An American Biographical and Historical Dictionary

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Title page from An American Biographical and Historical Dictionary, edited by William Allen, Cambridge, MA: William Hilliard, 1809.
Wythe's entry in An American Biographical and Historical Dictionary (1809).

George Wythe's entry in An American Biographical and Historical Dictionary (1809)[1] borrows heavily from a three-part "memoir" which appeared in 1807 after Wythe's death, in the American Gleaner and Virginia Magazine, the second and third parts of which have since been lost.[2] The original text appears to have been edited for length and removes some aggrandizing and hyperbole, but portions of the first third of Wythe's entry is nearly word-for-word from the Gleaner. It is probable that some of — or even a great deal of — the text in the American Biographical and Historical Dictionary comes from the missing issues, which makes this an important biography, even if it perpetuates some of the original's myths and errors, including the idea that Wythe spent ten years of his youth leading a life of dissipation.[3]

Variations of this article were later reprinted in The American Law Journal and Miscellaneous Repertory in 1810,[4] in The New American Biographic Dictionary also in 1810,[5] in The New Pocket Biographical Dictionary, in 1811,[6], the New American Biographical Dictionary (1813),[7] and in The United States Manual of Biography and History, in 1856.[8]

Article text, 1809

Page 627

WYTHE (GEORGE), chancellor of Virginia, and a distinguished friend of his country, was born in the county of Elizabeth city in 1726. His father was a respectable farmer, and his mother was a woman of uncommon knowledge and strength of mind. She taught the Latin language, with which she was intimately acquainted, and which she spoke fluently, to her son; but his education was in other respects very much neglected. At school he learned only to read and write, and to apply the five first rules of arithmetic. His parents having died before he attained the age of twenty one years, like many unthinking youths he commenced a career of dissipation and intemperance, and did not disengage himself from it before he reached the age of thirty.[9] He then bitterly lamented the loss of those nine years of his life, and of the learning, which during that period he might have acquired. But never did any man more effectually redeem his time. From the moment, when he resolved on reformation, he devoted himself most intensely to his studies. Without the assistance of any instructer he acquired an accurate knowledge of the Greek, and he read the best authors in that as

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well as in the Latin language. He made himself also a profound lawyer, becoming perfectly versed in the civil and common law, and in the statutes of Great Britain and Virginia. He was also a skilful mathematician, and was well acquainted with moral and natural philosophy. The wild and thoughtless youth was now converted into a sedate and prudent man, delighting entirely in literary pursuits. At this period he acquired that attachment to the Christian religion, which, though his faith was afterwards shaken by the difficulties suggested by sceptical writers, never altogether forsook him, and towards the close of his life was renovated and firmly established. Though he never connected himself with any sect of Christians, yet for many years he constantly attended church, and the bible was his favorite book.

Having obtained a license to practise law, he took his station at the bar of the old general court with many other great men, whose merit has been the boast of Virginia. Among them he was conspicuous not for his eloquence, or ingenuity in maintaining a bad cause, but for his sound sense and learning, and rigid attachment to justice. He never undertook the support of a cause, which he knew to be bad, or which did not appear to be just and honorable. He was even known, when he doubted the statement of his client, to insist upon his making an affidavit to its truth, and in every instance, where it was in his power, he examined the witnesses as to the facts intended to be proved before he brought the suit, or agreed to defend it.

When the time arrived, which heaven had destined for the seperation of the wide, confederated republic of America from the dominion of Great Britain, Mr. Wythe was one of the instruments in the hand of providence for accomplishing that great work. He took a decided part in the very first movements of opposition. Not content merely to fall in with the wishes of his fellow citizens, he assisted in persuading them not to submit to British tyranny. With a prophetic mind he looked forward to the event of an approaching war, and resolutely prepared to encounter all its evils rather than to resign his attachment to liberty. With his pupil and friend, Thomas Jefferson, he roused the people to resistance. As the controversy grew warm, his zeal became proportionally fervent. He joined a corps of volunteers, accustomed himself to military discipline, and was ready to march at the call of his country. But that country, to whose interests he was so sincerely attached, had other duties of more importance for him to perform. It was his destiny to obtain distinction as a statesman, legislator, and judge, and not as a warrior. Before the war commenced, he was elected a member of the Virginia assembly. After having been for some time speaker of the house of burgesses, he was sent by the members of that body as one of their delegates to the congress, which assembled May 18, 1775, and did not separate until it had declared

