Encyclopedia Americana

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Title page for volume 16 of The Encyclopedia Americana from 1904, edited by Frederick Converse Beach.

Dr. Samuel Chiles Mitchell (1864 – 1948) was a renowned educator and Southern social reformer. At the time of his writing George Wythe's entry for the Encyclopedia Americana,[1] Mitchell was a professor of history at Richmond College, Virginia (later, the University of Richmond), having taken a leave of absence from teaching Latin in order to earn a Ph.D. in History from the University of Chicago in 1899.[2] Mitchell taught at Richmond from 1895 until 1908; he was was president of the University of South Carolina from 1908 to 1913; president of the Medical College of Virginia from 1913 to 1914; president of Delaware College from 1914 to 1920; and finally returned to the University of Richmond in 1920, where he taught history until his retirement in 1945.[3]

Mitchell's article on Wythe is exceptional for its particular clarity, accuracy, and reliance on printed sources. W. Edwin Hemphill, the Wythe scholar, cites Mitchell in both his master's thesis and Ph.D. dissertation, and acknowledged Mitchell (among others) for "the benefits of discussion and encouragement" in his dissertation.[4]

Article text, vol. 16, 1904


Wythe, wĭth, George, American patriot: b. 1726 in the county of Elizabeth City, Va., a short distance from Yorktown; d. Richmond, Va., 1806. One of his ancestors was George Keith (1639-1716), a Scotch Quaker, distinguished as a mathematician and Oriental scholar, who emigrated to America about 1684. On account of his radical religious views and his opposition to slavery, he was often imprisoned. On 15 Oct. 1693, Keith issued an "Exhortation and Caution against buying or keeping Negroes," seemingly the earliest Quaker protest against slavery. These views were inherited by George Wythe. From his mother, Wythe received a life-long bent toward classical scholarship. Even at the age of 80, he began to learn a new language. He was trained in the law by an uncle. Wythe's connection with the House of Burgesses, in Virginia, began on 27 Feb. 1752, on the eve of the French and Indian war. Hence he knew in a practical way the steps leading up to the Revolution, whose course he was destined to influence. He was a member of the Continental Congress, and one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence. He sat in the Philadelphia Convention of 1787 and exerted himself to secure the ratification of the Constitution by Virginia the following year. For ten years he was a member of Virginia's supreme court of appeals, and for above 20 years sole chancellor of the State. However important and varied were such positions that he filled, George Wythe is not to be judged chiefly as statesman or jurist. He was greatest as teacher, and his most lasting work was the subtle influence of his singularly pure and lofty character. Either in his law office or as professor in William and Mary College, he was the teacher of Thomas Jefferson, John Marshall, James Monroe, Henry Clay, and scores of other men only less prominent than these. With Jefferson, in particular, Wythe maintained a friendship and interchange of thought which had a bearing upon national concerns. So highly did Jefferson prize the work of Wythe as a teacher, that he exerted himself to establish, in 1779, in the College of William and Mary a chair of law, expressly for the occupancy of his "master


and friend," as he delighted to call Wythe. Wythe was the first professor of law in the United States. William and Mary College was the second in the English-speaking world to have a chair of Municipal Law; George Wythe coming to such a professorship a few years after Sir William Blackstone. Jefferson, in writing from Paris in 1785 to Dr. Richard Price, an English opponent of slavery, gives striking evidence of his estimate of the services which Wythe was rendering to his country: "The College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, since the remodelling of its plan, is the place where are collected together all the young men (of Virginia) under preparation for public life. They are under the direction (most of them) of a Mr. Wythe, one of the most virtuous of characters, and whose sentiments on the subject of slavery are unequivocal." Henry Clay, in a letter of 3 May 1851, to B. B. Minor, says in reference to Wythe: "To no man was I more indebted by his instructions, his advice, and his example, for the little intellectual improvement which I made, up to the period when, in my twenty-first year, I finally left the city of Richmond." "The most remarkable instance," says Munford, "of his genuine patriotism, to which I confess I am rendered most partial perhaps by my own experience of its effects, was his zeal for the education of youth. Harassed as he was with business; enveloped with perplexing papers, and intricate facts in chancery, he yet found time for many years to keep a private school for the instruction of a few young men at a time, always with very little, and often demanding no compensation." That Wythe conceived the training of publicists to be his true task appears from this sentence in a letter on 5 Dec. 1785, to John Adams: "A letter will meet me in Williamsburg, where I have again settled, assisting, as professor of law and police in the University there, to form such characters as may be fit to succeed those which have been ornamental and useful in the national councils of America." In three signal instances Wythe was a forerunner. As early as 1764, he wrote Virginia's first remonstrance to the House of Commons against the Stamp Act, taking so advanced a position in regard to that ominous Act as to alarm his fellow-burgesses. He was perhaps the first judge to lay down, in 1782, the cardinal principle that a court can annul a statute deemed repugnant to the Constitution, thus anticipating by a score of years the classic decision of his great pupil, John Marshall, in the case of Marbury v. Madison. He was an ardent advocate for the emancipation of the slaves, not only infusing his students with his abolition sentiment, but actually freeing his own slaves and making provision for them in his will. His death occurred in Richmond, Va., in 1806, from poison administered by his great-nephew, who hoped to come thus into the inheritance of his estate. "No man," says Jefferson, "ever left behind him a character more venerated than George Wythe. His virtue was of the purest kind; his integrity inflexible, and his justice exact; of warm patriotism, and devoted as he was to liberty and the natural and equal rights of men, he might truly be called the Cato of his country, without the avarice of the Roman; for a more disinterested person never lived. Temperance and regularity in all his habits gave him general good health, and his unaffected modesty and suavity of manners endeared him to every one. He was of easy elocution, his language chaste, methodical in the arrangement of his matter, learned and logical in the use of it, and of great urbanity in debate. Not quick of apprehension, but with a little time profound in penetration, and sound in conclusion. His stature was of middle size, well formed and proportioned, and the features of his face manly, comely, and engaging. Such was George Wythe, the honor of his own and the model of future times."

Professor of History, Richmond College.

See also


  1. Samuel C. Mitchell, "Wythe" vol. 16 of Encyclopedia Americana, ed. Frederick Converse Beach (New York: The Americana Company, 1904).
  2. "Dr. Samuel Chiles Mitchell," University History: People, University of Richmond, accessed March 14, 2016.
  3. James B. Lloyd, ed., Lives of Mississippi Authors, 1817-1967 (Jackson, MI: University Press of Mississippi, 1981), 335.
  4. William Edwin Hemphill, Preface, in "George Wythe the Colonial Briton: A Biographical Study of the Pre-Revolutionary Era in Virginia," PhD diss., University of Virginia, 1937.

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