The Republican Court: Or, American Society in the Days of Washington

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Title page from Rufus W. Griswold's The Republican Court (New York: D. Appleton, 1855), subtitled as having "Twenty-One Portraits of Distinguished Women, Engraved from Original Pictures by Woolaston, Copley, Gainsborough, Stuart, Trumbull, Pine, Malbone, and Other Contemporary Painters."

Rufus Wilmot Griswold (1815 – 1857) was an American literary critic, editor, and poet. Famously, he was embroiled in a rivalry with poet Edgar Allen Poe following the publication of Griswold's anthology, The Poets and Poetry of America (1842). In his 1855 book, The Republican Court, in the chapter entitled "The Convention," Griswold paints a picture of the 1787 Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia, describing the social culture of the times, in the context of the men who had led the American Revolution.[1]

Griswold expends little more than two pages characterizing three of the seven delegates from Virginia: George Washington, George Wythe, and James Madison (and, in fact, Griswold attributes qualities to Madison which belong to his cousin, Bishop James Madison); most of the section is devoted to Wythe. In describing Wythe, Griswold advances the same misconception in earlier biographies: that Wythe spent some years (Griswold says nine) in a "career of folly and dissipation," before devoting himself to a sober life of law. This story, though oft-repeated, is demonstrably untrue according to court records from the time.[2] Griswold also makes the following, seemingly unsupported, statements about Wythe: "He is not, however, what would be termed a brilliant man. His mind indeed is of very high order, but not the most rapid in seizing upon the prominent points of a subject" (page 69). This may seem curiously unfair to the man known as the "American Aristides," but could be Griswold's way of referencing Wythe's exceeding and well-known tendency toward pedantry.

Later in the text, Griswold alludes to Henry Clay being a student of Wythe's, and also recounts George and Martha Washington's southern tour of 1791, pausing to mention the President dining in Fredericksburg, Virginia: "[H]e dined with his old friends and neighbors, whom he was always happy to meet, and with whom, Chancellor Wythe informs us, he delighted to recall the scenes of his youth and earlier manhood, which he contemplated, with their associations, with feelings of the tenderest interest."[3]

Chapter text, "The Convention: III"

Page 67

That middle-sized, venerable looking person, whom you see, is George Wythe. He is now sixty-one years old, and in many respects a remarkable man. His father was a farmer. His mother was a woman of great strength of mind, and of attainments very unusual in her sex; she was an excellent Latin scholar, and is said even to have spoken that language fluently; she taught it to her son; but in several other respects his education was somewhat neglected. He lost his parents before he was a man, and with the thoughtlessness of youth, uncontrolled by authority, rushed madly

Page 68

onward in a career of folly and dissipation.[4] The force of his character, however, may be appreciated from the fact that he did, at last, what very few under similar circumstances would or could have done. After nine years of dissipation, he reformed, and became a man of exemplary sobriety and steadiness. Lamenting most deeply the time irrecoverably lost by his folly and sin, and deploring, at that late period, the want of that learning which he might have acquired during those misspent years, he resolved to redeem the future, and from that hour devoted himself with untiring industry to study. He taught himself Greek, and choosing the profession of jurisprudence, became profoundly versed in both the common and civil law, and thoroughly learned in the statute law of both Great Britain and Virginia. No longer a thoughtless, dissipated youth, he was respected, as a wise, sedate, and upright man, of marked ability, and eminently worthy of the confidence of his countrymen; nor was it long before he stood at the very head of the Virginia bar. When the troubles with the mother country first began, he stood forth boldly, and encouraged, if indeed he did not originate, the first movements of opposition in Virginia. He was the fearless champion of liberty, and was among the earliest to enrol himself in the ranks of her volunteers. His influence and example undoubtedly did very much to inspire the people. Before the war actually commenced he was a member of the Virginia legislature, and speaker of that body. He was sent in 1775 to the Congress at Philadelphia, and was one of those who, in 1776, put their names to the Declaration of Independence. He is now Chancellor of Virginia, and it may be doubted whether, in this house, there is a purer or a wiser man. His now long continued habits of strict temperance and regularity of life have given him, as you see, a healthy old age, and one cannot look without lingering on his manly and expressive features.

Page 69

He is perfectly unaffected and simple in his manners, as modest as he is learned, and singularly disinterested. If you should hear him speak, you would be struck by his logical arrangement, his chaste language, and his easy elocution. He is also exceedingly courteous in debate. He is not, however, what would be termed a brilliant man. His mind indeed is of very high order, but not the most rapid in seizing upon the prominent points of a subject. Labor has made him what he is. Allow him time for consideration, and then will appear his profound penetration, his well-linked logic, and his demonstrated conclusion.

And here is another delegate from Virginia. I cannot speak of all, but may not pass unnoticed James Madison. He is now thirty-seven years old, and has been trained as a lawyer by Chancellor Wythe.[5] He possesses fine talents, and is remarkable for his close reasoning. Though younger than many here, he is, notwithstanding, a worthy companion to them, for his views and attainments are much in advance of his years. He was always a thinker, and is a bold and forcible speaker. If there be any one here of whom I would say, "he never was a boy" I think it would be Mr. Madison. Virginia considers him one of her ornaments, and is justly proud of him.

Page 74

We shall find that we have here no assemblage of common men, but that the convention is composed almost entirely of those who have had experience, and have distinguished themselves by their talents and public services. In the very first assembly of the colonies, held at Albany, in 1754, Dr. Franklin was a member; in the Stamp Act Congress, of 1765, Dickinson of Delaware, Johnson of Connecticut, and Rutledge of South Carolina were members; in

Page 75

the Continental Congress, beginning in 1774, and continuing up to 1786, no less than eighteen of those we have particularly pointed out—Washington, Franklin, King, Gerry, Langdon, Sherman, Robert Morris, Gouverneur Morris, Clymer, Livingston, Dickinson, Read, Mercer, Wythe, Madison, Williamson, Rutledge and Baldwin—sat at different periods. Of these, Franklin, Wythe, Sherman, Read, Gerry, Robert Morris, and Clymer, signed the Declaration of Independence; and so also did Wilson, who is here from Pennsylvania—as able and worthy as any of them, but of whom we had not time to speak particularly. The fact is, there are but twelve of the whole Convention who have not, at some time, sat in the Continental Congress. The army is represented, too, for here are Washington, Mifflin, Charles Cotesworth Pinckney, and Hamilton; so that we may well call this an assembly of our most able, most tried, and most patriotic countrymen.

See also


  1. Rufus Wilmot Griswold, The Republican Court: Or, American Society in the Days of Washington (New York: D. Appleton, 1855), 67-69, 74-75.
  2. Leon M. Bazile, "Discourse Refuting Statements Made That George Wythe at One Time Led a Life of Dissipation," n.d., Virginia Museum of History& Culture, Richmond, Virginia.
  3. Griswold, Republican Court, 232, 275. The source of Wythe's commentary on Washington is unknown.
  4. Bazile, "Discourse."
  5. James Madison, Jr. (1751 – 1836), delegate from Virginia to the Constitutional Convention, and fourth President of the United States, was educated at the College of New Jersey; it was his cousin, the Right Reverend James Madison (1749 – 1812)—eighth president of the College of William & Mary, and first bishop of the newly-formed Episcopal Church in the United States of America—who studied law under Wythe.

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