George Wythe

George Wythe (1726-1806), American jurist and law teacher, was one of the foremost legal authorities of the Revolutionary period.

George Wythe was born into a prominent Virginia planting family. At his father's death in 1729 the family estate went to an elder brother, and George did not enjoy the advantages of considerable wealth until his brother died in 1755. George's education was therefore largely informal; he learned Latin and Greek from his mother and studied law while working with an attorney.

Wythe served briefly in 1754 as attorney general of the colony of Virginia and held political office almost continuously from then until 1778. He repeatedly served in the House of Burgesses and was its clerk from 1769 to 1775. As the crisis between the Colonies and Great Britain developed, Wythe protested against the new imperial policies. He was a delegate to the Second Continental Congress in 1775 and signed the Declaration of Independence. On the state level he was a member of the committee that designed Virginia's official seal. The Virginia Legislature appointed him to work with Thomas Jefferson, Edmund Pendleton, and others on the revision and codification of the state's laws. This work resulted in the elimination of feudal land practices from the law.

Wythe's contributions to the history of American jurisprudence were especially significant. He taught law to Jefferson and to many lawyers of future importance in the new republic. In 1779 Wythe was appointed professor of law in the College of William and Mary, the first such position in any American educational institution; he held the post for 11 years. From 1778 until his death he was also a judge in the Virginia chancery (or equity) court. On at least one occasion, he gave early voice to the distinctive American doctrine of judicial review-the power of courts to require that actions of government, particularly legislative enactments, conform to basic or constitutional law.

On June 8, 1806, Wythe died in Richmond-not of natural causes. He had no direct descendants and wrote a will leaving the bulk of his estate to a grandnephew. The grandnephew, in financial difficulties, used arsenic in an attempt to eliminate a coheir. The attempt was successful, but Wythe also consumed a fatal dose of the poison. He lived long enough to disinherit his murderer, who was never convicted as the only substantial evidence against him was the word of a black cook. Because of the cook's race his evidence was not admissible in the Virginia courts of the time.

Further Reading on George Wythe

There is no biography of Wythe. He is discussed in David Mays, Edmund Pendleton (1952); Charles S. Sydnor Gentlemen Freeholders (1952); Alf J. Mapp, Jr., The Virginia Experiment: The Old Dominion's Role in the Making of America, 1607-1781 (1957); and Clifford Dowdey, The Golden Age: A Climate for Greatness, Virginia 1732-1775 (1970).

Additional Biography Sources

Blackburn, Joyce., George Wythe of Williamsburg, New York: Harper & Row, 1975.

Brown, Imogene E., American Aristides: a biography of George Wythe, Rutherford N.J: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1981.

Dill, Alonzo Thomas., George Wythe, teacher of liberty, Williamsburg, Va. (Box JF, Williamsburg 23185): Virginia Independence Bicentennial Commission, 1979.

Kirtland, Robert Bevier., George Wythe: lawyer, revolutionary, judge, New York: Garland, 1986.