Wilkins v. Taylor

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Wilkins v. Taylor, Wythe 338 (1799),[1] rev'd, 9 Va. (5 Call) 150 (1804),[2] involved the interpretation of a will. Wythe used his discussion of this case to contrast his methods of interpreting wills with the Virginia Supreme Court's, and to issue another call for the Virginia Supreme Court to break with English case law precedent.


Thomas Williamson died, and in his will left his daughter Elizabeth Clements I the interest off of £4000 worth of government certificates for Elizabeth I's life. On Elizabeth I's death, the will gave "the interest of the above money, one fourth to each of my grandchildren" Sarah Cocke, Elizabeth Clements II, Francis Clements, and John Clements. When the grandchildren died, their share of the principal and interest from the government funds were to "be disposed by them to their heirs, in such proportions as they, by their wills, respectively, may direct." If Sarah Cocke died "without issue,"[3] then her share of the inheritance would go to Elizabeth II.

When Elizabeth I died, Sarah filed a suit in equity in County Court against John Taylor, the executor of Thomas's will, asking for one-fourth of the certificates, which the County Court awarded her. Taylor appealed the County Court's decision to the High Court of Chancery, which reversed it.

After the Chancery Court reversed the County Court's decision, Sarah married Joseph Wilkins.[4] The Wilkinses filed a bill[5] with the Chancery Court asking it to review its earlier decision. Before the Chancery Court could issue its verdict this time, Sarah died and Joseph Wilkins continued to pursue the bill as administrator of Sarah's estate.

Wilkins v. Taylor was reported as a supplemental pamphlet in 1799 or later,[6] most likely printed by Thomas Nicolson of Richmond, Virginia, who had published Wythe's Reports in 1795.[7]

The Chancery Court's Decision

The Chancery Court upheld its earlier decree, and said that Sarah was not entitled to one-fourth of the certificates.

Wythe said that Thomas Williamson's will clearly intended that his grandchildren not get ownership over the certificates themselves, just the interest earned off of them. Thomas meant for property interest in the certificates to go to the grandchildren's heirs. Wythe said the rule of Shermer v. Richardson[8] did not apply in this situation. In Shermer, Wythe said that a widow got full rights in property when the will gave her the right to use it during her lifetime plus the power to designate anyone she wanted to inherit it after her death. In the Wilkinses case, however, Thomas's will said that the certificates would go to the grandchildren's heirs, meaning the grandchildren's children. In Shermer, the will specifically stated that the widow could pick anyone she wished to designate as an heir. In addition, Thomas's will said that if Sarah died without children, her share in the interest would go to Elizabeth II. Allowing Sarah — or any of Thomas's grandchildren — to have full rights in the certificates to use or give in any way they pleased would run counter to Thomas's desire as expressed in his will.

First page of the opinion Wilkins v. Taylor, in Reports of Cases Argued and Decided in the Court of Appeals of Virginia (Richmond: Robert I. Smith, 1833).

In the Virginia Supreme Court

Wilkins appealed Wythe's decision to the Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals, which unanimously reversed Wythe and reinstated the County Court's decision.[9]

The Supreme Court said that it already decided the issue in its decision of Goodwin v. Taylor[10], in which the estate administrator of another of Thomas Williamson's heirs, Elizabeth II, sued to get a one-fourth share of the certificates.[11] In Goodwin, the Court said that when Thomas's will gave the grandchildren the right to award the certificates to heirs, it gave the grandchildren full property rights in those certificates.

According to the Court, the only difference in Wilkins's case was that the will also said that if Sarah died "without issue", then Sarah's share would go to Elizabeth II. The majority of the Court said that becuase the will did not set a time limit, the possibility of dying without any descendants at all was so remote that the restriction in the will was void.

