Who was George Wythe?

Quick Highlights

  • Born 1726 in Chesterton, Virginia (now Hampton)
  • Virginia’s chancellor
  • The nation’s first college law professor
  • First Virginia signer of the Declaration of Independence
  • Framer of the federal Constitution
  • Instrumental in design of seal of Virginia
  • Poisoned by his grandnephew in 1806
  • Buried at St. John’s Church, where Patrick Henry made his “liberty or death” speech

George 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”; His students included Thomas Jefferson, James Monroe, John Marshall, and Henry Clay. Of these 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, Virginia, 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.

In 1776, George Wythe 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. In that year, he was also 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. two dollar bill, but Wythe’s image is cut off in that depiction.


In his 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 with arsenic. In the process, he poisoned Wythe as well, though Wythe lingered long enough to change his will to eliminate his bequest to his murderer. Lydia Broadnax survived the poisoning. George Wythe is buried at historic St. John’s Church, in the Church Hill area of Richmond, Virginia.

Being 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.


Wythe’s home in Williamsburg, Virginia, has survived and stands next to Bruton Parish Episcopal Church at which Wythe was a vestryman. It was acquired by the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation in 1938; and today, it is a museum known as the George Wythe House.

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