Wythe Tablet

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Mural tablet to the memory of Chancellor George Wythe, William & Mary Law School. Made by R. Geissler, New York, 1893.
On the wall in the lobby of the College of William & Mary's Marshall-Wythe School of Law is a brass plaque, approximately 33" wide × 24" tall, dedicated to "George Wythe LL D". The plaque was a gift from the Virginia State Bar Association in 1893, which coincided with the bicentennial of the College's founding. It was originally "mounted on oak" and "placed on the walls of the chapel"[1] of William & Mary's Wren Building, later replaced by a decorative marble escutcheon with the same text, probably during the 1927–1931 renovations to the building initiated by John D. Rockefeller, Jr.[2]

Reports of the Virginia State Bar Association

1891

On July 30, 1891, at the third day of the third annual meeting of the Virginia State Bar Association, member W. W. Henry, of Richmond, offered the following resolution:

Whereas the grave of Chancellor George Wythe, in the churchyard of St. John's church, Richmond, Va., is unmarked,
Resolved, That the President of this Association appoint a committee of three, who shall ascertain as nearly as possible the locality of the said grave and report to this body at its next session, and at the same time report what will be the cost of a suitable one to be placed at or near said grave.[3]

The resolution was adopted, and the President named three men to make up the committee: W. W. Henry; R. G. H. Kean, of Lynchburg; and Robert M. Hughes, of Norfolk.

1892

Current tablet to George Wythe in the Chapel of the College of William & Mary's Wren Building.

At the 1892 meeting, on July 12, Kean submitted a "Report of the Special Committee to Erect a Tablet to the Memory of Chancellor Wythe." In their attempt to ascertain the location of Wythe's grave, Kean cited relevant passages from "The Two Parsons" by George Wythe Munford,[4] and from the newspaper account of Wythe's funeral in the Richmond Enquirer.[5] The committee concluded:

The language of the order of the Council, and the terms employed in this cotemporaneous notice of the funeral procession, appear to be quite conclusive of the fact that the interment was, as Colonel Munford states, in the church-yard of St. John's, Richmond.

Quite extensive inquiry among old citizens of Richmond, who take an interest in matters of this nature, corroborates the conclusion of Colonel Munford, that the grave was on the west side of the church building and not far from the wall.

The precise spot could not now be ascertained, except, possibly, by exploration with the spade. But your committee is of opinion that if such a memorial stone, as seems contemplated by the resolution, were erected on that side of the church, and near the wall, it would be sufficiently near the place of interment to answer the purpose.

The committee, however, is much impressed with the ephemeral character of monuments exposed to the elements. For this reason, and the yet more controlling one, that a memorial such as this Association would be willing to erect, would cost several hundred dollars at the least, they are forced to abandon the idea of a monument at his grave, even if the grave could be exactly located.

But the committee is not willing to recommend that the Association relinquish the purpose of erecting a memento to such a man as Chancellor Wythe.

On consideration, they are of opinion that a mural tablet might be erected which would serve to hold him out to the profession as a great exemplar. Such tablets are not expensive, and, being protected, are practically unlimited in their durability.

The committee would recommend its erection in St. John's church but for the fact that this church is a wooden structure, which places it out of the question. Two other places suggest themselves as equally appropriate. One is the chapel of the College of William and Mary, at Williamsburg, of which institution he was an alumnus. He was long a resident of Williamsburg, and many of his greatest cotemporaries now sleep beneath that chapel.

