Discourse on the Life and Character of the Hon. Littleton Waller Tazewell, Delivered in the Freemason Street Baptist Church, before the Bar of Norfolk, Virginia, and the Citizens Generally, on the 29th Day of June, 1860

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Title page to Hugh Blair Grigsby's Discourse on the Life and Character of the Hon. Littleton Waller Tazewell (Norfolk, VA: J.D. Ghiselin, 1860).

Hugh Blair Grigsby (1806 – 1881) of Norfolk, Virginia, was a scholar and historian.[1] He served on the Board of Visitors of the College of William & Mary in 1853 and from 1859 to 1866, and was Chancellor of the College from 1871 to 1881.[2]

Grigsby's Discourse on the Life and Character of the Hon. Littleton Waller Tazewell[3] was delivered as a public speech in 1860, shortly after Tazewell's death. Tazewell was a Virginia lawyer and politician who, in his youth, had been tutored by George Wythe, and later served as the 26th governor of Virginia.

Grigsby speaks of Wythe with great respect as a lawyer and a judge, and credits much of Tazewell's success to Wythe's influences.

Excerpts from Discourse on the Life and Character of the Hon. Littleton Waller Tazewell, 1860

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In a long, low wooden house, which may still be seen with its roof of red shingles, at the head of Woodpecker street, on the south side, in the city of Williamsburg, the residence of Judge Waller, and still owned by his grandson Dr. Robert Page Waller, and in a small room up stairs, at the north-east corner, looking on the street, in which his mother was born before him, on the seventeenth day of December, 1774, Littleton Waller Tazewell first saw the light. He was a healthy child, and, like all the children who were born about that time between the waters of the York and the James, was destined to frequent locomotion to avoid the marauding parties of the British, who for several years afterwards infested that region. As his mother. died when he was in his third year, and as his father, who was engaged during the youth of Littleton in the Conventions, in the House of Delegates, or on the bench, was rarely at one place for any length of time, he lived, excepting a short interval in Greensville, with his grandfather Waller, who regarded with intense affection the beautiful orphan boy, preparing a trundle-bed for him in his own chamber, and watching him with parental solicitude. Until 1786 he lived with his grandfather, who taught him the, rudiments of English and Latin, and superintended his studies at the school of Walker Murray; and when in that year the judge was on his death-bed, he sent for his old friend Mr. Wythe, and committed his grandson, then in his twelfth year, to his care; and with Mr. Wythe young Tazewell lived until that gentleman removed to Richmond, when he resided with Bishop Madison during his college course. The love which the child bore to his affectionate grandfather has been commemorated by a single fact. When Littleton came home from school and learned the old, gentleman was dead, he was inconsolable, and finding that, in the painful anxieties of such a time, he was comparatively overlooked, 11e left the house, and went out into Col. Bassett's woods, where he had well-nigh perished. When he was missed, search was made for him, and he was found and brought home, but not until the funeral was over.

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The following extract of a letter, addressed by Mr. Tazewell, in 1839, to William F. Wickham, Esq., the son and executor of the celebrated John Wickham of Richmond, and written on the death of that eminent lawyer, presents a sketch of his own early youth, not the less attractive as it embraces an interesting period of the youth of Mr. Wickham also:

