Wythe (1726 ?
1806), was a lawyer, a judge, a prominent
law professor and "Virginia's foremost classical
scholar." He was the first professor of law in
America, earning him the title of "The Father of
American Jurisprudence.?nbsp; His
pupils included Thomas Jefferson, James Monroe, John
Marshall, and Henry Clay.
men, Wythe was closest to Thomas Jefferson - so
close that Jefferson once described Wythe as a
"second father." At a time when law students often
read law for a year or less, Jefferson spent five
years reading law with George Wythe, and the two men
together read all sorts of other material; from
English literary works, to political philosophy, to
the ancient classics.
Admitted to the Bar
in 1746, Wythe was a member and clerk of the House
of Burgesses. In 1764, he drew up a forceful
remonstrance from Virginia to the British House of
Commons against the Stamp Act. Wythe served as
mayor of Williamsburg, VA from 1768
to 1769. Appointed
in 1779, through Jefferson’s influence, Wythe held
the newly created Chair of Law
at the College of
William and Mary. Today the law school at the
College of William and Mary is named after George
Wythe and one of his former students, John Marshall.
George Wythe, in
1776, signed the Declaration of Independence as a
Virginia delegate to the Continental Congress. Wythe’s
signature is positioned at the head of the list of
seven Virginia signatories on the United States
Declaration of Independence.
He was also in that
year appointed by the Virginia legislature along
with Edmund Pendleton, George Mason, and Thomas
Jefferson to revise the entire Virginia Code of
Laws. He was a member of the Constitutional
Convention in 1787 and a member of the Virginia
Convention that ratified the federal Constitution. George
Washington appointed Wythe along with Alexander
Hamilton and Charles Pinckney to draw up rules and
procedures for the Constitutional Convention. In
John Trumbull's famous painting, The Declaration
of Independence, Wythe is shown in profile
farthest to the viewer's left. Trumbull's painting
can also be found on the back of the U.S.
$2 bill, but Wythe's image is cut off in
older years, Wythe became an abolitionist, freeing
his slaves. He provided for his slaves, Lydia
Broadnax and her son Michael Brown, in his
will. The will also contained a provision
for Brown's education. Wythe's other heir, his
great-nephew, George Wythe Sweeney, decided to avoid
this dilution of his fortune by poisoning the slaves
arsenic. In the process, he
as well, though Wythe lingered long enough to change
his will to eliminate his bequest to his murderer. Lydia Broadnax survived the poisoning.
disinherited was the only punishment Wythe’s killer
received. In Sweeney's trial he was acquitted of
murder in Virginia, primarily because of a law that
forbade the testimony of black witnesses. Sweeney
was tried for forgery, and convicted, but that was
overturned on appeal and Sweeney is said to have
gone to Tennessee, stolen a horse, and served a term
in a penitentiary. The rest of his life was then
lost to history.
home in Williamsburg, Virginia has survived and
stands next to Bruton Parish Church at which Wythe
was a vestryman. It was acquired by the Colonial
Williamsburg Foundation in 1938 and is today a
museum known as the George Wythe House.