An Introduction to Wythe's Reports
Some of the United States' Founders are better-known than others. Washington and Jefferson are always present in the popular mind. Before Lin-Manuel Miranda's musical, asking the average modern American about Alexander Hamilton would likely get a mumbled reply about the ten-dollar bill. One of the more obscure Founders is George Wythe. Today, if anyone encounters Wythe, it is usually as a supporting character in other Founders' stories: mentor, teacher, and friend to Jefferson; or committee chair calling for Virginia to ratify the U.S. Constitution.
But Wythe played an important role in the United States's early days. William & Mary's -- and the United States' -- first law professor, he was a man of great integrity who greatly influenced some of the fledgling country's most important figures with jurisprudential ideas that were often ahead of their time. Why do Americans not know more about this teacher, judge, delegate to the Second Continental Congress, and signer of the Declaration of Independence? One reason may be a lack of documentation. Thomas Jefferson said he had often seen Wythe toss the documents he created while working on a case into the fire upon the case's conclusion. The notes Wythe made as William & Mary's Professor of Law and Police scattered to places unknown long ago.
We do, however, have the collection of decisions he handed while sitting on the bench of Virginia's High Court of Chancery. Wythe compiled a book of these cases, now known as Wythe's Reports. Several decades after Wythe died, Benjamin Blake Minor edited a second edition of the Reports that added some more decisions Wythe intended to be published.
The Reports contain cases that Wythe heard as Virginia's High Chancellor, the judge who sat on the commonwealth's High Court of Chancery, a court of equity. In the Anglo-American legal system, equity developed as an alternative set of remedies to the common law system; equity was supposed to provide a soultion when the common law outcome would not provide proper justice. In the early days of the United States, many states had separate courts to hear equity cases. Equity cases usually involved property, contract, and inheritance disputes, so those are the cases the reader will find in Wythe's Reports. Wythepedia has created pages for each of the decisions in the Reports summarizing the case and its background and explaining references to sources Wythe cited. We can think of Wythe's Reports as his version of a casebook, the textbooks that modern law students are familiar with. Wythe excerpts and summarizes the court's decisions, sometimes including subsequent appeals to other courts, then comments on them. Wythe hopes that by reading his commentaries on the courts' decisions, future lawyers and students of law will reach a better understanding of the law as it was in Virginia and how he thought it should be.
Wythe's Reports demands a lot from its readers. Wythe frequently cited or alluded to Ancient Greek and Latin works (often in their original language, with no English translation), as well as more recent classic authors such as Cervantes, Dante, and Shakespeare. He frequently used shorthand references and terms of art that lawyers of his era would understand, but which 21st-century readers may find baffling. Wythe frequently left out information such as how the case arrived before him or facts that Wythe found irrelevant to the point he was trying to make. Often, if a Wythe decision was appealed to the Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals, that higher court's opinion would be a better source for the facts of the case.
Properly understanding Wythe's decisions also means knowing their historical context. Many of the cases Wythe decided were influenced by events that were familiar to educated people in his day, but are esoteric history to modern Americans. Wythe also believed that Roman law principles were sometimes superior to English legal precedent, and cautioned against blindly following England's caselaw. Wythe believed, as did many of his contemporaries, that as a new country, the United States might wish to follow European-style civil law principles rather than Anglo common law.
Another important piece of subtext lurking within Wythe's Reports is its author's long rivalry with Edmund Pendleton, President of the Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals. Wythe had arguably the most brilliant jurisprudential mind of his generation, and he was rarely defeated when he argued a case. The gregarious Pendleton, however, was a master litigator and one of the few people capable of defeating Wythe in court. As President of the Supreme Court, Pendleton reversed a substantial number of Wythe's decisions.
Wythepedia articles on the cases in Wythe's Reports summarize the case, and include notes and links to useful articles that can better explain the conflict and reasoning in the case. Wythepedia also includes articles that fill in the background behind a number of these decisions. Wythe's Reports can be a treatise on Virginia law and equity, a snapshot of life in Virginia during the late 18th century, and a profile of one of this nation's most underappreciated Founders. We hope you find our case summaries useful.
- Kirtland, 5-6.
- For more information on the fate of Wythe's personal papers, see the Wythepedia article Wythe's Lost Papers.
- George Wythe, Decisions of Cases in Virginia by the High Court of Chancery (Richmond: Printed by Thomas Nicolson, 1795).
- 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|Decisions of Cases in Virginia by the High Court of Chancery, 2nd ed., ed. B.B. Minor (Richmond: J.W. Randolph, 1852).
- Timothy G. Kearley, "From Rome to the Restatement", Law Library Journal 108(1) (Winter 2016): 60.