"So much of my life," writes Mr. Tazewell, "was spent in the freest intercourse with your dear father, and during this intercourse mere time effected changes in our relations so gradually and imperceptibly, that, until they were matured into their last state, I was often at a loss to determine what was their true character. We first met in the year 1780, at the house of your grandfather, in Greensville county, (who was also the paternal grandfather of Mr. Tazewell), to which I had been sent to get me out of the way of the British army, then invading Virginia. I was a child not six years old, and he was a youth of about seventeen. Here he became my tutor; and during the course of about two years, he taught me first to read English better than I could do before; next, the rudiments of Latin, and lastly, to write. During this period I contracted for him that respect which children naturally feel for their seniors, and the ignorant for those much better informed than themselves; while he regarded me with the affection usually bestowed by a patron upon his protegé, who manifests no bad propensities, and a disposition, at least, to profit by instruction and advice. "In 1782 we parted; and well do I remember the tears we both shed at our separation. In the winter of 1785-6 we again met at Williamsburg, at the house of my father, who then resided there. Here our intercourse was renewed upon a footing somewhat different than it had been maintained before, but with greater pleasure to both. He became a student of law in my father's office, and I was a boy in the first class of a celebrated grammar-school. To the careful instruction of my excellent grandfather* I had been indebted for greater proficiency in my classical learning than is usually acquired by boys of my time of life. My grandfather died within a very short period after the return of your

* Judge Benjamin Waller

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father to Virginia. Of the distress which I suffered at this deprivation, he was the sole comforter; and he immediately took upon himself the tasks which my poor old grandfather had been so delighted in performing for me. He heard and corrected my recitations—availed himself of every opportunity they offered to improve my taste and to inspire me with the wish of acquiring more information concerning the subjects to which they related. For all the pleasure which I have since derived from classical learning, I am indebted to his judicious instruction and advice. "In 1787 your father commenced the practice of the law in Williamsburg, and mine shortly after removed from thence to KingsmiIl, leaving me in Williamsburg under the care of your father to complete my education. Under his kind and useful advice, my rapid advance in my studies, both at school and in college, and my increased age, began to qualify me as a companion for him. By confiding to my discretion matters not often entrusted to those so young as I was, he taught me prudence; and, by his excellent precepts and example, he contributed much to the improvement of both my mind and manners."

As a boy of quick parts, Littleton doubtless observed with more or less attention the events that were passing around him. One proof of his recollection at an early age may be found in that shadowy notion which he carried to his grave, of the personal appearance of the venerable old treasurer, Robert Carter Nicholas, whom, as he died in 1780, he could only have seen when he was six years old. His father, as before observed, was constantly engaged in public life; and it is certain that young Tazewell had frequent opportunities of seeing the statesmen of that era. I well remember hearing him describe a visit he made to Patrick Henry, when the orator lived at Venable's Ford in Prince Edward, and his finding him in the shade of an oak playing the fiddle for the amusement of a group of girls and boys.

His first regular teacher was Walker Murray, with whom he prosecuted the study of Latin. At this school he began his intimacy with John Randolph. They were in the same class, and studied Cordery together; and here they formed a friendship which lasted without abatement until it was ended by the death of that eloquent but eccentric man. At parting—for Randolph went over to Bermu-

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da—the young friends, who had no other property under their Control, exchanged Corderys with each other; and nearly half a century afterwards, when one of them had become a Senator of the United States, and the other Minister Plenipotentiary to Russia, Randolph stated at a public dinner in Norfolk, that he still possessed the Cordery of Tazewell. I have heard Mr. Tazewell say that Randolph was very idle at school, that he was flogged regularly every Monday morning and two or three times during the week, and that he was the most beautiful boy at this period he ever beheld.

Young Tazewell at an early age entered the college of William and Mary, then under the presidency of Bishop Madison, and was, as may be presumed from his own statement, and as we learn from other sources, a diligent and accurate scholar. He was probably stimulated to exertion by the presence of several young men who were members of the institution at various times during his college course. Among these were James Barbour, of Orange, afterwards the colleague of Tazewell in the House, of Delegates and in the Senate of the United States, Governor of Virginia, Secretary of War, and Minister to England, and renowned for his splendid eloquence and glowing patriotism; William Henry Cabell, also the colleague of Tazewell in the House of Delegates, Governor, and President of the Court of Appeals; George Keith Taylor, another colleague in the House of Delegates, a lawyer almost unrivalled at the bar, a patriot without fear and without reproach, who went down to an early grave; Robert Barraud Taylor, then in the flush of his brilliant youth, whom Tazewell was to meet at a memorable session on the floor of the House of Delegates, and who was to be his able and accomplished rival at the bar throughout his whole forensic career; John Randolph, and John Thompson.

