"Intimate Pen Picture of George Wythe; His Tragic Death"
Robert Beverley Munford, Jr. (1878 – 1952) was the great-grandson of William Munford (1775 – 1825), one of George Wythe's pupils. His great-uncle was George Wythe Munford, author of The Two Parsons (1884), which retells several anecdotes from Wythe's life.
Munford penned this "Intimate Pen Portrait of of George Wythe" for the Sunday history page of the Richmond Times-Dispatch in 1922. He also wrote a book, Richmond Homes and Memories (Richmond, VA: Garrett and Massie, Inc.), in 1936.
Article text, 8 October 1922
INTIMATE PEN PICTURE OF GEORGE WYTHE; HIS TRAGIC DEATH
MEMBER OF HOUSE OF BURGESSES
AND OF CONTINENTAL CONGRESS
Born in Elizabeth City County in 1736, His Native
County, One of Original Eight "Counties" Which
Had Been Created in Year 1634.
By Robert B. Munford, Jr.
It has been suggested to me by one or two friends that it would be of interest if I would contribute to the historical page of the Sunday Times-Dispatch a sketch of Chancellor Wythe.
This request I very gladly comply with—while regretting the necessary limitations imposed upon a brief article and regretting still more that those who were qualified to produce a complete biography of this learned man and noble character have long since passed away without undertaking so friendly an office.
George Wythe was born in Elizabeth City County in 1726—his native county being one of the original eight "counties" which had been created in Virginia in the year 1634. His people were of established position in Elizabeth City County before 1700; and his father, Thomas Wythe, was several times a member of the House of Burgesses in the first quarter of the eighteenth century. His mother was Margaret Walker, a daughter of George and Ann Keith Walker.
Had Brother, Thomas.
George Wythe was only 3 years old when his father died nor did his mother live long enough to see him grown to young manhood.
He had a brother, Thomas, who died without issue in 1755, and, also, one sister, Ann, who became the wife of Charles Sweeney, and whose grandson, George Wythe Sweeney, was by an unhappy fate to prove of ill repute and finally to be the cause of the death of his illustrious uncle—the chancellor. But of that matter later.
His mother, Margaret Walker Wythe, must have been an unusual women, and there seems no doubt but that to her George Wythe was indebted for an early training in at least the foundation principles of Latin and Greek that made him at a later period a classical scholar of distinction.
Entered William and Mary.
Shortly after his mother's death he entered William and Mary College for a while and afterwards read law for some time under the direction of a Mr. Dewey, of Prince George County, who was the husband of one of his Walker aunts. Mr. Dewey's instruction seems to have been along the line of legal forms rather than the essential principles which would have interested his pupil's type of mind. This period of training then does not seem to have been a very happy one—although it is not improbable that the experience was of more practical value to the future "chancellor" than was apparent to him at the time.
Mr. Wythe "came to the bar," when was 20 years of age, in the year 1746—a year not difficult to remember, since it is associated in one's mind with the Battle of "Culloden," and the last aggressive effort of the "young pretender" to take a hand in English politics and claim what he considered the heritage of his family.
Pass Into History.
From the year 1746 to the year 1755 there is an interregnum in Mr. Wythe's life that seems to be marked by no event of especial interest save that of his marriage to Ann Lewis, of Spotsylvania County in December, 1747—his first wife, who died within a year. In this county of adoption he resided some eight years and in 1755, the death of his older brother having brought to him an appreciable estate, he settled in Williamsburg, and entered seriously upon the practice of his profession and the more advanced study of the Latin and Greek and of some of the modern languages.
This year, 1755, when he decided to make his home in the capital, may be fixed in mind as one of the important years in his life. He now, you see, became a part of a community to whose like he was, by nature and training, atuned both in its intellectual and political aspect.
Survived Second Wife.
About this year also he married his second wife, Elizabeth Taliaferro, whom he survived some years. In the third year of his residence in Williamsburg, Mr. Wythe was chosen to represent William and Mary College in the House of Burgesses, which was indeed no slight honor, his predecessors in that representative capacity having been lawyers of great ability.
Here he was a member of several committees, the most significant being the "Committee of Correspondence"—a foreign affairs committee, or shall we say, a committee for home affairs across the sea, since the hated "Stamp act" had not yet been passed, and the break with England had not yet come. Among the archives of Virginia I have at some time read some of the correspondence between the committee and Mr. Montague, its attorney in old England, and many of the letters, of course, are of unusual interest.
In 1763 Mr. Wythe moved back to his old county of Elizabeth City. Possibly his ancestral lands there demanded his personal supervision. At all events he must have continued to be much in Williamsburg since he represented his county in the House of Burgesses for six years.
