Wythe's Early Life

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George Wythe was born in late 1726 or early 1727 in Elizabeth City County, Virginia, to Thomas Walker III and Margaret Walker at his family’s plantation Chesterville. [1] Although little is known about Wythe’s ancestors, it is likely that the first Wythes came to the Virginia colony from Norfolk, England, where they were wealthy wool merchants in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. [2] Further evidence of his family’s aristocratic background is revealed in Wythe’s use of “a book plate bearing a heraldic coat-of-arms,” which typically signified nobility. [3]

Thomas Wythe I, settled in Virginia some time before 1680, bringing his family with him from England [4] Thomas I was elected to represent Elizabeth City County for the 1680-1682 session of the House of Burgesses and also served as a justice of the peace for several years.. [5] He died in December 1693, leaving his family a substantial fortune, [6] and was survived by his wife Ann, two daughters, and Thomas II. [7]

Thomas Wythe II, was born in 1670 and arrived with his father in Virginia around age 10. [8] Thomas II served as one of the early trustees of the city of Hampton as well as a justice in 1688 [9] but died young in 1694 at the age of about 24. [10] Thomas II left behind two children, Thomas III and Ann, as well as his wife, Ann Shepard Gutherick, who later married Reverend James Wallace of Elizabeth City Parish [11]

Thomas Wythe III was born around 1691 and inherited his father’s estate, including the land, slaves, and tobacco his family had amassed. [12] He was active in public office, serving on the county court, holding the office of county sheriff, and serving as a burgess in the Assemblies in 1718, 1723, and 1726. [13] Thomas III married Margaret Walker, daughter of George and Ann Keith Walker, in either 1719 or 1720. [14]

Through their marriage, they “blended . . . the landed aristocracy of the Wythes, the business interests of the Walkers, and the liberal intellectual tradition of the Keiths.” [15] Margaret and Thomas produced three children, the middle of whom was George. [16] George was born sometime in 1726, although the exact date is unknown. [17]

Thomas III died in 1729, leaving Margaret to raise George and his siblings, Thomas IV and Anne, by herself. [18] Thomas III’s will left George’s older brother, Thomas IV, nearly everything, excepting several slaves and a share of the residue of his personal estate after his debts had been settled. [19] After raising her children alone, Margaret likely died in 1746. [20]

George Wythe’s students and contemporaries provided inconsistent accounts of the extent to which Margaret educated her son, although it is likely that at least some of his early knowledge came from his well-educated mother. [21] Jefferson asserted that Wythe was mostly self-educated, though he added that his mother had helped him learn Greek. [22] On the other hand, Edmund Randolph and Daniel Call credited Margaret with teaching George some Latin. [23] In contrast, Henry Clay--like Jefferson--believed Margaret’s influence to be in Greek rather than Latin. [24] Latin scholars have noted that Wythe’s skills do not reflect formal classical training. [25]

Wythe may have received rudimentary education at either the Syms Free School or the Eaton Charity School, grammar schools near Chesterville. [26] Wythe’s early home-based education was possibly supplemented by a short stint at the grammar school at William & Mary around age 14 [27] to receive more structured lessons in Greek and Latin. [28] The school’s proximity to the Wythe plantation supports the theory that he may have attended as a boarding student. [29] In addition, the initials “GW” were found inscribed in a William & Mary building in a young child’s handwriting. [30] That said, because William & Mary’s records were later destroyed by fire, it is impossible to determine for certain whether Wythe was ever enrolled at the school. [31]

Wherever Wythe received his early formal education, his mother sent him to live with his uncle, Stephen Dewey, Margaret’s sister Elizabeth’s husband, to receive legal training [32] when he was around fifteen years old. [33] Dewey was the king’s Attorney for the County of Charles City, well-respected in his field, and an active political participant in Prince George County. [34]

Despite his uncle’s accomplishments and prominence, Wythe later remembered his apprenticeship as “unpleasant.” [35] He was unsatisfied with Dewey’s teaching methods, which consisted of relegating menial office tasks to the young trainee. [36] Although performing select routine tasks for Dewey in exchange for a legal education would have been considered typical training under the legal apprenticeship system, Wythe believed Dewey considered him more of a servant than an apprentice and claimed he learned little from his uncle. [37]

After two years of apprenticeship, Wythe returned home to Chesterville and studied law and classical languages on his own for a few years. [38] After his mother died in 1746, Wythe was ready to appear before a committee of examiners seeking admission to the Virginia bar. [39] The examination process was standardized by 1746 and required the presentation of a certificate from a lower court testifying to the applicant’s character, payment of a twenty shilling fee, and satisfactory response to the committee’s questions on the candidate’s knowledge of the law. <Ibid. </ref> It is probable that Wythe was examined in Williamsburg before a committee consisting of Peyton Randolph, St. Lawrence Burford, William Nimmo, and Stephen Dewey, all of whom signed Wythe’s law license. [40] Wythe returned home, where he sought permission to practice before the Elizabeth City County Court, where he was admitted to practice on June 18, 1746. [41]


  1. Alonzo Thomas Dill, George Wythe: Teacher of Liberty (Williamsburg: Virginia Independence Bicentennial Commission, 1979), 3.
  2. Imogene E. Brown, “American Aristides: A Biography of George Wythe,” (Rutherford, N.J.: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1981), 15.
  3. Dill, George Wythe: Teacher of Liberty, 5-6.
  4. Brown, “American Aristides,” 15.
  5. Brown, “American Aristides,” 16.
  6. Ibid.
  7. Hemphill, George Wythe The Colonial Briton: A Biographical Study of the Pre-Revolutionary Era in Virginia (1939), 8.
  8. Ibid., 9.
  9. Brown, “American Aristides,” 16.
  10. Dill, George Wythe: Teacher of Liberty, 4.
  11. Brown, “American Aristides,” 16.
  12. Dill, George Wythe: Teacher of Liberty, 4.
  13. Ibid.
  14. Ibid.
  15. Hemphill, George Wythe The Colonial Briton: A Biographical Study of the Pre-Revolutionary Era in Virginia, 26.
  16. Dill, George Wythe: Teacher of Liberty, 6.
  17. Hemphill, George Wythe The Colonial Briton: A Biographical Study of the Pre-Revolutionary Era in Virginia, 31.
  18. Dill, George Wythe: Teacher of Liberty, 7.
  19. Brown, American Aristides', 20.
  20. Dill, George Wythe: Teacher of Liberty, 10.
  21. Brown, “American Aristides,” 20
  22. Dill, “George Wythe: Teacher of Liberty,” 7.
  23. Ibid.
  24. Ibid.
  25. Ibid., 8.
  26. Hemphill, George Wythe The Colonial Briton: A Biographical Study of the Pre-Revolutionary Era in Virginia, 32.
  27. Brown, “American Aristides,” 21.
  28. Dill, George Wythe: Teacher of Liberty, 8.
  29. Ibid.
  30. Ibid.
  31. Brown, “American Aristides,” 21.
  32. Dill, “George Wythe: Teacher of Liberty,” 8.
  33. Hemphill, George Wythe The Colonial Briton: A Biographical Study of the Pre-Revolutionary Era in Virginia, 37.
  34. Brown, “American Aristides,” 21-22.
  35. Ibid., 22.
  36. Dill, George Wythe: Teacher of Liberty, 9.
  37. Hemphill, George Wythe The Colonial Briton: A Biographical Study of the Pre-Revolutionary Era in Virginia, 37-38.
  38. Ibid., 39.
  39. Brown, “American Aristides,” 23.
  40. Ibid.
  41. Ibid.