Of John Thompson I have heard him say, in his latter years, that he was an extraordinary young man—the most wonderful he had ever seen. Thompson died young, at an age not exceeding twenty-three, and now lives only in the letters of Curtius. Mr. Tazewell always recounted in a tender tone his last interview with Thompson, who lived in Petersburg, but hearing that 'Tazewell was in Richmond, came over to see him, with a determination to return in the stage which left Richmond at twelve at night. He arrived

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at dusk, called on Tazewell, and told him that he had only from that time till midnight to talk with him; and in a few moments the friends were lost in pleasant converse. The night was dark and cold; and when the stage was announced, Thompson, who was thinly clad, bade his friend adieu. He took cold on his return, and died after a short illness.

Tazewell took the degree of Bachelor of Arts on the 31st day of July, 1792, though it is probable that he attended some of the classes at a later period. His diploma, written on a sheet of foolscap, and Signed by Bishop Madison, Judge St. George Tucker, and others, is still preserved in his family. It speaks well for his attention and regularity, that of all his classmates he alone took a degree at the appointed time. Having finished his college course, he began the study of the law in Richmond under the auspices of Mr. Wickham,* living in his house as a member of his family, and of his father, who was then a Judge of the Circuit Court, but was soon after transferred to the Court of Appeals. That he entered with great zeal into the study of his profession, his subsequent familiarity with all the philosophy as well as the practice of the law fully shows. While engaged in the study, he regularly attended the courts of Richmond in which Wythe presided as sole chancellor, and Pendleton as the president of the Court of Appeals. The bar of the metropolis, which consisted mainly of men who had served during the Revolution, and subsequently, in camp and in council, was large in numbers and abounding in talents. Alexander Campbell, whose voice, says Wirt, "had all the softness and melody of the harp; whose mind was at once an orchard and a flower garden, loaded with the best fruits, and smiling in the many-colored bloom of spring; whose delivery, action, style, and manner, were perfectly Ciceronian," and who, I am grieved to say, was shortly to fall by his own hand; Munford, known to the profession by his Reports, and to scholars for the skill and elegance with which he has invested Homer in an English dress; Warden, the theme of many a joke, a sturdy lawyer of the old school, his name perpetually occurring in the early Reports; Call, whose aged form might occasionally be seen in Richmond in my early days, and

* Mr. Wickham married Mr. Tazewell's aunt, a half sister of Judge Henry Tazewell.

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familiar by his Reports; Hay, afterwards a judge of the federal district court, which he held in this city thirty-five or forty years ago, but better known as the prosecuting attorney in the trial of Burr; and besides and above these were Edmund Randolph, who, having filled the most prominent posts in our own and in the federal government, and with whom it is believed Mr. 'Tazewell studied for a short time in Philadelphia, was to return to the bar, where he had the largest practice, according to Wirt, of any lawyer of his time; Wickham, then holding at or near his meridian as she did at his setting, the front rank; and John Marshall, a name that spoke for itself then, speaks for itself now, and will speak forever. These and such men composed the Richmond bar of that day. An able bar is the best school of law. If the leaders be strong, they will be apt to have worthy successors; for of all lessons for a student, the contests of able men with each other in the practical game of life are the best. In such a school Tazewell applied himself closely; and in truth he had rare advantages. In a physical view he is said by one who knew him at this period of his life, to have been the most elegant and brilliant young man of his age. His tall stature, which reached six feet, his light and graceful figure, his blue, wide, intellectual eye, his features noble and prominent, though not yet developed to the sterner mould of latter years, those auburn ringlets, which curled about his head in childhood, which he shook at midnoon in the stress of some high argument, and which, turned to a silver hue, flowed down his marble neck in his shroud,—and a winning address, which, though slightly and insensibly tinged with hauteur on a first acquaintance, grew urgent and cordial, fascinated every beholder; while his intellectual faculties, which even thus early his habitual study of the severer sciences had sharpened, and which impelled him to venture fearlessly even with experts on vexed questions in law and morals, and his truly generous nature, made him the delight of the social circle, and endeared him to all. Then, as at a later day, he was not averse from manly sports, was fond of the gun, and was a fearless horseman. One of his youthful feats was to ride his horse to the second story of the Raleigh Tavern; and when his income from the Norfolk bar reached thousands, and his dicta were deemed the infallible utterances of Themis, he has been known in a coun-

