Memoir of the Author

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In editing his edition of [George Wythe|Wythe's] cases and decisions (the second edition, 1852), Benjamin Blake Minor included a memoir of the author, writing in the Preface that it 'seemed highly appropriate to accompany the reports'[1]

Chapter text

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Conspicuous personages, who, like Wythe, make the History of their Times, may properly stand forth from the canvass of History, in all their individuality,—their portraiture being only the bolder for being the less minute. Yet Biography differs from History essentially in this ;—that in the former details may be given, and personal traits and features displayed, that would be lost in the generalizations of the latter. The little, however, that has been recorded of the long and useful life of Mr. Wythe, partakes more of eulogy than biography. The following is believed to contain the most that is now known of his history. George Wythe was born in the County of Elizabeth City, Virginia, in 1726. His mother was one of five daughters of Mr. Keith, a Quaker gentleman of good fortune and education, and author of a work on mathematical and other subjects, who migrated from Great Britain to the town of Hampton, in 1690 : his father owned a good estate on Back River, and died intestate , survived by his wife and three chddren. The elder brother beiug the heir at law, it is said that his mother's moderate circumstances induced her to undertake George's education herself; an office which, though her natural and acquired qualifications well fitted her for it, was, as is usual in such cases, but imperfectly discharged. She, however, besides English, taught him the rudiments of Latin ; and also aided him in those of Greek ; for though she did not understand it herself, yet having learned the alphabet, she, by a close collation of the English version with the Greek Testament, assisted him in the translation. As she must have had sufficient means from her dower, and the aid of her elder son, to send George to school, it is probable that her parental anxiety, or the want of a conve-

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nient school, was the true cause that kept him at home ; and though his literary advantages were thus limited, she no doubt implanted in his character the seeds of that strength and uprightness which are said to have marked her own. With this limited scholastic education, he was sent to study law with his uncle-in-Iaw, Mr. Dewey, a lawyer of distinction in the County of Prince George. Here not much pains was bestowed upon him ; his time was chiefly devoted to what is termed the drudgery of a lawyer's office. He apparently made very little progress in his legal studies. Yet it might be very fallacious to infer that that drudgery had no connection with or influence upon his future success. The profession of law requires labors and sacrifices of its votaries ; and some who have been, at the outset, drudges, have by the very patience, perseverance, accuracy and closeness of observation which so called drudgery necessarily engenders and inculcates, become its greatest luminaries. But the labors and toils of the student may be lightened by the attention and judicious encouragement of the preceptor; and no doubt Mr. Wythe profited by his own experience under Mr. Dewey, when in after years he so zealously devoted himself to the guidance and instruction of candidates for the bar. After his return home, in about two years, he gave himself assiduously to self-improvement ; and without assistance made considerable progress not only in Law, but in Latin and Greek Literature, and in the liberal sciences. His mother died before he attained his majority. Her death and that of his brother put him in possession of the means of self-indulgence, and he now gave himself up to a long career of pleasure and dissipation. Ii can not be supposed, however, that his studies were entirely suspended by his unfortunate habits ; for such thirst of knowledge as he had imbibed could not have been slaked by the intoxicating drafts of pleasure, and must still have been indulged in the intervals of dissipation. He must, too, from his position, connexions and circumstances have enjoyed all the advantages of the society for which

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lower Virginia was then, as now, distinguished ; and may even, have caught some aspirations after better things from the men with whom he may have met and mingled in the old metropolis of Williamsburg. These suppositions are confirmed by the history of too many of the gifted young sons of Virginia : misguided indeed like Wythe, and whilst moving in the best society, prostituting both genius and learning to dissipation and extravagance; but unfortunately not endowed with his selfcontrol, nor like him recalled to the paths of usefulness and honor. In Wythe's reckless course of ten years, there does not appear to have been any great depravity of conduct. Having the means to " live like a gentleman" he felt no incentive to exertion. But at the age of thirty, by his own strength of will and better purpose, he broke the chains which evil habits might have bound indissolubly around him, and entirely reformed his whole life. The particular causes of this change are not stated : Whether love, the foreseen exhaustion of his resources, his own penitent reflections, or the influence of interested friends ; or several of them combined. He appears now to have resumed the study of the Law, under a Mr. Lewis, whose daughter he married. Lord Tenderden, we think, has observed that poverty has been the greatest friend of the legal profes-ion. A prospective vision of its approach may have stimulated the exertions of Wythe. Rapid success after his admission to the bar, crowned his learning, industry and eloquence. But he never ceased to deplore the follies and imprudences of which he had been so Jong guilty; to regard the time allotted to them as irretrievably lost, and to warn the many young men who came under his influence to profit by his example. The chancery bench of Virginia furnishes other examples of the strength of moral principle ; not only in the case of Mr. Wirt, whose friends placed him there with the hope of reforming him; but of another who has since adorned it and in whom years of integrity and morality have borne testimony to the principles that were strengthened by the temptations, which he by his own decision of character resisted in youth.

