"The Teaching of George Wythe"

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Thomas Hunter, "The Teaching of George Wythe," in The History of Legal Education in the United States: Commentaries and Primary Sources, ed. Steve Sheppard (Pasadena, CA: Salem Press, 1999), 1:138-168.[1]

Chapter 8 text

Page 138

The Teaching of George Wythe

Thomas Hunter

Thomas Hunter is a sometime law professor and a doctoral candidate in history at The Johns Hopkins University.

Author's note: When George Wythe died in 1806, his most famous student, Thomas Jefferson, stated, "He was my antient master, my earliest & best friend; and to him I am indebted for first impressions which have had the most salutary influence on the course of my life."[2] Likewise, nearly half a century later another famous Wythe pupil, Henry Clay, noted that, "to no man was I more indebted, by his instructions, his advice, and his example, for the intellectual improvement which I made, up to ... my twenty-first year."[3]

For many years George Wythe was a major political figure, representing Virginia in the Continental Congress and the Constitutional Convention, serving as Speaker of the Virginia House of Delegates, and signing the Declaration of Independence. His judicial career was equally impressive, for he was on Virginia's High Court of Chancery for nearly three decades, including fourteen years as the Commonwealth's sole Chancellor. Such accomplishments, however, while impressive, do little to differentiate Wythe from several of his contemporaries, and his true claim to fame lies not in the law or politics, but as a teacher.

For four decades, Wythe instructed the most promising youth of Virginia in both the law and classics, and in 1779 he became America's first university law professor, and only the second in the English-speaking world, when he was appointed Professor of Law and Police at the College of William and Mary. From Jefferson's entrance into the Continental Congress in 1774 until Clay's resignation from the Senate in late 1851, Wythe's students played crucial roles in the nation's legislative chambers. They were equally important in shaping this nation's jurisprudence, for he taught such noted federal and state jurists as John Marshall, Bushrod Washington, and Spencer Roane. Wythe instructed so well that most of his students assumed leading positions very soon after leaving his counsels, many while still in their twenties.

Despite his role in developing several generations of national leaders, not to mention the high political and judicial stations in which he served, George Wythe has not received the scholarly attention bestowed upon many of his contemporaries or students. It was not until 1970 that the first book-length portrait of

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"George Wythe (1726-1806) influenced legal education throughout the South, as his students carried his ethics and methods from school to school." Image courtesy of the New York Public Library.

Wythe was published, and in the ensuing decades none of the works which have appeared could in any way be termed close to definitive.[4]

Thus, after briefly describing his legal and political career, this essay will examine Wythe's role as Revolutionary Virginia's foremost teacher of both the law and the political process, focusing especially on his seminal ten-year professorship at the College of William and Mary.

* * * * *

George Wythe was born in 1726 or 1727 at his family's home, Chesterville, in Elizabeth City County, Virginia.[5] His parents were Margaret Walker and Thomas Wythe (III), whose grandfather, the first Thomas, emigrated to Virginia in 1680. The first three Thomas Wythes all died quite young, although two lived long enough to serve in the Virginia House of Burgesses.

As for George Wythe's mother, she was the granddaughter of noted teacher, preacher, and controversialist George Keith. The Scottish Keith was "a promising mathematician and student of Oriental languages" before becoming a Quaker and joining the ministry.[6] Coming to America in 1685, Keith was headmaster of a Quaker school until he fell out with the sect because of doctrinal differences. After returning to England, he eventually joined the established church, and in 1702 Keith became the first Anglican missionary sent to America under the auspices of the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts. It appears that George Wythe inherited both his Christian name and much of his intelligence from his great-grandfather Keith, although he did not have the minister-teacher's "unbearable temper and carriage."[7]

George Wythe was the second of three children, and when his father Thomas (III) died young, an older brother, Thomas (IV), through primogeniture, inherited the family's Chesterville plantation; their other sibling was a sister, Anne, who married Charles Sweeney, and, as is noted below, a grandson of this union, George Wythe Sweeney, perpetrated one of the foulest deeds in Virginia history.