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the independence of America. In that most enlightened and patriotic assembly he possessed no small share of influence. He was one of those, who signed the memorable declaration, by 'which the heroic legislators of this country pledged "their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor" to maintain and defend its violated rights. But the voice of his native state soon called him from the busy scene, where his talents had been so nobly exerted. By a resolution of the general assembly of Virginia, dated November 5, 1776, Thomas Jefferson, Edmund Pendleton, George Wythe, George Mason, and Thomas Ludwell Lee were appointed a committee to revise the laws of the commonwealth. This was a work of very great labor and difficulty. The committee of revisors did not disappoint the expectations of their country. In the commencement of their labors they were deprived of the assistance, which might have been received from the abilities of Messrs. Mason and Lee by the death of the one and the resignation of the other. The remaining three prosecuted their task with indefatigable activity and zeal, and June 18, 1779 made a report of one hundred and twenty six bills, which they had prepared. This report showed an intimate knowledge of the great principles of legislation, and reflected the highest honor upon those, who formed it. The people of Virginia are indebted to it for almost all the best parts of their present code of laws. Among the changes, then made in the monarchical system of jurisprudence, which had been previously in force, the most important were effected by the act abolishing the right of primogeniture, and directing the real estate of persons dying intestate to be equally divided among their children, or other nearest relations; by the act for regulating conveyances! which converted all estates in tail into fees simple, and thus destroyed one of the supports of the proud and overbearing distinctions of particular families; and finally by the act for the establishment of religious freedom. Had all the proposed bills been adopted by the legislature, other changes of great importance would have taken place. A wise and universal system of education would have been established, giving to the children of the poorest citizen the opportunity of attaining science, and thus of rising to honor and extensive usefulness. The proportion between crimes and punishments would have been better adjusted, and malefactors would have been made to promote the interests of the commonwealth by their labor. But the public spirit of the assembly could not keep pace with the liberal views of Wythe.

After finishing the task of new modelling the laws, he was employed to carry them into effect according to their true intent and spirit by being placed in the difficult office of judge of a court of equity. He was appointed one of the three judges of the high court of chancery, and afterwards sole chancellor of Virginia, in which station he continued until the day of his death, during a peri-

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od of more than twenty years. His extraordinary disinterestedness and patriotism were now most conspicuously displayed. Although the salary, allowed him by the commonwealth, was extremely scanty, yet he contentedly lived upon it even in the expensive city of Richmond, and devoted his whole time to the service of his country. With that contempt of wealth, which so remarkably distinguished him from other men, he made a present of one half of his land in Elizabeth city to his nephew, and the purchase money of the remainder, which he sold, was not paid him for many years. While he resided in Williamsburg he accepted the professorship of law in the college of William and Mary, but resigned it when his duties as chancellor required his removal to Richmond. His resources were therefore small; yet with his liberal and charitable disposition he continued, by means of that little, to do much good, and always to preserve his independence. This he accomplished by temperance and economy.

He was a member of the Virginia convention, which in June 1788 considered the proposed constitution of the United States. During the debates he acted for the most part as chairman. Being convinced, that the confederation was defective in the energy, necessary to preserve the union and liberty of America, this venerable patriot, then beginning to bow under the weight of years, rose in the convention, and exerted his voice, almost too feeble to be heard, in contending for a system, on the acceptance of which he conceived the happiness of his country to depend. He was ever attached to the constitution, on account of the principles of freedom and justice, which it contained; and in every change of affairs he was steady in supporting the rights of man. His political opinions were always firmly republican. Though in 1798 and 1799 he was opposed to the measures, which were adopted in the administration of president Adams, and reprobated the alien and sedition laws, and the raising of the army; yet he never yielded a moment to the rancor of party spirit, nor permitted the difference of opinion to interfere with his private friendships. He presided twice successively in the college of electors in Virginia, and twice voted for a president, whose political principles coincided with his own. After a short but very excruciating sickness he died June 8, 1806, in the eighty first year of his age. It was supposed, that he was poisoned, but the person suspected was acquitted by a jury of his countrymen. By his last will and testament he bequeathed his valuable library and philosophical apparatus to his friend, Mr. Jefferson, and distributed the remainder of his little property among the grand children of his sister, and the slaves, whom he had set free. He thus wished to liberate the blacks not only from slavery, but from the temptations to vice. He even condescended to impart to them instruction; and he personally taught the Greek language to a little negro boy, who died a few days before his preceptor.

