S. Bassett French Biographical Sketch

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Handwritten notes for a biographical sketch of George Wythe compiled by Samuel Bassett French in the 1890s. Original at the Library of Virginia.

Samuel Bassett French (1820 – 1898) was a lawyer, judge, Confederate officer, editor, and public servant. Born in Norfolk, Virginia, French later lived in Manchester, Chesterfield County, and in Richmond. Between 1890 and 1897, French compiled information on over 14,000 men in preparation for a planned biographical dictionary to be called Annals of Prominent Virginians of the XIX Century. French's handwritten notes now reside at the Library of Virginia, and includes this brief sketch of George Wythe, Chancellor.

Much of French's information was obtained first-hand or from his immediate family[1], but he most likely used the book Virginia Genealogies (1891) as his source for Wythe.[2] French mistakenly repeats that Wythe did not practice law until 1756, and that he was "very dissipated" until the age of thirty: a myth perpetuated by many 19th-century biographies of Wythe.[3]

Document text, c. 1890s

Wythe George, Chancellor, was born in Elizabeth City County, 1726; Educated by his mother, studied law with his uncle in law Mr Dewey of Pr. Geo. Co.; was very dissipated up to thirty years of age; admitted to bar of Williamsburg, 1756; Member H. of B. 1758; member Committee which presented the resolutions of remonstrance to the House of Commons, 1764; Justice Elizabeth City County, 1770; joined volunteer forces against Gov. Dunmore, 1774; Member Continetnal Congress, 1776; Signer Declaration of Independence, July 4th 1776; Member Committee to revise Va State laws, 1776; Speaker H. of B. 1777; Judge High Court of Chancery, Jan. 14th 1778; Sole Chancellor, Dec. 24th 1788; Prof. of law, W&M College, 1781; resigned, 1789; removed to Richmond, 1789; Member Convention to frame U.S. Constitution, 1888 [sic]; Published his "Reports of 8 Cases" 1795-9.[4] died June 8th 1806; was supposed to have been poisoned by his grand-nephew, George Wythe Sweeney, was was tried, and acquited [sic]. Received the degree of LLD from W&M [College], 1790.

See also


  1. Library of Virginia, "About the S. Bassett French Biographical Sketches," accessed October 5, 2017.
  2. French's outline for Wythe is much the same as in the biography for Zachary Lewis (1702-1765), in Horace Edwin Hayden, Virginia Genealogies: A Genealogy of the Glassell Family of Scotland and Virginia, also the Families of Ball, Brown, Bryan, Conway, Daniel, Ewell, Holladay, Lewis, Littlepage, Moncure, Peyton, Robinson, Scott, Taylor, Wallace, and Others, of Virginia and Maryland (Wilkes-Barre, PA: E.B. Yordy, 1891), 381-382.
  3. For details of Wythe's early legal career during this time, see Allan D. Jones, "The Character and Service of George Wythe," Virginia State Bar Association Reports 44 (1932), 326-328; and 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. Wythe's Reports, Decisions of Cases in Virginia, by the High Court of Chancery, were published in 1795, so this note seems to refer to a series of later, supplemental reports printed in pamphlet form: Between Aylett and Aylett (1796?), Between Field and Harrison (1796), Between Yates and Salle (1796?), Case upon the Statute for Distribution (1796), Between Fowler and Saunders and Between Goodall and Bullock (1798?, together in the same pamphlet), and Between Wilkins and Taylor (1799). See Hayden, op. cit., 381. Two other pamphlets appeared after 1799: Love against Donelson (1801?) and The Case of Overtons Mill (1805?).

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