Wythe's Discussion

Wythe began his discussion by dissecting the language in Thomas's will. Wythe paid particular attention to the word "disposed", using examples from Caesar's Commentaries on the Civil War, Livy's Books from the Foundation of the City, and Juvenal's Satyrae, and cited the works of Tacitus and Suetonius to establish that to "dispose" of something only meant to distribute it under someone else's direction. Therefore, the will's language directing the grandchildren to "dispose" of the certificates did not give them property rights in the certificates, only the responsibility to distribute them to their heirs.

Wythe continued by saying that defining "heirs" as the children of Thomas's grandchildren did not create an unreasonably indefinite condition. At the longest, one would know no later than nine months after each grandchild died whether that grandchild had produced an heir.

After Wythe's own interpretation of the language in Thomas's will, he proceeded to examine the common law on will interpretation. One of Wythe's biographers, Robert Kirtland, says that one of Wythe's biggest complaints about the Supreme Court was its use of highly technical rules of construction to interpret wills often written by poorly-educated rural Virginians.[12] Kirtland nicely summarizes how Wythe used the Wilkins case as an opportunity to contrast his method of interpreting wills with the Supreme Court's — using some of Edmund Pendleton's previous opinions as examples.[13] Wythe published this opinion and his discussion before the Supreme Court heard Wilkins's appeal. Pendleton died in 1803, so Wythe's long-time bête noire was not on the Supreme Court when this case arrived there. Peter Lyons was the new President of the Supreme Court, and Wythe's former student (and successor as William & Mary's Professor of Law and Police) St. George Tucker had joined its bench.

Wythe also called upon classic works from various ages to bolster and illustrate his argument. Wythe quoted Suetonius's histories of the grammaticians when he said that judges have no more power to unilaterally change an everyday word's meaning than Caesar did to give a word citizenship.[14]

Even though Pendleton said in Shermer v. Shermer's Executor that case law precedent must be strong, uniform, and on point before he would allow it to frustrate a testator's intent,[15] he lamented that he was caught in a Gordian knot tied by years of English judges creating conflicting interpretive canons inspired by the feudal system. If only those judges had simply cut that knot![16] Wythe used this quote from Pendleton as a segue to Quintus Curtius Rufus's description of the Gordian knot in his biography of Alexander the Great.[17] If Pendleton thinks that English judges should have cut this knot of confusing canons, then why has Pendleton not simply done the job itself? The only people who benefit from these hoary interpretive rules are, to use the biblical phrase, those who "by this craft. . .have their wealth".[18]

Wythe also alluded to Virgil's Aeneid in his discussion. When the Virginia Assembly eliminated the feudal system, Wythe said, it acted as Daedalus to the judges' Theseus,[19] showing the way out of the gloom of outdated interpretive rules.

Wythe implied that he had more thoughts on how his interpretation of Thomas's will was the only plausible one and should not be subject to old English rules of interpretation, but he gave himself the same advice Polonius gave to Laertes in Hamlet: "give thy thoughts no tongue."[20]

In an appendix to his main analysis, Wythe compared the case of Rose v. Bartlett[21] from Croke's Reports (which the Supreme Court relied on in Minnis v. Aylett) with a very old unpublished English case called Stradling v. Styles that had reached a contradictory result. By this, Wythe intended to show that the Supreme Court was picking and choosing the precedent it liked and redefining it as bedrock, long-established principle. Wythe cautioned that if the Supreme Court continued to do this, lawyers would take its lead and argue that the only precedent that needed to be followed would be the cases that agreed with their side.