At the end of the six-year period he was made clerk of the House, which compelled him to again reside in Williamsburg. And this clerkship he held for six years.
Member of Memorable Convention.
He was a member of the memorable convention of March, 1775—the convention that met in old Saint John's Church right here in Richmond, and which is well-known to every school boy as the convention in which the great father of the Revolution uttered his famous words arousing the Colony to the impending catastrophe, declaring that there could now be no retreat save "in submission and slavery," and saying "the war is inevitable and let it come."
Patrick Henry's noble oration was delivered in support of his own resolution, proposing the arming and training of the militia of the several counties. Mr. Wythe was of those who did not approve of Henry's plan and supported that of Robert Carter Nichols [sic], which proposed for the defense of the Colony a "regular army" of 10,000 men. Mr. Wythe was second to none in patriotism, but merely differed from Mr. Henry as to the most expedient method to be pursued. Henry was the great dynamic force of the Revolution.
Develops Judicial Mind.
Wythe, ten years older than Henry, had doubtless already developed the judicial mind—the mind that considers first and then decides.
In August, 1775, Mr. Wythe was sent as a delegate to the Continental Congress and, in that Congress, had the privilege and opportunity the following summer of giving his voice and influence in favor of Richard Henry Lee's resolutions for independence.
The resolutions, in compliance with instructions from the Virginia Convention, had been proposed in Congress July 2, 1776, and two days later bore fruit in "The Declaration of Independence"—of which document George Wythe was a "signer."
That Mr. Wythe was now well-known as one of the men needed in the service of the people is shown by the fact that he was elected to represent the city of Williamsburg in the convention of December, 1775. But he could not accept this honor because he was in Congress.
Could Not Sit as Member.
For the same reason he could not sit as a member of the Virginia Convention of June, 1776, and his place was filled there in Williamsburg by his alternate, Edmund Randolph, save during the closing days of the convention.
After the first Constitution of Virginia had been adopted and things "Colonial" had passed away, Mr. Wythe was a member of the "House of Delegates," in which body he some time served as "Speaker," and in the autumn of 1776, was made a member of the very important committee entrusted with the duty of revising the laws of the State and with power "to propose alterations."
Associated with him on the committee were Thomas Jeerson [Jefferson] and Edmund Pendleton—the three forming a remarkable combination for this labor or for any other service that the people of Virginia could demand.
Of the bills prepared by this committee, and by them reported to the General Assembly, some were adopted from time to time, and in 1785, most them became a part of our statute law. We owe, then, to these three farsighted statesmen, the act abolishing "primogeniture" in Virginia, the act by which conveyances of "estates in tail" were converted into "estates in fee simple," and the act "for religious freedom."
Did Not Become Law.
One of the things which this committee proposed but which did not become law was a bill "for establishing a public library." Probably the alleged purpose of this bill sealed its doom since the Virginia people are unusually conservative and do not readily approve a dissemination of knowledge by the method generally known as the "public library."
When the "Federal Convention" met in Philadelphia in the summer of 1787 Mr. Wythe was a delegate along with some of the most distinguished of the sons of Virginia, but he does not seem to have been long in attendance there because he had already been made one of the three "chancellors" of the State, and the duties of that high office were pressing. Later, in 1788, he became the sole chancellor—the law having been changed.
When the Virginia Convention of 1788 met in Richmond, Chancellor Wythe was a delegate from the city of Williamsburg and as "chairman of the Committee of the Whole" presided almost continuously over the proceedings of that body because most of the business of discussing the various sections of the proposed Federal Constitution was transacted as "a committee." And so, save for one or two opening and closing days, the venerable president of that convention, Edmund Pendleton, was not "in the chair."
History of Convention.
The history of this convention, as is well known, has been written in a scholarly and entertaining manner by Mr. Hugh Blair Grigsby, and was published by the Virginia Historical Society in 1890, being volume nine of the society's "New Series."
The Capitol at Richmond had not been completed at this time (June, 1788), and so the convention met first in the "old Capitol"—a wooden building three stories high that stood at the northwest corner of Cary and Fourteenth Streets, and which was the temporary Capitol from 1780 to the time of completion of the new Capitol on Shockoe Hill. The convention did not continue to meet at Fourteenth and Cary Streets, however, but soon after its organization adjourned to meet the next day in the "New Academy" on Shockoe Hill. Dr. Brock has said: "The academy grounds included the square bounded by Broad and Marshall and Eleventh and Twelfth Streets, on the lower portion of which stood the Monumental Church and the Medical College. The academy stood midway in the square fronting Broad Street."
Ratifies Federal Constitution.
This convention, as is well known, ratified the Federal Constitution.
Chancellor Wythe was of the school of those who, while feeling that the proposed Constitution had defects, yet believed that it was on the whole deserving to be accepted and that it could be improved by certain adjustments later.