The other is the room of the new City Hall in Richmond, which is to be set aside for its Chancery Court. We can imagine no greater incentive for the Bar of the present day than to have constantly under their eyes such memorials to the great jurists of the past.[6]

After some debate, an amendment to the resolution was carried to allow "the location of the mural tablet be left to the discretion of the committee,"[7] and was adopted as:

Resolved, That a committee of three be appointed by the President. whose duty it shall be to procure the assent and concurrence of the proper authorities, and cause to be erected, either in the court-room of the Chancery Court for the city of Richmond, in the new court-room to be erected in the city of Richmond for the Court of Appeals, or in the chapel of William and Mary College, a mural tablet, with a suitable inscription, to the memory of Chancellor George Wythe, at a cost not to exceed the sum of two hundred dollars; which sum shall be disbursed for said purpose by the Treasurer, upon the order of the chairman of said committee.[8]

1893

On the August 1, 1893 meeting of the State Bar Association, Kean read a final report from the committee regarding the installation of the tablet in the Wren Chapel:

After much consideration, the committee decided that the most appropriate place for the erection of this memorial was the chapel of the College of William and Mary. There were special reasons which, in the judgment of the committee, rendered this a peculiarly fitting place. Either of the other places would have emphasized simply his judicial career. But if the committee understood the sentiment of the association aright, it was not simply George Wythe the jurist, but George Wythe the lawyer, who was to be honored. In addition, this chapel commemorates his services as a legal instructor, which were a prominent portion of the work of his life. While a practitioner of law, he was the teacher of Jefferson, and in 1780, when the College of William and Mary was reorganized by Jefferson and made u university by the establishment of professional chairs, George Wythe was elected the first Professor of Law. This was the first professorship of law in any American institution of learning, and the second in the English-speaking world. Only the Vinerian, at Oxford, filled by Sir William Blackstone, antedates it, and the committee felt it especially incumbent upon them to link together the names of Blackstone and Wythe as the first great expounders of the common law. The fact that Wythe was also an alumnus of William and Mary, that the most stirring scenes of his life were passed in Williamsburg, before and during the Revolutionary War, and that even a considerable portion of his judicial career was also passed there, left no room for hesitation.

They therefore placed in the chapel a bronze tablet with the following inscription:

GEORGE WYTHE, LL. D.:
MEMBER OF THE CONTINENTAL CONGRESS,
SIGNER OF THE DECLARATION OF INDEPENDENCE,
MEMBER OF THE COMMITTEE OF 1779 ON REVISION OF THE LAWS
OF VIRGINIA,
JUDGE OF THE CHANCERY COURT,

FIRST PROFESSOR OF LAW IN THE COLLEGE OF WILLIAM & MARY.

The American Aristides, he was an Exemplar of all that is Noble and Elevating in the
Profession of Law.

A. D. 1893.
This Tablet is Erected by the
VIRGINIA STATE BAR ASSOCIATION,
In Tribute to
His Courage as a Patriot,
His Ability as an Instructor,
His Uprightness as a Lawyer,
His Purity as a Judge.

The committee must express their appreciation of the courtesy shown by the Faculty of the College, who not only gave their consent, but extended many facilities which lightened the labors of the committee.

Owing to the promptness of Mr. R. Geissler, the maker of the tablet, it was finished and in place in time for the final exercises of the college. Those exercises were the bi-centennial of the foundation of William and Mary, and the attendance upon them was unusually large. The tablet was formally turned over to the college authorities, in the name of the association, by one of the members of the committee, and was much admired by those who were in attendance, and the Board of Visitors of the college adopted resolutions in acknowledgment of the gift, as appears by a copy of the same appended to this report. The committee beg leave to add, in conclusion, that the cost of the tablet was within the appropriation made by the association at its last meeting.[9]

Included with the report is a copy of the statement from the William & Mary Board of Visitors, expressing their gratitude.

1894

As Kean noted in the final report, the cost of the tablet was within the two hundred dollar appropriation. The accounts of Treasurer Jackson Guy, for the year ending June 30, 1894, detail the expense:

1893

July 8.

    

To Robert M. Hughes,
member of Special Committee
to procure mural tablet to memory of
Chancellor Wythe, as follows:

 

    

 

 

    

Bill of R. Geissler, of New York,

$162 85

    

 

 

    

R. M. Hughes, freights and telegrams, . . . . .

1 75

$164 60[10]

Address by Robert M. Hughes, Esq.