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try frolic to leap from a horse's back into a carriage in full motion; and at a later day, when the country sprang to arms to avenge the insult upon the Chesapeake, and he might have taken what civil or military post he pleased, he chose the command of a troop of cavalry. He understood at this early day, however, the art of sacrificing pleasure at the shrine of duty; and he preserved his youth pure from those flattering vices which please for the present, but which bring disgrace, disease, and death in their train.

His position gave him decided advantages of observation and improvement. His father, who was a prominent politician, and long a judge of the General Court, was now a judge of the Court of Appeals, and was soon elected to the Senate of the United States. In his society he saw Pendleton, Carrington, Roane, Fleming and Lyons, who composed the Court of Appeals at that day, and all of whom I heard him recall in living colors a few months before his death. It was the custom of the judges of the Court of Appeals to put up at the Swan, where they might easily consult with Pendleton, their chief, whose injured limb prevented him for the last thirty years of his life from going abroad. It was at the Swan the judges kept their black cloth suits during the recess of the courts; for in those days there were no public conveyances ; and all the judges, except Pendleton, who drove into Richmond from Caroline in a slow lumbering vehicle, nicknamed, after the wild driver of the coursers of the sun, a Phaeton, came into town on horseback, and were often clad in the cloth of their own looms. I mention these details of the early times of Mr. Tazewell, as they may serve to explain that stern simplicity of manners, of taste, and of general living to which he resolutely adhered through life. Although fond of agriculture, and the owner of large landed estates, as he did not reside on them he did not require vehicles for the use of his family; and, at his residence in Norfolk, I think I may say that, for the last forty years at least, he never kept a carriage above the dignity of a gig, and I have doubts whether during that time he even kept a gig. The last time I saw him riding, some ten or twelve years ago, he was on horseback, accompanied by his son. I well remember when to take a drive in a carriage, or, to use an umbrella, was deemed effeminate by some of the wealthiest planters in Virginia.

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It was on the 14th day of May, 1796, that he received his license to practice law. The license, written in a bold hand on paper, was signed by judges Peter Lyons, Edmund Winston, and Joseph Jones, and is preserved by his children as a family relic. His first fee was derived from a warrant trying, in which a Mr. Taliaferro, who was his landlord, was a party, and was fifteen shillings, which helped to pay the rent of his office. His first important criminal case was the defence of a man on a charge of murder. Whether his client was innocent or guilty, I know not; but Tazewell got him clear of the law; and the man was so thankful for his services, that half a century afterwards he confessed his gratitude to a daughter of Mr. Tazewell, whom he chanced to see in the streets of a neighboring town. The keen eye of John Marshall saw at once the caste of Tazewell's mind, and pronounced him an extraordinary young man. And I may say here, that the subdued manner and tone in which Mr. Tazewell spoke of Judge Marshall would convey a stronger impression of the character of the judge than any mere words of eulogy could well do. For his person and abilities he cherished the most profound respect and admiration. Even of the Life of Washington, which it was the fashion of the young democrats of my day to laugh at for the grammatical blunders and inverted English that marred the first edition of that work, Tazewell, who, though never eminent in elegant composition, always wrote good English, and saw all the faults of the work, still put a high value upon it as I certainly now do myself; and within a year of his death, when he was told an author was about to publish a history of the administration of Washington, he observed: "What can he tell that Judge Marshall has not told a great deal better already? Yet, from the beginning of Mr. Tazewell's career to its close, they differed from each other on most of the great constitutional questions of their times. Candor compels me to say, however, that the decisions of the judge in the case of Maculloch against the Bank of Maryland, and in the case of Cohens against the State of Virginia, greatly disappointed him; and after their promulgation, though he still entertained feelings of high respect for his abilities, he would hardly have offered in honor of the judge that famous sentiment which he proposed at the time.