It is not sufficient to reflect only upon George Wythe's services as a
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MEMBERS OF EARLY
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member of legislative bodies or even as "chancellor." He was a great and a beloved teacher.
During his residence both in Williamsburg and in Richmond—to which city he removed in 1791—he had conducted a "school" of his own for the instruction of deserving youths, a service for which he rarely accepted any compensation.
His reward was his own love of the noblest literature and the pleasure to be derived from helping other people in the pursuit of knowledge.
William Munford, of Richmond, himself a classical scholar and the author of a noble translation of "The Iliad," had been the recipient of the generous instruction of this great and good man—had resided in his home at Williamsburg some three years and named his oldest son, George Wythe Munford, after his old friend and tutor. Probably no one had a better opportunity to become well acquainted with every phase of Chancellor Wythe's character than did Mr. Munford, and, for this reason, no doubt, he was invited to deliver the oration at the public funeral held in "The Capitol" on the afternoon of the day following the chancellor's tragic death.
But the chancellor had a public as well as a private career as a teacher, since he was in 1779 made professor of law in William and Mary College, which chair he continued to hold for twelve years. This was the first school of law to be established at any college in this country. Before the establishment of this "chair" Jefferson had studied law under him in Williamsburg for five years—selecting Wythe as his instructor, although John Randolph and Peyton Randolph, his relatives, were both in that town.
John Marshall, it is true, did not attend the law lectures very long. But to have taught Jefferson for five years and Marshall for even a few months would seem honor enough for almost any teacher.
Chancellor Wythe, in whom great learning was combined with great simplicity, never felt that he himself was too old to be learning something new, and in the last years of his life took up the study of Hebrew—being assisted by occasional visits from Rabbi Seixas, a scholarly man of that period in Richmond.
Was of Same School.
Chancellor Wythe was of the same school of thought as Jefferson. he had enfranchised the three servants who attended him at his home in Richmond, and in his will had created a trust fund to provide for their comfort in the event of his own death. The servants thus provided for were originally (in the will of April 20, 1803) Lydia Broadnax, the freed man Benjamin and freed boy Michael Brown. The trust created was "during the lives of the two former and after their deaths in trust to the use of the said Michael Brown." The residuum of the estate was devised to George Wythe Sweeney, the testator's great-nephew.
A codicil dated January 19, 1806, charged the residuary estate "with debts and demands"; recited that the man Ben had predeceased the testator; recited that the "stock in the finds" had been reinvested in "Bank of Virginia stock," and charged the bank stock with the original purposes of the "trust."
Another codicil dated February 24, 1806, said, "If Michael die before his full age I give what is devised to him to George Wythe Sweeney."
Other Provisions in Will.
There were other provisions in the will and codicils giving to Thomas Jefferson "books" and again "my silver cups and gold-headed cane" and to William Duval, the executor, "my silver ladle and table and teaspoons." These legacies, however, have no bearing upon the present question—the Chancellor's tragic end.
Ir will be noted that the codicil of February 24, 1806, was so worded as might inspire in the breast of George Wythe Sweeney—whose dissipations had now become of common knowledge—a desire to have the boy Michael out of the way.
It seems also that Sweeney had come to the Chancellor's rooms in his absence and had opened a private desk and read the will and codicils: Colonel George Wythe Munford, in his book, "The Two Parsons," has a chapter entitled "Chancellor Wythe's Death."
This account was doubtless received from his father and other devoted friends who ministered to the Chancellor during his last hours.
Wanted Coffee and Bread.
We find, then, from this account, that the Chancellor's great-nephew came to the home on a certain morning and asked the old servant Lydia to give him a cup of coffee and some bread.
This she did and, when her back was turned, Sweeney put in the coffee pit the contents of a small paper—doubtless arsenic. A short while later the Chancellor rang his bell, according to his custom, to indicate that he was ready for his breakfast. The coffee served to him in all innocence by the cook Lydia was from the fatal container. The boy Michael and Lydia herself also partook of some of the same coffee.
In a short while Chancellor Wythe and the two servants were all very sick, and it seemed but too apparent that there had been a horrid crime committed by George Wythe Sweeney. The boy Michael soon died. The woman, Lydia, who had not drank quite as much of the poisoned coffee, finally recovered. The Chancellor lingered between life and death for a week, suffering great pain, which he bore with perfect fortitude. he was constantly visited during this sad week by devoted friends—by Dr. Foushee and Dr. McCaw, by the Rev. John Blair and the Rev. John Buchanan, by William Munford and Edmund Randolph. But he had passed beyond the help of earthly friends!
