late change introduced in the form of government, had rendered it necessary to make corresponding changes in the laws heretofore in force,* many of which were inapplicable to the powers of government, as now organized, others were founded on principles heterogeneous to the republican spirit, others which, long before such change, had been oppressive to the people, could yet never be repealed while the regal power continued, and others, having taken their origin while the ancestors of the Virginians remained in Britain, could not be well adapted to their present circumstances of time and place. It was also necessary to introduce certain other laws, which, though proved by the experience of other States to be friendly to liberty and to the rights of mankind, the citizens of Virginia had not heretofore been permitted to adopt. As a work of such magnitude, labour, and difficulty, could not be effected during the short and busy term of a session of Assembly, it was enacted that a Committee, consisting of live persons should be appointed by joint ballot of both Houses (three of whom to be a quorum) who should have full power and authority to revise, alter, amend, repeal, or introduce all or any of the said laws, to form the same into bills, and report them to the next meeting of the General Assembly. Suitable provisions were added to render the execution of this important task as prompt and easy as its nature could well allow; and the bills to be prepared and reported by the Committee of Revisers, were to receive, in the usual form, the sanction of both Houses of Assembly, before they acquired the character and authority of laws. Thos. Jefferson, Edmund Pendleton, George Wythe, George Mason, and Thomas Ludwell Lee, were appointed a Committee for that important revision. From the converging rays of legal wisdom which those gentlemen were able to condense into one focus, a pure and refulgent light was expected, which would dispel the inauspicious darkness in which the Virginian code was then immersed. We will

* See preamble to the net for the revision of the laws, in to the Journal of the House of Delegates for 1776.

Page 188

have occasion, in the sequel of our narrative, to notice the result of this noble and pre-eminently useful scheme. The co-operation of George Wythe appearing essential, the patriotic Mann Page, of Spottsylvania, was elected his successor in the Congressional Delegation. […]

Excerpts from Volume IV, Chapter X

Page 219

Amid the hurry of revolutionary scenes, and the clangour of war, it is pleasing to behold an homage paid to science. A taste not only for elegant literature, but also for profound research, at that time, prevailed through Virginia. A zealous professor at the University of William and Mary, the learned Dr. Small,* patronized and encou-

* Dr. Small is a remarkable instance of great individual usefulness. In Virginia, he formed disciples whose light has irradiated several departments of science; and, on his return to England, having settled at Birmingham as a physician, his application of chemical discoveries to various manufactures, greatly promoted the prosperity of that place. Of that amiable and meritorious professor, the Historian has heard the late Governor Page, and the late Bishop Madison speak with enthusiasm. Mr. Jefferson also expresses the warmest gratitude for Dr. Small's enlightened and affectionate guidance of his studies, when at College. The Dr. was professor of mathematics, and for sometime occupied the philosophical chair. He first introduced into both schools rational and elevated

Page 220

-raged by Governor Fauquier, the ablest character who ever filled the chair of government in Virginia, before the revolution, had chiefly contributed to diffusion of that taste. The men who possessed it had, most of them, been his disciples. They aimed at higher objects than present gratification or future fame. They fully understood the principle "that national industry is compounded of theory, application, and execution." Pursuits, which to vulgar eyes appear, at best, pure, sources of rational amusement, were by those men justly considered as intimately linked with the interests and prosperity of husbandry, manufactures, the arts, and commerce. In the vast extent of their country, they saw boundless fields of research hitherto untrodden. A few natives of the State, possessing, at the same time, a laudable spirit of investigation, and much liberal leisure, had, indeed, explored some favourite spots in this immense region of promise. Scientific travellers, drawn to this side of the Atlantic by an ardent thirst after knowledge, had also examined and described the most prominent of those treasures with which the bounteous hand of nature lies enriched the forests, the plains, the rivers, and the mountains of Virginia. But the solitary, unassisted efforts of the former, and the transient attention of the latter, could only produce narrow and unsatisfactory results. Their labours could not embrace a range of discovery sufficiently extensive to benefit mankind in any remarkable degree. The uses, nay, the very names of numberless native productions, still remained unknown. The uniform, unremitted, regular efforts of a zealous and systematic association, were evidently wanted to produce results splendidly and substantially useful. A society was, therefore, instituted, whose commendable objects were, by collecting into a proper focus, the solitary rays of genius and Knowledge, which beamed here and there throughout Virginia, to throw some light on several of the Sciences, to render them all familiar to the inquisitive and the studious, and to apply them with skill and efficacy to the perfecting of those arts which might be most essentially serviceable to the country at large.

[…] courses of study; and from an extraordinary conjunction of eloquence and logic, was enabled to communicate them to the Students with great effect. Dr. Small was the intimate friend of George Wythe, and first introduced Mr. Jefferson to the patronage and friendship of that venerable character. Governor Fauquier has been delineated by Sir Burk.—Suffice it to observe, that Small, Wythe, and Fauquier, were inseparable friends. Mr. Jefferson was soon added to that truly Attic society, whose chief enjoyments were philosophical conversations, and music.