Works Cited or Referenced by Wythe

Virgil's Aeneid

Quotation in Wythe's opinion:

For expediting us from its maeanders, our Daedalus, who – ipse dolos tecti ambagesque resolvit, / Caeca regeus filo vestigia, — the general assembly shewed the clew, execrating, in our system of jurisprudence, every part formed of feudal materials, or fashioned in feudal style. Translation: [Daedalus] unraveled the deceptive tangle of corridors, / guiding Theseus’s blind footsteps with the clue of thread. Wythe explains that the General Assembly has revealed the underlying feudal origins of contemporary jurisprudence.[22]

Caesar's Civil War

Quotation in Wythe's opinion:

Pompeius ex urbus profectus iter ad legions habebat quas a Caesare acceptas in Apulia hiberuorum causa, DISPOSEUREAT. Translation: Pompey went from the city to the legions, which received from Caesar, he had DISPOSED, that is DISTRIBUTED, in winter quarters in Apulia (Wythe’s translation). In this case, Wythe is illustrating the varied meanings of the word "disposed", as this particular word is of contention in the instant case.[23]

Quintus Curtius Rufus's Histories of Alexander the Great

Quotation in Wythe's opinion:

...serie vinculorum ita adstricta, ut unde nexus inciperet quove se conderet, nec ratione, nec visu, perspici posset. Translation: [t]hus, constrained by a series of fetters, so that where the bind began or in what way it composed itself, was able to be perceived neither by reason nor vision. Wythe uses this image to illustrate the complexities of the English Common Law concerning the execution of wills.[24]

Livy's The History of Rome

Quotation in Wythe's opinion:

Scipio retentum secum Laelium, dum captivos obsidesque et praedam ex consilio eius DISPONERET, satis & c. Romam mittit. Translation: Scipio, having retained with him Laelius, until, by his advice, he should DISPOSE, that is DISTRIBUTE, the prisoners, hostages, and plunder, after dispatching these affairs, sends him to Rome (Wythe's translation). In this case the exact meaning of "dispose" was central to the dispute, so Wythe turned to classical authority to clarify.[25]

Suetonius's Tiberius

Quotation in Wythe's opinion:

DISPONERE diem is used by Tacitus, Suetonius, and others, to signify division of the day into portions for particular occupations devoted to each. Translation: To dispose the day. In this case, Wythe is illustrating the varied meanings of the word "disposed", as this particular word is of contention in the instant case.[26]

Suetonius's Lives of the Grammarians

Quotation in Wythe's opinion:

Marcus Pomponius Marcellus, cum ex oratione Tiberium reprehendisset, affirmante Ateio Capitone, et esse latinum, et, si non esse, futurum, "certe iam inde mentitur, inquit, Capito. tu enim Caesar, civitatem dare potes hominibus, verbis non potes." Translation: Marcus Pomponius Marcellus, had criticized [a word] in one of Tiberius’ speeches, and Aetius Capito asserted that it was [good] Latin, or if it was not, it would soon be, [Marcellus replied] "Capito lies. For you, Caesar, can confer citizenship on men, but not on words."[27]

Tacitus's Germania

Quotation in Wythe's opinion:

DISPONERE diem is used by Tacitus, Suetonius, and others, to signify division of the day into portions for particular occupations devoted to each. Translation: To dispose the day. In this case, Wythe is illustrating the varied meanings of the word "disposed", as this particular word is of contention in the instant case.[28]

Euclid's Elements

Quotation in Wythe's opinion:

we hear of a single instance, in this country, where any person had questioned, whether "only the freehold lands should pass by such a devise;" in other words, whether the postulate of Euclid, in his elements, "that the whole is greater than its part," ought to be granted. Translation: Here Wythe uses Euclid’s famous maxim to illustrate his proposition.[29]