Because he was not in line to inherit the family plantation, it was determined to situate George in one of the professions, with the law being the eventual choice. His earliest schooling, however, was at the hands of his mother, who, because she was raised a Quaker, was unusually educated for a woman of the day. Besides the traditional basics, Margaret Walker Wythe's tutelage of her son included Latin and Greek. At some point Wythe also briefly attended William and Mary, although it is thought that it was only the college's grammar school.[8]

Wythe's professional instruction began in the mid-1740s, when he began an apprenticeship in the Prince George County law office of his uncle Stephen Dewey. As a leading attorney, Dewey's instructions could have proved quite valuable, yet Wythe later told a friend that his uncle "treated him with neglect, and confined him to the drudgeries of his office, with little, or no, attention to his instruction in the general science of law."8[9] One commentator has opined that posterity should maybe thank Dewey for his inattentions, for he may "have sharpened Wythe's appetite for learning in the deeper and richer historical basis of legal institutions, and above all, he seems to have given Wythe a thorough grounding in how not to teach!"[10]

After completing his legal apprenticeship, Wythe received his law license in 1746 and initially settled in Spotsylvania County. There he began a wide-ranging practice which included the counties of Caroline, Orange, and Augusta, and he also became married to attorney Zachary Lewis' daughter Anne. The young Mrs. Wythe died less than a year later, however, and several months after, in October 1748, Wythe returned to the Tidewater region, accepting an offer to become clerk of the two most important committees of the House of Burgesses.

These legislative responsibilities did not preclude the practice of law, so once in Williamsburg Wythe resumed his profession and was soon representing members of such influential Virginia families as the Blairs and Custises. In 1750, the young attorney was elected a Williamsburg Alderman, yet a much higher honor came four years later when he was appointed the colony's Attorney General. Wythe, the youngest attorney general in Virginia history,[11] was chosen to succeed Peyton Randolph, who was visiting England, and he resigned the position once Randolph returned to the colony. While serving as attorney general, another honor came to Wythe when he was elected to the House of Burgesses from Williamsburg.

In 1755, Thomas Wythe (IV) died without an heir and his brother George inherited the Chesterville