Page 221

[…] On the 5th of May, the General Assembly met at the Capitol, in Williamsburg. Archibald Cary was chosen Speaker of the Senate; and George Wythe placed in the Chair of the House of Delegates. To this pre-eminent distinction, George Wythe was entitled not only by superior depth and extent of legal and political knowledge, but by spotless purity of virtue, and a devotion to the common cause, both fervent and systematic. Distinguished before the present contest, as a self-instructed scholar and philosopher, as an able, zealous and disinterested advocate, he had become, on the very first movements of the opposition, equally conspicuous as a firm and decided patriot. Actions, not words, characterized the patriotism of George Wythe. No sooner did Virginia call her sons to arms, than he joined a corps of volunteers. Exchanging forensic for martial pursuits, he was seen daily inuring himself to military discipline, and the toils of the field. But, though in need of

Page 222

soldiers, his country still more wanted statesmen and legislators. Her public councils were the proper theatre for abilities like his: there his peculiar usefulness could be exerted to the utmost advantage. Accordingly, the voice of his fellow-citizens called him to a seat in the House of Burgesses, over which he presided for some time, with universal approbation. A still more important trust was confided to him, by his appointment to the General Congress, which assembled on the 18th of May, 1775, and assigned to America "a distinct and separate station, among the nations of the world." The honorable task delegated to him, as a member of the Committee of Revisors, brought him back to Virginia; and the City of Williamsburg placed him in the Assembly, of which we now see him elected Speaker. It is worthy of remark that his illustrious pupil and friend, Thomas Jefferson, was associated with him, in all the stages of this patriotic and useful career.

Page 225

[…] Thomas Nelson, one of the Delegates then in Congress, was compelled by the bad state of his health to resign that station, no less laborious than honourable George Mason legates, was appointed in his place; and by the joint ballot of both houses, Benjamin Harrison, George Mason, Joseph Jones, Francis Lightfoot Lee, and John Harrison, were nominated

Page 226

Delegates to the General Congress for one year, from the 11th of August following. Thus was R. H. Lee omitted in this appointment. It appears that reports* injurious to the reputation and public character of that Gentleman, had in his absence, been alledged [sic] against him. This led him to solicit an enquiry by the House into the nature of those allegations. The Senate attended this enquiry, and their presence gave additional solemnity to the scene. Several witnesses were examined, and Mr. Lee heard in his place. His conduct had been pure, and his fame was brightened by this ordeal. The Senate withdrew; and the house came to a resolution, in consequence of which the Speaker, the venerable George Wythe, addressed Mr. Lee in the following words:


It is with peculiar pleasure that I obey this command of the House, because it gives me an opportunity, whilst I am performing an act of duty to them, to perform an act of justice to you. Serving with you in Congress, and attentively observing your conduct there, I thought that you manifested in the American cause, a zeal truly patriotic; and, as far as I could judge, exerted the abilities for which you are confessedly distinguished, to prosecute the good and prosperity of your own country in particular, and of the United States in general. That the tribute of praise deserved, may reward those, who do well, and encourage others to follow your example, the House has come to this resolution:

Resolved, That the thanks of this House he given by the Speaker to Richard Henry Lee, Esq. for the faithful services he has rendered, his country, in the discharge of his duty, as one of the Delegates from this State in General Congress. To which Mr. Lee answered:

Mr. Speaker,

I thank the House for this instance of candour and justice, which I accept the more willingly, as my conscience informs me it is not undeserved. I consider the approbation of my country, Sir, as the highest reward for faithful services, and it shall be my constant call to merit that approbation by a diligent attention to public duties. My thanks are particularly due to you Sir, for the obliging manner in which you have been pleased to signify the vote of the House, and I pray you, Sir, to receive my grateful acknowledgements accordingly. The result of this investigation having thus honorably dispelled the clouds which had for a moment obscured Mr. Lee's political character, he was fully restored to the con-

* See Appendix, No. 22.

Page 227

-fidence of his fellow citizens. In the course of the session, George Mason having resigned his appointment as one of the Congressional Delegates, Richard H. Lee was nominated in his room. The thanks of the Senate had, in the most flattering manner, been added to those of the House of Delegates.

Avarice and fraud are ever on the watch, ever ready to circumvent or seize their prey. They were insensibly creeping into the bosom of the new Republic. Various persons, receiving money at the treasury of the commonwealth for public uses, applied it to private purposes, and when called on, refused or neglected to repay the same. Against this evil no adequate remedy had yet been provided. It was, therefore, enacted that it should be lawful for the Treasurer to sue such persons in the name of the Governor, and to obtain, against them and their securities, the usual redress of judgment and execution, with interest and costs. The same act guarded against the infraction of contracts entered into with the government; in short, it applied the axe to the root of unprincipled speculation, or criminal and ruinous neglect.

