Wythe's Early Life
George Wythe was born in late 1726 or early 1727 in Elizabeth City County, Virginia, at his family’s plantation Chesterville (Dill 3). Wythe’s ancestors were likely an aristocratic family in Elizabeth City County (Hemphill 5). Although not much information is known about the family, George Wythe “used a book plate bearing a heraldic coat-of-arms,” which typically signified a noble background in Wythe’s era (Hemphill 5-6).
George was the son of Thomas Wythe III and Margaret Walker (Dill 3). Thomas Wythe I settled in Virginia around 1680, bringing with him a 10-year old son, Thomas II (Dill 3). Thomas I, supposedly the Wythe who immigrated to the colony, was a justice on the Elizabeth City county court and served a term as a burgess in the lower house of Assembly (Dill 4). Thomas I died in 1693 or 1694 (Hemphill 8). He was survived by wife Ann, two daughters, and Thomas II (Hemphill 8).
Thomas Wythe II was born in 1670 (Hemphill 9). Thomas Wythe II married Anne Shepard/Sheppard. Thomas II sat on the county court but passed away in 1694 at the age of about 24 (Dill 4). His death occurred only a few months after his father died (Hemphill 10). Thomas II was the second husband to wife Ann Sheppard, who then remarried again after Thomas II died (Hemphill 9-11). Through Ann’s various marriages, George Wythe was at least distantly related to many upper-class Virginia families (Hemphill 11).
Thomas Wythe III was born around 1691 and inherited his father’s estate, including the land, slaves, and tobacco his family had amassed (Dill 4). Thomas III was very publically active, serving on the county court and holding the office of county sheriff (Dill 4). Served as a burgess in the Assemblies from 1718-1720 and 1723-1726 (Dill 4). Thomas III married Margaret Walker, daughter of George and Ann Keith Walker, in 1719 (Dill 4).
Margaret Walker’s grandfather was George Keith, an erstwhile Quaker with a band of followers known as “Keithians” (Dill 4-5). Keith was jailed at least six times for his missionary work (Hemphill 13). By the end of his life, Keith had become Anglican, which was ironic since he had spent much of his early life trying to convert people away from Anglicanism (Hemphill 14).
Keith’s daughter, Anne Keith Walker, married George Walker, a devout Quaker who did a variety of maritime-related work throughout his life (Hemphill 16-19). Anne later converted to the Anglican faith, leading to disputes between them over the education of their children (Dill 5-6). Anne even made a formal petition to Virginia’s Council at Williamsburg in an effort to raise her children under the Anglican church (Hemphill 23). Nevertheless, the pair’s daughter, Margaret Walker, was raised in the Quaker religion at a home not distant from that of Thomas Wythe III (Dill 6).
Margaret Walker and Thomas Wythe III married in either 1719 or 1720 (Hemphill 26). 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” (Hemphill 26). Margaret and Thomas produced three children, the middle of which was George (Dill 6). George was born sometime in 1726, although the exact date is unknown (Hemphill 31).
Shortly after George’s birth, Thomas Wythe III passed away, leaving Margaret Wythe to raise George and his siblings, Thomas IV and Anne (Dill 7). Thomas III died in 1729 without a will, so, as the oldest son, Thomas IV inherited everything according to the system of primogeniture (Hemphill 31). Margaret likely died in 1746 (Dill 10).
George Wythe’s students and contemporaries provide inconsistent accounts of the extent to which Margaret educated her son. Jefferson asserted that Wythe was mostly self-educated, though his mother helped him learn Greek (Dill 7). Edmund Randolph and Daniel Call credited Margaret with teaching George some Latin (Dill 7). In contrast, Henry Clay - like Jefferson - believed Margaret’s influence to be in Greek, not in Latin (Dill 7). Despite this education, Latin scholars have noted that Wythe’s skills do not reflect formal classical training (Dill 8).
Wythe may have received rudimentary education from either the Syms Free School or the Eaton Charity School, both of which were grammar schools near Chesterville (Hemphill 32). Wythe received his knowledge of classical languages from his mother, however, who reportedly taught him basic Latin grammar and possibly some Greek (Hemphill 32-33). Wythe’s education from his mother was probably supplemented by a short stint at the grammar school at William and Mary (Hemphill 34). This likely happened in or around 1735 (Hemphill 34).
George is often assumed to have attended the College of William and Mary, although there are no records - even among Thomas Jefferson’s papers - indicating that he received higher education at the school (Dill 8). Instead, George may have attended the College’s grammar school to receive a moral upbringing and more structured lessons in Greek and Latin (Dill 8). The school’s proximity to the Wythe plantation - a single day’s ride - supports the theory that he may have attended as a boarding student (Dill 8). In addition, the initials “GW” were found inscribed in a William and Mary building in a young child’s handwriting (Dill 8). Grammar school students often began their studies when they were twelve or thirteen years old, but Wythe may have attended as early as ages nine or ten (Dill 8).
Wythe likely did not stay at the William and Mary grammar school for very long, because his mother sent George to live with his uncle, Stephen Dewey, husband of Margaret’s sister, Elizabeth, to receive legal training (Dill 8). This likely happened when George was around fifteen years old (Hemphill 37). It was imperative that George be trained in a profession since he had no claim to the family land (Hemphill 35).
Dewey was a well-respected lawyer. Among his accomplishments was his license to practice at the highest-ranking colonial court (the General Court), at which the governor presided (Dill 9). As is already mentioned, George was unsatisfied with Dewey’s approach to teaching, which consisted of relegating menial office tasks to George (Dill 9). Under normal apprenticing, Wythe would have completed some tedious tasks for Dewey in return for a legal education; however, Dewey considered Wythe more as a servant than an apprentice, and Wythe did not learn much from him (Hemphill 37-38).
After his apprenticeship, Wythe returned home and studied law and classical languages by himself for a few years (Hemphill 39).