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But it was probably in his association with Chancellor Wythe, who loved and petted the promising boy, the son of his old neighbor in Williamsburg, whom he had taken from the dying bedside of another old neighbor, that Tazewell formed his taste for profound research, and his determination to master the law as a science. Wythe, above all our early statesmen, was deeply learned in the law, had traced all its doctrines to their fountain-heads, delighted in the year-books from doomsday down; had Glanville, Bracton, Britton, and Fleta bound in collects; had all the British statutes at full length, and was writing elaborate decisions every day, in which, to the amazement of county court lawyers, Horace and Aulus Gellius were sometimes quoted as authorities. And it is worthy of note, that Tazewell, affectionately attached as he was to Wythe, did not adopt his prejudices or antipathies, nor those peculiarities of punctuation and the disuse of capital letters at the beginning of sentences, which even Mr. Jefferson copied from his old master; but cherished a proper and becoming admiration for Pendleton, as will presently appear, between whom and Wythe there had been a life-long rivalry, and more recently some sharp judicial passages at arms, which we could wish were blotted out forever, but which, embodied in ever-during type, posterity must read and deplore. And, although he was in every material respect the architect of his own reputation, it has occurred to me that it was in memory of his affectionate relations with Wythe and Wickham, and with a view of paying the debt which he owed them, as well as from the natural goodness of his heart, that Tazewell was fond of the society of young men, and was ever ready to advise them in their studies, or to argue with them a difficult head in the law, and freely to assist them in other respects. An eminent counsel still living, though among the seniors of the Virginia bar. told me that once, when he was young, Mr. Tazewell, who had not opened a law book for years, explained to him the law respecting fine and recovery, and springing uses, so fully and with such ability as filled him with wonder; and that his discourse, could it have been transferred to paper, would be an invaluable guide on that topic of the law. And many other young men have the same story to tell of his generous teachings on difficult questions. If all his personal attentions to the students of law were forgotten,

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the four letters which he prepared with infinite skill as a code of legal morals, and of the philosophical study of the law, would attest his sympathy and affection for his youthful friends. While young Tazewell was gradually making his way at the bar, practising in James City, and in all the neighboring courts, he was called upon to take his stand in politics at one of the most tempestuous epochs in our annals. His father was one of that illustrious band of patriots, consisting of Patrick Henry, George Mason, William Grayson, Richard Henry Lee, Benjamin Harrison, John Tyler, and others, who believed that the General Federal Convention, which had been summoned merely to amend the Articles of Confederation, had exceeded their powers in framing an entirely new instrument, the present federal constitution, and they warmly opposed its ratification by Virginia. When the new system was adopted, they watched its operations with a jealous eye, and opposed some of the leading measures of the administration of Washington. When it was foreseen that a new treaty would be negotiated with England, it was determined by them that, unless that measure made those concessions and amendments of the treaty of 1783, which Virginia had striven so hard to obtain, it should be opposed at every hazard; and John Taylor of Caroline, happening to resign his seat in the Senate Just at that time (1795), Henry Tazewell, then on the bench of the Court of Appeals, was elected to fill his place; and the first movement he made on taking his seat in the Senate was to offer a series of resolutions pointing out the defects of the new treaty with England, which had been negotiated by Mr. Jay. It was natural that young Tazewell should embrace the doctrines of the party in which his father held almost the chief place; and his inclination in this respect was probably strengthened by the opinions of Judge Pendleton and Chancellor Wythe, both of whom had voted for the ratification of the federal constitution by Virginia, but who now sided with his father. On the other hand, his friends Marshall and Wickham were ranged on the federal side; and though Wickham at no time of his life took an active part in politics, Marshall, in the House of Delegates, and by popular addresses, was most active in the cause, and was reputed the leader of the federal party in the State.