Excerpts from Volume IV, Chapter XI

Page 258

The troubles which had convulsed the whole country, and the distresses incident to a state of war, had induced the General Convention to suspend the proceedings of the Courts of Justice in certain cases. This measure, then the offspring of the most imperious exigencies, had gradually become injurious to commerce, industry, and public morals. The streams of justice now were made to flow again in their former channels. A High Court of Chancery, and a General Court were, moreover, established. These tribunals were to receive appeals from the County Courts; and to have original jurisdiction where the subject of controversy was of the value of ten pounds sterling, or where it concerned the title or hounds of land. To the General Court, was also attributed the power to hear and determine all treasons, murders, felonies, and other minor crimes. Of the Court of Chancery, Edmund Pendleton, George Wythe, and R. C. Nicholas were appointed Judges; for the General Court, Joseph Jones, John Blair, Thomas Ludwell Lee, Thomson Mason, and Paul Carrington, received a similar appointment.

Excerpts from Volume IV, Chapter XIV

Page 346

It may be recollected, that in the year 1746, under Governor Gooch, a strenuous, but fruitless attempt was made to transfer the seat of government to some convenient,

Page 347

and promising scite [sic]. The same idea now recurred; and although local interest struggled for a moment against the proposed removal, Richmond was ultimately fixed upon as the seat of Government, after the first day of April, 1780. The reasons assigned in the preamble of the act passed to that effect are, greater facility of access for the generality of the people to the Legislature, the Executive Department, and the Superior Courts of Justice: extensive advantages of navigation for the growth of the new Metropolis to a size commensurate with the dignity of the State; and the purposes in view; and lastly, security from the insults and injuries of the public enemy. Temporary buildings were deemed sufficient: edifices on a larger and more magnificent scale, were reserved for the time, when under the auspices of liberty and peace, agriculture, commerce, and the arts, should pour into the lap of the State streams of private and public wealth. Among the labours of this session, we observe an act respecting naturalization and expatriation, of which we cannot too much commend the liberal policy. Its operation has been superceded [sic] by subsequent institutions; but that philanthropy which opened, in Virginia, an assylum [sic] to individuals of any nation not at open war with America, upon their removing to the mate to reside, and taking an oath of fidelity; and that respect for the natural and social rights of men, which lays no restraints whatever on expatriation, and claims the allegiance of citizens, so long only as they are willing to retain that character, cannot be forgotten. The Legislators of Virginia well knew that the strongest hold of a government on its citizens is that affection which rational liberty, mild laws, and protecting institutions never fail to produce, especially, when physical advantages march in front with political blessings, and industry and worth are perennial sources of comfort and respectability.

To this session also belongs, in some measure, a monument of Legislation, evidently the work of men uniting the enlarged, profound, and systematic views of philosophers, with the liberal sentiments of philanthropists, and the immense, detailed, and intricate knowledge of consummate lawyers. We allude to the “Report of the Committee of Revisors,” appointed in 1776. In the course of their labours, the committee were deprived of the assistance and abilities of two of their associates, T. Ludwell Lee and G. Mason—of the one by death—of the other by resignation. As before that loss, the basis of this admirable fabric in view, had been settled, the remaining members proceeded with indefatigable zeal, to complete the superstructure; and. on the 18th day of June. T. Jefferson, and G. Wythe, authorized by Edmund Pendleton, to notify his concurrence, to the General Assembly one hundred and twenty

Page 348

six bills, forming a code of civil and criminal law, founded, indeed, upon the English system of jurisprudence, but pure from its monarchical corruptions, and free from its feudal shackles. To enumerate all the excellent laws proposed by the reporters, most of which have since been adopted, and constitute the best parts of our code, does not fall within the province of history. The report itself is accessible to every Virginian; and it has been abundantly commented upon, and justly praised,* even by European philosophers. Yet, the attention of the historian is irresistibly arrested by a particular system of bills of which Thomas Jefferson was the author, and than which nothing could be better calculated to crush forever the eternal antagonism of artificial aristocracy against the rights and happiness of the people. These bills were marshalled in a phalanx for that exalted purpose, embracing, 1st. Freedom of religion.—2nd. Suppression of entails.—3rd. Equal partition of inheritances.—4th. General education. With the last object, was connected a division of the different counties into wards or townships. Already, at the first session of the General Assembly, after the declaration of Independence, a law had been passed, abolishing entails. The privilege of primogeniture had likewise been suppressed, and a law made to divide the lands of intestates equally among all their children, or other representatives. Religions freedom was not so speedily established in its perfection, this was delayed until the year 1786. Owing to the slow progress even of the most salutary ideas in certain matters. Thus was the axe laid to the root of that undue influence which the church, wealth, and birth had hitherto exercised. Equality of conditions was nurtured—freedom and elasticity restored to the human mind, throughout the Slate. To crown the noble work, it remained only to raise the mass of the people to the high ground of moral respectability, necessary to their own safety, and to orderly government, by adopting the measures proposed in the bill for general education. Then might the people have been properly and beneficially trusted with the exercise of all the smaller powers of government, to which they would have been fully competent, and which constitute a great mass of salutary and important powers.