See also


  1. George Wythe, Decisions of Cases in Virginia by the High Court of Chancery with Remarks upon Decrees by the Court of Appeals, Reversing Some of Those Decisions, 2nd ed., ed. B.B. Minor (Richmond: J.W. Randolph, 1852), 338.
  2. Daniel Call, Reports of Cases Argued and Decided in the Court of Appeals of Virginia (Richmond: Robert I. Smith, 1833) 5:150. George Wythe owned the first edition of this set.
  3. In property law, "issue" refers to a person's descendants. Bryan A. Garner, ed., "Issue (3)", Black's Law Dictionary (St. Paul, MN: Thomson Reuters, 10th ed. 2014).
  4. Sarah's first husband, H. Cocke, had died some time before the Chancery Court issued its first decision.
  5. During Wythe's time, a woman's legal identity merged with her husband's upon marriage. William Blackstone and St. George Tucker, Blackstone's with Notes of Reference to the Constitution and Laws of the Federal Government of the United States and of Virginia, (Philadelphia: Wm. Young Birch and Abraham Small, 1803): Vol. 2, p. 441.
  6. George Wythe, Between, Joseph Wilkins, Administrator of His Late Defunct Wife Sarah, One of the Grandaughters and Legataries of Thomas Williamson, and Widow, When She Was Married Last of Hartwell Cocke, Plaintiff, and, John Taylor, and William Urquhart, Executors of the Said Thomas Williamson, Defendents [sic], (Richmond, VA: Thomas Nicolson, 1799?).
  7. Charles Evans, American Bibliography, vol. 11 (1942), 122. Evan estimates the date of publication as 1796.
  8. Wythe 159.
  9. Wilkins v. Taylor, 9 Va. (5 Call) 150 (1804).
  10. 8 Va. (4 Call) 305 (1795).
  11. This case also found its way to the Chancery Court. As with Wilkins, Wythe rejected the heir's request (in an unpublished opinion) and was reversed by the Supreme Court. Wythe likely had had his fill of this family by now.
  12. Robert B. Kirtland, George Wythe: Lawyer, Revolutionary, Judge (New York: Garland Publishing, Inc., 1986): 258.
  13. Kirtland (1986): 258-62.
  14. "cum ex oratione Tiberi verbum reprehendisset, affirmante Ateio Capitone, et esse illud Latinum, et si non esset, futurum certe iam inde: 'Mentitur,' inquit, 'Capito; tu enim, Caesar, civitatem dare potes hominibus, verbo non potes.'" Suetonis, De Grammaticis 22. Here, Suetonis describes a time when grammarian Marcus Pomponius Marcellus criticized a word Emperor Tiberius used in a speech. Gaius Ateius Capito argued that if the word was not proper Latin, it certainly was now that the emperor had used it. Marcellus replied that the emperor might be able to naturalize people, but not words. Wythe left out the first part of the paragraph, in which Suetonis describes Marcellus as "sermonis Latini exactor molestissimus", which could be translated as "a tiresome (or annoying) enforcer of Latin diction". One translator of Suetonis's works, J.C. Rolfe, used the phrase "a most pedantic critic of the Latin language". Suetonius, ed. by J.C. Rolfe, Lives of the Caesars, Volume II (Cambridge, MA: Harvard Univ. Press, 1914): 428-9.
  15. Shermer, 1 Va. at 273.
  16. Kennon v. McRoberts, 1 Va. (1 Wash.) 96, 102 (1792).
  17. Q. Curti Rufi, Historiam Alexandri Magni Macedonis, Lib. III, Cap. I.
  18. Acts 19:25.
  19. Virgil, Aeneis: Lib. VI, lines 29-30. According to legend, Daedalus created the Labyrinth for King Minos of Crete to house the Minotaur. The reason varies depending on the story, but Athens sent several youths to Crete at regular intervals to be sacrificed to the Minotaur. Theseus went to Crete to kill the Minotaur and stop the sacrifices. When Theseus arrived in Crete, Minos's daughter Ariadne instantly fell in love with him. Daedalus felt sorry for Ariadne and gave her a thread to give to Theseus, along with instructions on how to escape the Labyrinth.
  20. William Shakespeare, Hamlet: Act I, Scene 3.
  21. 79 Eng. Rep. 856, Cro. Car. 292 (7 Car. I).
  22. Wythe 350. Translation: A.S. Kline.
  23. Wythe 340.
  24. Wythe 349.
  25. Wythe 340.
  26. Id.
  27. Wythe 347-48.
  28. Wythe 340.
  29. Wythe 353.