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In respect both of argumentation and style it has often occurred to me that Mr. Tazewell occupied an intermediate position between Judge Marshall and Mr. Wickham. He has the strength of Marshall with something more of refinement in style and imagery, and more vivacity in the play of his reasoning; while he has a stricter line of demonstration than Wickham without his very decided elegance. In some physical as well as intellectual aspects, he resembled Chief Justice Parsons of Massachusetts. Not, indeed, in dress; for Parsons was a sloven, and Tazewell was neat in his dress, which was in winter, during the last twenty years, a full suit of black cloth, and in summer he was usually attired in white drilling with a light linen coat and fancy vest. He always wore a white cravat, and his linen was spotless. But both Parsons and Tazewell were men of large stature, at least to the eye, in a sitting posture; both delighted to drink at the deep fountains of

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the law, and were skilled in the lore of their profession in which they held an easy supremacy; both liked novels as a relief from grave cares, and were indifferent as to the volume of the novel that first carne to hand; both were so strongly enamored of the exact sciences that it is probable they would have cultivated them with extraordinary success. But Tazewell, though a fair scholar in the old way, never attained to that excellence in classical literature which made the name of Parsons an authority for a disputed reading in the colleges of Germany. I have always regretted that Tazewell did not bring his mind to bear upon the science of language, and especially of comparative philology. Had he been able to read Bonn, or had mastered the New Cratylus or the Varronianus of Donaldson, his versatile and sharp intellect might have sent forth a work of "winged words" of equal interest and, infinitely more profound than the Diversions of Purley.

Tazewell had evidently modelled his mind before the death of president Pendleton in 1802; and nearly up to that period Marshall and Wickham were the leaders of the Virginia bar. His reverence for Pendleton was something more than a shadow. It was, as also in the case of Wythe, a deep-seated, ever-living and glowing principle. He loved those two illustrious judges with a warmth of veneration blended with affection which he never felt for any human being after they were laid in their graves; and he delighted to speak of them. He held Pendleton's judicial talents in the highest respect; and I have heard him say that no man living but Pendleton could have reconciled the clashing laws passed during the first twelve years of the commonwealth, and made such just and satisfactory decisions. Speaking of the peculiarities of Pendleton and Wythe, he said that Pendleton always professed the most profound respect for British decisions, but rarely followed them; while Wythe, who spoke disrespectfully of them, almost invariably followed them. But, on the ground of pure love and affection, Wythe was nearer to Tazewell than was Pendleton. Wythe was the guide and instructor of his youth, the old neighbor of his father in Williamsburg; and he always spoke of him as Mr. Wythe, following his father who knew Wythe long before he was a judge. His reminiscences of Wythe were deeply interesting, sometimes humorous, sometimes serious,

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and, in reference to the last illness of the old patriot, sad in the extreme; and they were always uttered in that subdued and tender tone which, it grieves me to think, will fall no more on mortal ears.

See also


  1. Lyon Gardiner Tyler, ed., Encyclopedia of Virginia Biography, Vol. 2 (New York: Lewis Historical Publishing, 1915), 224-225.
  2. "Hugh Blair Grigsby," Special Collections Research Center Wiki, Swem Library, College of William & Mary, accessed November 8, 2016.
  3. Hugh Blair Grigsby, Discourse on the Life and Character of the Hon. Littleton Waller Tazewell, Delivered in the Freemason Street Baptist Church, before the Bar of Norfolk, Virginia, and the Citizens Generally, on the 29th Day of June, 1860 (Norfolk, VA: J.D. Ghiselin, 1860).

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