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Moral grandeur is the truest; and would that our great men not only possessed more of i t ; but based it upon the precepts and practice of the Christian faith. Mr. Jefferson speaks of the elevated philosophy of Mr. Wythe ; but, better still. Mr. Munford speaks, as we shall see, of his faith as a christian. Wythe, then, it would appear, came to the bar in Williamsburg after the year 1756;* and the following facts shew the eminence to which he must have arisen in the short space of five years. In 1760, Jefferson entered William & Mary College, as a student; and in less than two years thereafter, through the influence of Dr. Small, was taken under the instruction of Mr. Wythe. Dr. Small was Professor first of Mathematics, and afterwards of Philosophy and Belles Lettres in William & Mary. How Mr. Jefferson regarded his interposition is shewn by himself. He says, "He (Dr. S.) returned to Europe in 1762, having previously filled up the measure of his goodness by procuring for me from his most intimate friend, George Wythe, a reception as a student of law under his direction, and introduced me to the acquaintance and familiar table of Gov. Fauquier, the ablest man who had ever filled that office. With him and at his table, Dr. Small and Mr. Wythe, his amid omnium horarum, and myself formed a partie quarree, and to the habitual conversations on these occasions, I owed much instruction. Mr. Wythe continued to be my faithful and beloved mentor in youth, and my most affectionate friend through life. In 1767, he led me into the practice of the law, at the bar of the General Court, at which 1 continued till the Revolution shut up the courts of justice."† When Mr. Wythe first entered the House of Burgesses is not gtated ; but he soon took there an honorable stand among men who were the master spirits of their times. From the commencement of the revolutionary spirit of the Colonies, he warm-

* The biographies of Wythe lead to the impression that he studied with Mr. Lewis, and came to the bar, after his reformation, and about the age of thirty, (i. e. about 1756 ;) but this is by no means certain.

Memoir, Corres. &c, of Jefferson, Vol. I. p. 2.

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ly espoused their cause. Yet his independent course did not lose him the esteem of the royal Governors, for he was intimate with all but Dunmore; nor of the government party, for he was several times elected to the honorable office of clerk of the house, and also to the speaker's chair, with their support. In 1764, (aged thirty-eight,) he drew up for a committee of the burgesses, of which he was a member, a remonstrance to the English House of Commons ; but it was too bold for the times, though only expressive of the principles which he was ready to avow and maintain. After some softening, it was adopted by the house. Still he was one of those who opposed as unseasonable and inexpedient the famous resolutions of Patrick Henry, concerning the stamp act, in May 1765. Henry's matchless, yea miraculous, eloquence carried them through ; but the next day, he having gone home, the fifth resolution,* that had been most opposed, and had been carried by only one vote, was expunged, in 1768, however, they had come up fully to Henry's ground. iVlr. Wythe was still a piominent member of the House of Burgesses, which now adopted resolutions asserting in determined language their exclusive right to tax the Colonies ; and complaining of the violation of the British Constitution by Parliament and of the oppression of trying in England persons charged with having committed offences here. Governor Botetourt endeavoured in vain to procure a copy of these resolutions from the Clerk, Mr. Wythe, and in hope of preventing the completion of their passage dissolved the assembly ; but they had anticipated him and already spread them upon the records of their body. The next year, (1769,) the people triumphantly sustained their representatives and returned them to the Assembly. Jefferson had then entered the House as a member : and now preceptor and pupil stood side by side in defence of the rights and liberties of the Colonies. Mr. Jefferson pre-

* It was as follows: "That the general assembly of this colony have the sole right and power to lay taxes and impositions upon the inhabitants of this colony; and that every attempt to vest such power in any person, or persons whatsoever, other than the general assembly aforesaid, has a manifest tendency to destroy British as well as American freedom." Wirt's Life of Henry, p. 57.

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pared a draft of instructions to be given to the delegates, who should be sent to the Congress he meant to propose ; but it was thought too bold for the existing state of things. It was, however, printed in pamphlet form under the title of " A summary view of the rightN of British America." In it he took the ground which he regarded as the only tenable and orthodox one, that the relation between these Colonies and Great Britain was exactly the same as that of England and Scotland, after the accession of James and until the Union; and the same as her present relation with Hanover, having the same executive chief, but no other necessary political connection. In this doctrine he says he could not get any one to agree with him but Mr. Wythe,* who concurred in it from the first dawn of the question, what was the political relation between us and England ? Perhaps Mr. Wytlw had instilled this doctrine into him. Enough has been stated to shew with what ardor and ability Mr. Wythe must have continued to devote himself to his profession and his country. But little of his acts is recorded until 1775. He then joined one of the earliest corps of volunteers, and evinced his promptness to sustain in the field the cause he had espoused in council. He wore a hunting shirt, carried a musket, and joined in the military parades which took place in Williamsburg during the latter part of Lord Dunmore's administiation. But his friends at length persuaded him that he could be more useful to the state in a civic sphere.†

For that incompetent and cormpt representative of the Crown, Lord Dunmore, whose character and conduct were well calculated to bring the royal authority into contempt, Mr. Wythe had any thing but respect;—he regarded him as mean and ignorant. One day, in the General Court, over which Governor Dunmore

* Memoir, Corresp. &c. of Mr. Jefferson, Vol. I. p. 6, 7 and 92. As to Mr. Henry, (who might have been expected to concur,) Mr. Jefferson sent him a copy of the MS. and says, "Whether Mr. Henry approved the ground taken, or was too lazy to read it, (for he was the laziest, man in reading I ever knew,) I never learned: but he communicated it (the MS.) to nobody," p. 7 of Memoir, &c.

See a communication in the Richmond Enquirer of June 10th, 1806, in relation to Mr. Wythe.

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  1. B.B. Minor, "Preface," in George Wythe, Decisions of Cases In Virginia, By the High Court Chancery, with Remarks Upon Decrees By the Court of Appeals, Reversing Some of Those Decisions (Richmond, Virginia: J.W. Randolph, 1852), ix.