* Tucker's Blackstone—British Spy—Wythe's Memoirs—Demaubnier's Econ. Pol. Etats Unis—For the plan of revisal, see Jefferson's Notes on Virginia.—Page 226, &c.

Volume IV, Appendix

Page ix

[ No. 14. ]

Several schemes were proposed for a new seal. We find, in our documents, the following, in Dr. Franklin's hand writing:

MOSES—standing on the shore and extending his hand over the sea, thereby causing the same to overwhelm Pharaoh, who is sitting in an open chariot, a crown on his head, and a sword in his hand. Rays, from a pillar of fire in the clouds, reaching to Moses, to express that he acts by the command of the Deity

Motto—Rebellion to Tyrants, in obedience to God.

Another Coat of Arms for Virginia, was devised by Mr. De Cimetiere of Philadelphia.

FIELD—a cross of St. George (as a remnant of the ancient Coat of Arms shewing the origins of the Virginians to be English) having in the center a sharp pointed knife, in pale, blade argent, handle or, alluding to the name the Indians have given to that state.

In the first quarter argent, a tobacco plant fleury, proper.
In the second argent, two wheat sheafs in sahoir, proper.
In the third argent, a stalk of Indian corn, full ripe, proper.
In the fourth vest, four fasces waved argent, alluding to the 4 great rivers of Virginia.

N.B. The pieces contained in the above, may very well admit of a different disposition, if thought necessary, and more emblematical or heraldical. SUPPORTERS—Dexter, a figure dressed as in the time of Queen Elizabeth, representing Sir Walter Raleigh, planting with his right hand the standard of Liberty, with the words Magna Charta written on it, and with his left supporting the escutcheon. SINISTER—A Virginian rifleman of the present times, completely accoutred. CREST—The crest of the ancient arms of Virginia—the breast of a Virgin naked, and crowned with an antique crown, alluding to Queen Elizabeth, in whose reign the country was discovered. Motto—Rebellion to Tyrants in obedience to God;—or, Rex est qui regem non habet. (Suggested by Mr. Jefferson)

Mr. Wythe proposed the annexed—The figures from Spence's Polymetis. VIRTUE, the genius of the Commonwealth, dressed like an Amazon, resting on a spear with one hand, and holding a sword with the other, and treading on Tyranny, represented by a man prostrate, a crown fallen from his head, a broken chain in his left hand, and a scourge in his right. In the exergon, the word Virginia, over the head of Virtue and underneath, sic semper tyrannis. On the reverse, a group; libertas with her wand and pileus, in the middle: on one side Ceres, with the Cornucopia, in one hand, and an ear of Wheat in the other; on the other side, Eternitas with the Globe and Phoenix.

In the exergon, Deus Nobis haec otia fecit.

On July 20th, Mr. John Page wrote thus to Mr. Thomas Jefferson:

We are very much at a loss here, for an engraver to make our seal. Mr. Wythe and myself have, therefore, thought it proper to apply to you to assist in this business. Can you get the work done in Philadelphia? If you can, we must get the favor of you to have it done immediately. The enclosed will be all the directions you will require The engraver may want to know the size. This you may determine; unless Mr. Wythe should direct the dimensions. He may also be at a loss for a Virtus and Libertas; but you may refer him to Spence's Polymetis, which must be in some Library in Philadelphia, &c. &c. The delay which attended the execution of this new seal, caused a law to be passed by the first republican assembly, empowering the Governor to issue commissions without the seal of the Commonwealth; and to confirm those already issued. In October, 1779, an act was passed, for having the above engraved, either in America or Europe, only changing the motto on the reverse to Perseverando.-—The present seal is generally known.


226. 'Appendix, No. 22'                       'No. 17'

258. The No. of the Appendix here erroneously referred to, has been suppressed.

348. 'Demaubniers'                      'Demeunier's'

See also


  1. Louis Hue Girardin and Skelton Jones, The History of Virginia, Commenced by John Burk, vol. 4 (Petersburg: M.W. Dunnavant, 1816).
  2. Charles Campbell, ed., Some Materials to Serve for a Brief Memoir of John Daly Burk, Author of A History of Virginia, (Albany, NY: Joel Munsell, 1868), 5.

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