On June 21, 1893, Robert M. Hughes delivered a speech before those attending the presentation of the memorial tablet in the Wren chapel. Hughes' address is recorded in The Two Hundredth Anniversary of the Charter of the College of William & Mary, 1693. 1893, (Richmond, Virginia: Whittet & Shepperson, 1894), edited by Lyon G. Tyler, President of the College.[11]

Page 43

MR. PRESIDENT AND GENTLEMEN:

It has been a trite jest for those who knew no other to ridicule the profession of the law. How far back into pre-historic times venerable witticism may be followed it would be tedious to inquire. Suffice it to say that its antiquity may be traced even beyond the foundation of the College which we alumni have been taught to regard as the beginning of all things. "A chestnut" when the pyramids were commenced, it has come down the ages, loitering hand in hand with its twin-sister, the mother-in-law joke, and like its younger brother, the wandering Jew, imploring the rights of sepulture. Yet we lawyers still survive, and still—for a consideration—extend a helping hand even to those who jest at us. Though fiction and slander may unite to slander us, we still stand beyond the range of the unholy alliance, and, as a class, challenge comparison with any other profession. We may have shysters in our ranks, just as there are quacks in medicine and false prophets in the ministry itself; but we may yet claim to be the trusted advisers of the highest men, the protectors of the weak, the unbonded guardians of millions of property. Whilst merchants are making assignments to their wives and leaving their creditors in the lurch, and treasurers are forcing confiding sureties to replace their peculated funds, and bank cashiers, finding the climate too hot, are winging their flight to the bracing regions of the North, the lawyers are discharging with fidelity trusts equally responsible and tempting. But whatever defects there may be of administration, the law is a noble science. Evolved from immutable principles of right by the best trained intellects of humanity, its growth has kept pace with the progress of civilization: it is the perfection of reason. In the words of a famous divine: "Of law there can be no less acknowledged than that her seat is the bosom of God; her voice, the harmony of the world. All things in heaven and earth do her homage; the very least as feeling her care, and the greatest as not exempted from her power, both angels and men, and what creatures soever, though each in different sort and man-

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ner, yet all with uniform consent, admiring her as the mother of their peace and joy." The morals of a people are measured by its laws: happiness and plenty depend upon them as flowers upon the gentle dew of heaven. That nation which scoffs at law and respects not its officers and expounders is drifting into the unsounded abyss of anarchy. That nation which upholds the efforts of judges to enforce the law, and frowns upon rights violated and crimes unpunished, alone knows the security of life and the certain tenure of, property essential to contentment and progress.

Among the means which experience has shown to be the most efficacious, the formation of societies with the object of elevating the tone of a profession is preeminent. To this sentiment the Virginia State Bar Association owes its birth. Comprising in its ranks the flower of the State Bar, it has directed its efforts to purifying the profession of unworthy members and inculcating the highest tone of professional ethics. And it can imagine no better means of accomplishing this object than by holding up to the craft for imitation those exemplars of the past whose names have cast lustre upon the history of the law. Prompted by this motive, Mr. W. W. Henry, of the Richmond Bar, a gentleman alike eminent in the departments of literature and law, succeeded in passing through the Association a resolution directing the erection of a suitable memorial to Chancellor George Wythe; and a committee, composed of Mr. Henry, Mr. R. G. H. Kean, of Lynchburg, and myself, was charged with the duty of carrying this resolution into effect, with full power to determine upon the character of the memorial and its location. After much consideration, we decided that the most appropriate way of filling the trust confided to us was the erection of a suitable mural tablet in this ancient chapel, where, as a student, a professor, and a judge, he worshiped, and impressed, by example as by precept, the principles of right and religion, which form the basis of all law and justice.