Page 631

Chancellor Wythe was indeed an extraordinary man. With all his great qualities he possessed a soul replete with benevolence, and his private life is full of anecdotes, which prove that it is seldom that a kinder and warmer heart throbs in the breast of a human being. He was of a social and affectionate disposition. From the time, when he was emancipated from the follies of youth, he sustained an unspotted reputation. His integrity was never even suspected. While he practised at the bar, when offers of an extraordinary but well merited compensation were made to him by clients, whose causes he had gained, he would say, that the laborer was indeed worthy of his hire, but the lawful fee was all he had a light to demand, and as to presents he did not want and would not accept them from any man. This grandeur of mind he uniformly preserved to the end of his life. His manner of living was plain and abstemious. He found the means of suppressing the desire of wealth by limiting the number of his wants. An ardent desire to promote the happiness of his fellow men by supporting the cause of justice and maintaining and establishing their rights appears to have been his ruling passion.

As a judge he was remarkable for his rigid impartiality and sincere attachment to the principles of equity, for his vast and various learning, and for his strict and unwearied attention to business. Superior to popular prejudice and every corrupting influence, nothing could induce him to swerve from truth and right. In his decisions he seemed to be a pure intelligence, untouched by human passions, and settling the disputes of men according to the dictates of eternal and immutable justice. Other judges have surpassed him in genius, and a certain facility in despatching causes, but while the vigor of his faculties remained unimpaired, he was seldom surpassed in learning, industry, and judgment.

From a man, entrusted with such high concerns, and whose time was occupied by so many difficult and perplexing avocations, it could scarcely have been expected, that he should have employed a part of it in the toilsome and generally unpleasant task of the education of youth. Yet even to this he was prompted by his genuine patriotism and philanthrophy, which induced him for many years to take great delight in educating such young persons, as showed an inclination for improvement. Harrassed as he was with business, and enveloped with papers, belonging to intricate suits in chancery, he yet found time to keep a private school for the instruction of a few scholars, always with very little compensation, and often demanding none. Several living ornaments of their country received their greatest lights from his sublime example and instruction. Such was the upright and venerable Wythe.—American gleaner and Virginia magazine, i. 1—3, 17—19, 33—36; Massa. miss. mag. v. 10—15; Debates of Virginia convent. second edit. 17, 421.

See also


  1. William Allen, An American Biographical and Historical Dictionary, Containing an Account of the Lives, Characters, and Writings of the Most Eminent Persons in North America from Its First Discovery to the Present Time, and a Summary of the History of the Several Colonies, and of the United States, (Cambridge, MA: William Hilliard, 1809), 627-631.
  2. Allen cites three sources: the articles in the American Gleaner and Virginia Magazine from January, 1807 (cited as "i. 1—3, 17—19, 33—36."); a eulogy reprinted in the Massachusetts Missionary Magazine from June, 1807; and Debates and Other Proceedings of the Convention of Virginia (2nd ed., 1805).
  3. Allan D. Jones, "The Character and Service of George Wythe," Virginia State Bar Association Reports 44 (1932), 326-328; William Edwin Hemphill, "George Wythe the Colonial Briton: A Biographical Study of the Pre-Revolutionary Era in Virginia" (PhD diss., University of Virginia, 1937), 82-83.
  4. John E. Hall, ed., The American Law Journal and Miscellaneous Repertory 3, no. 9 (1810), 93-99.
  5. John Kingston, The New American Biographic Dictionary (Baltimore, MD: Warner & Hanna, 1810), 291-295.
  6. John Kingston, ed., The New Pocket Biographical Dictionary, (Baltimore: John Kingston, 1811), 286-290.
  7. Thomas J. Rogers, comp., A New American Biographical Dictionary; or Remembrancer of the Departed Heroes and Statesmen of America (Easton, PA: T.J. Rogers, 1813), 421-424.
  8. James V. Marshall, ed., The United States Manual of Biography and History: Comprising Lives of the Presidents and Vice Presidents of the United States, and the Cabinet Officers, from the Adoption of the Constitution to the Present Day: Also, Lives of the Signers of the Declaration of Independence, and of the Old Articles of Confederation, of the Framers of the Constitution of the United States, and of the Chief Justices of the Supreme Court of the United States: With Authentic Copies of the Declaration of Independence, the Articles of Confederation, and the Constitution of the United States: To Which Is Prefixed an Introductory History of the United States (Philadelphia, PA: J.B. Smith & Co., 1856), 98-102.
  9. Jones and Hemphill have demonstrated this is untrue. See also: Leon M. Bazile, "Discourse Refuting Statements Made That George Wythe at One Time Led a Life of Dissipation," n.d., Virginia Historical Society, Richmond, Virginia.

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