He desired his friend, Edmund Randolph to draw up another and final codicil to his will in which he revoked such portions of his will and codicils as contained any provisions for the benefit of his great-nephew, George Wythe Sweeney, and devised and bequeathed "to the brothers and sisters of the said George Wythe Sweeney" all of the estate that would otherwise have gone to George Wythe Sweeney, or for his use.
Noble Spirit Takes Flight.
This last codicil is dated June 1, 1806. On the morning of June 8, 1806, his noble spirit took its flight.
That this great and good man, whose name had become the very synonym for "justice" and for every aimiable attribute, as well as for the profound gifts of the intellect, should at length in his eighty-first year have been the victim of such an outrageous crime seems one of the strangest vagaries of fate.
In his last days his thoughts were only for others. He regretted that his illness should cause delay in regard to matters of importance pending in his court. Almost with his last breath he said, "Oh, gentlemen, you are very good. I am sorry you take so much trouble. But all will be in vain."
At the time of the execution of the final codicil he said to Mr. Munford and Mr. Randolph: "It is not my desire that this unfortunate nephew of mine shall be prosecuted or punished further than this codicil will punish him, for the offenses which he stands charged. I dread such a stigman [sic] being cast upon my name or my sister's. I do not believe he can be convicted in the teeth of our statute law, which prohibits negro testimony from being received against a white man under trial.
Will Be Acquitted.
"And without such testimony, he will be acquitted. For myself, I shall die leaving my forgiveness." The great nephew was tried at a session of the District Court in Richmond on Monday, the first of September, 1806—Judges Prentis and Tyler present.
Philip N. Nichols [sic], Attorney-General, appeared for the prosecution, and William Wirt and Edmund Randolph for the defense. The verdict of the jury was "not guilty." The testimony of the colored woman had not been admissible. At the time of Chancellor Wythe's death, the Richmond Enquirer was issued only on Tuesdays and Fridays of each week. The issue of Tuesday, June 10, then was the next issue after his death. In an editorial of that date—doubtless written by Mr. Thomas Ritchie—it is said, "The scrupulous devotion to justice, the strength of reasoning, and depth of research which he manifested as chancellor, are known to all.
"Great as he was in literature, in science and in law, fully impressed that 'knowledge without morals is vain' his superiority was more apparent in his conduct."
Gives Funeral Address.
The Enquirer of Friday, June 13, gives, in part the funeral address, which had been delivered by Mr. Munford at the public services in the Capitol on June 9. The rest of the address is printed in the paper of Tuesday, June 17. After the public funeral in the Capitol, the chancellor's remains were interred in Saint John's Church yard, quite near to the western door. Within the past year, the place of internment has been appropriately marked by the efforts of certain patriotic societies.
My friend, Robert N. Pollard, Esq., of the Richmond bar, has allowed me the privilege of reading some notes made by him in regard to the site of Chancellor Wythe's home, at the southeast corner of Grace and Fifth Streets.
From Mr. Pollard's notes I learn that Chancellor Wythe bought the property in question from William Nelson, Jr., in 1792—the date of the deed being April 25. The property was then known as "lot No. 569 in the plan of Richmond," fronting 130 feet on Grace Street and running back 163 feet.
The lot is thus seen to have been a very large one. The house is said to have been a "yellow wooden house with a hip roof" and to have fallen into decay after the chancellor's death and finally to have been used by the boys of the neighborhood as a sort of clubhouse for their revels and amateur plays. The portion of the lot on which the old home stood finally became the site of the handsome mansion built by Mr. Abram Warwick, which is still standing and which bears a bronze tablet reciting the fact that George Wythe once lived on the site.
- Chancellor Wythe's Death
- Last Will and Testament
- Oration, Pronounced at the Funeral of George Wythe
- Venerable Old Tree
- William Munford
- Wythe the Teacher
- "A Guide to the Munford-Merrill family papers, 1765, 1818-1998," Library of Virginia, accessed April 2, 2016.
- Robert B. Munford, Jr., "Intimate Pen Picture of George Wythe; His Tragic Death," Richmond Times-Dispatch (Richmond, VA), October 8, 1922, 6-7.
- The article consistently misspells the surname Nicholas as "Nichols".
- Munford's details of George Wythe's will appear not to come from the will itself, but from the chapter "Chancellor Wythe's Death" in George Wythe Munford's The Two Parsons; Cupid's Sports; The Dream; and The Jewels of Virginia (Richmond, Virginia: J.D.K. Sleight, 1884), 418-421.
- The supposed last words of George Wythe are quoted directly from William Munford's funeral oration.
- George Wythe Munford, The Two Parsons, 426-427.
- Philip Norborne Nicholas (c. 1776-1849), was attorney general from 1800-1819. "Attorneys General of Virginia," Encyclopedia Virginia, accessed April 2, 2106.