George Wythe, the man we honor, was cast in no common mould. A native of this Peninsula, which has been not less the birthplace than the nursery of greatness, he received his inspirations from these surroundings which have stimulated multitudes of Southern youth. Choosing the legal profession, he settled in this city, and soon rose to the front place of a Bar which numbered such men as Nicholas and Pendleton. In those days law and politics were inseparable; hence we soon find him an active patriot, resisting the encroachment of British tyranny, and drafting resolutions so bold that Henry alone could keep pace with him. A member of the

Page 45

House of Burgesses, he stood side by side with his pupil, Jefferson, in defence of colonial rights. Sent thence to the Continental Congress, he was a signer of that Declaration of Independence which has immortalized the pupil whom he had inspired. Appointed with that same pupil in 1779 on the committee to revise the laws of the State, they prepared the first Code of sovereign Virginia, and this has been the basis of all which has followed. When towards the close of the Revolution the College was reörganized and made a university by the establishment of professional chairs, George Wythe was elected Professor of Law. This was the first professorship of the kind in America, and the second in the English-speaking world. The first was the Vinerian, at Oxford, filled by Sir William Blackstone; and as long as Anglo-Saxon institutions exist and Anglo-Saxon laws outpour their beneficent spirit of liberty upon the human race, the name of William and Mary, and Wythe, its great preceptor, will ring down the ages with that of Oxford and Blackstone, and this chapel will be a Mecca for the votaries of the law. During his ardent struggles in the cause of liberty he had sought no political preferment, but had devoted himself to his profession as constantly as the unsettled times would permit. He was now honored with the promotion which is an object of ambition to every lawyer. He was elected one of the judges of the Chancery Court. To this new duty he brought the same conscientious desire to do right, fearless of consequences, which had characterized his career as a lawyer and patriot. It fell to him, at a time when revolutionary animosities were still at fever-heat, to decide upon the right of British creditors to collect their debts; and he decided in their favor, regardless of public clamor. It fell to him to decide, first of all American judges, between conflicting claims of government departments to power; and he did not hesitate to say even in those days to the Legislature that a certain action which it had taken was unconstitutional and void. The great doctrine, now a canon of jurisprudence, that the judiciary is the final arbiter on the questions of the validity of the laws, had its origin in the bravery and convincing logic of George Wythe.

These are but samples of his judicial career. The published volume of his reported cases is his eternal monument; for his opinions show his learning, and, what is more, his unerring sense of justice. Removing to Richmond in 1789, when he became sole chancellor, he devoted the evening of his life to his judicial duties, and there, in his eightieth year, he died from poison administered by a near relative,

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lamenting, in his last hours, that he would be compelled to leave some submitted cases undecided.

Such was the man whom the Bar Association now seeks to honor. In their name, members of the Faculty of William and Mary, I turn over to you the custody of this memorial, hoping the man to whose virtues we pay tribute may be a shining light to the youth who resort hither, and that they may be incited by his example to become ornaments to their profession, their Alma Mater, and their State.

In 1922, the State Bar Association—along with local by the Sons of the Revolution in State of Virginia, the Virginia Society of the Sons of the American Revolution, and the Virginia Daughters of the American Revolution—finally placed a monument to commemorate Wythe's burial in the cemetery at St. John's Episcopal Church.

See also

References

  1. Lyon Gardiner Tyler, The Two Hundredth Anniversary of the Charter of the College of William & Mary, 1693. 1893, (Richmond, Virginia: Whittet & Shepperson, 1894), 42.
  2. The College of William & Mary, "The Wren Building," http://www.wm.edu/about/history/historiccampus/wrenbuilding/
  3. Virginia State Bar Association, Proceedings of the Annual Meeting, 1891, 26.
  4. George Wythe Munford, The Two Parsons; Cupid's Sports; The Dream; and The Jewels of Virginia, (Richmond, Virginia: J.D.K. Sleight, 1884), 429-430.
  5. "Oration, Pronounced at the Funeral of George Wythe," Richmond Enquirer, June 13, 1806, 3, and June 17, 1806, 3.
  6. Virginia State Bar Association, Proceedings of the Annual Meeting, 1892, 51-53.
  7. Proceedings, 1892, 16.
  8. Proceedings, 1892, 53.
  9. Virginia State Bar Association, Proceedings of the Annual Meeting, 1893, 71-72.
  10. Virginia State Bar Association, Proceedings of the Annual Meeting, 1894, 37.
  11. Tyler, The Two Hundredth, 43-46.