See also


  1. Thomas Hunter, "The Teaching of George Wythe," in The History of Legal Education in the United States: Commentaries and Primary Sources, ed. Steve Sheppard (Pasadena, CA: Salem Press, 1999), 1:138-168.
  2. Thomas Jefferson to William DuVal, June 14,1806, quoted in Dice Robins Anderson, "The Teacher of Jefferson and Marshall," 15 South Atlantic Qtly. 327, 343 (1911). While mispronounced by some, in Virginia the name "Wythe" rhymes with "Smith"; according to one commentator, it is "[p]ronounced 'With' by the cognoscenti for the same reason that they pronounce Coke as 'Cooke'; the linguistic explanation in these cases is perhaps more persuasive than any that might be found for the Virginia practice of pronouncing Talliaferro as 'Tolliver.'" William F. Swindler, "America's First Law Schools: Significance or Chauvinism?," 41 Conn. B.J. 1, 2 n.4 (1967).
  3. Henry Clay to Benjamin B. Minor, May 3, 1851, in The Papers of Henry Clay, ed. Robert Seager II et al. (11 vols., 1959-1992), X, 888-89.
  4. The four book-length biographies of Wythe are William Clarkin, Serene Paldot: A Life of George Wythe (1970); Joyce Blackburn, George Wythe of Williamsburg (1975); Alonzo Thomas Dill, George Wythe, Teacher of Liberty (1979); Imogene E. Brown, American Aristides: A Biography of George Wythe (1981). Of these, Dill's is by far the best, although it is quite short. Clarkin and Brown include much interesting material, but their works also contain a number of errors and, worst of all, they fail to give citations to much of their information. The best source on Wythe's life up to 1776 remains W. Edwin Hemphill, "George Wythe, the Colonial Briton: A Biographical Study of the Pre-Revolutionary Era in Virginia" (unpublished doctoral dissertation, University of Virginia, 1937). A published dissertation, Robert B. Kirtland, George Wythe: Lawyer; Revolutionary, Judge (1986), contains some useful information. Articles or published speeches on Wythe include Lyon Gardiner Tyler, "George Wythe," in Great American Lawyers, ed. William Draper Lewis (1907), I, 51-90; Oscar L. Shewmake, The Honorable George Wythe: Teacher; Lawyer; Jurist, Statesman (1950); "George Wythe," Dictionary of American Biography, eds. Allen Johnson, Dumas Malone, et al. (1929-1936), XX, 586-89 (hereinafter referred to as DAB); E. Lee Shepard, "George Wythe," in W. Hamilton Bryson, Legal Education in Virginia, 1779-1979: A Biographical Approach, 748-55; Hugh Blair Grigsby, The Virginia Convention of 1776 (1855), 119-30; John Sherman, "George Wythe, the Neglected Patriot: A Bibliography," 34 Bull. Biblio. & Mag. Notes 185 (1977). An excellent source on Wythe's death is The Murder of George Wythe: Two Essays (1955). On Wythe's teaching, see also Anderson, Teacher of Jefferson and Marshall," supra note 1; W. Edwin Hemphill, "George Wythe, America's First Law Professor and Teacher of Jefferson, Marshall, and Clay" (unpublished master's thesis, Emory University, 1933); Paul D. Carrington, "The Revolutionary Idea of University Legal Education," 31 Wm. & Mary L. Rev. 527 (1990); Swindler, "America's First Law Schools," supra note 1; Robert M. Hughes, 'William and Mary, the First American Law School," 2 Will. & Mary Qtly., 2d ser., 40 (1922); Fred D. Devitt, Jr., "Note: William and Mary, America's First Law School," 2 Will. & Mary L. Rev. 424 (1960). Oscar Shewmake states that a biography of George Wythe "is not an assignment for a potboiler, ghost-writer or rapid-fire biographer of eminent men ... nor can it be done by some immature doctor of philosophy, suddenly 'come from the nowhere into the here,' who knows only what he had read." Instead, Shewmake writes that the biographer has to be "a Virginian whose ancestors had some part, however small, in the stirring events of the times in which [Wythe] lived." In addition, "he will be one who has himself labored in the several fields in which Wythe wrought so well. He will have been a teacher ... of the type exemplified by Wythe. He will of necessity be a lawyer and, preferably, a member of the judiciary ... [and] will have had experience in legislative work. ... Finally, he will be a man of scholarly attainments witl1 an understanding heart, in short, a gentleman." Shewmake, Honorable George Wythe, at 23-24. It is almost impossible that anyone today could meet all of these qualifications; the late U.S. senator and dean of the William and Mary Law School William B. Spong seems to have satisfied all of the requirements except that he never served on the judiciary. Of course Shewmake's comments are in some respects silly, for in noting the two foremost Virginia biographers of this century, Dumas Malone was neither a lawyer nor a politician (unlike Jefferson), and Douglas Southall Freeman was not a soldier (unlike Robert E. Lee and George Washington).
  5. Unless otherwise noted, all information in this subsection, which briefly recounts Wythe's life from 1726 until 1779, comes from Dill, Wythe, Teacher of Liberty, supra note 3, at 3-41.
  6. Id. at 4.
  7. Tyler, "George Wythe," supra note 3, at 52; Dill, Wythe, Teacher of Liberty, supra note 3, at 5.
  8. One source, Shewmake, Honorable George Wythe, supra note 3, at 8, states that Wythe entered William and Mary in 1740 at age fourteen, yet he does not cite to any evidence proving this assertion.
  9. Daniel Call, quoted in Dill, Wythe, Teacher of Liberty, supra note 3, at 9.
  10. Id. at 9 (emphasis in original).
  11. Shewmake, Honorable George Wythe, supra note 3, at 10; Clarkin, Serene Patriot, supra note 3, in the Forward.

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