Biography of George Wythe, Founding Father and Signer of the Declaration of Independence
George Wythe was a lawyer, teacher, and politician from Virginia who rose to prominence during the American Revolution and became a Founding Father. Wythe was born to a wealthy family in Elizabeth County, Virginia in 1726. His father was Thomas Wythe and his mother was Margaret Walker. Unfortunately, his father died when he was three years old.
Education and Early Career of George Wythe
His mother had been educated, and she took it upon herself to provide him with an education. He attended college at William and Mary but had to leave because he could not afford the tuition. Afterward, he found a job at the law office of his uncle, Stephen Dewey, where he was able to continue studying the law. In 1746, when he was 20 years old, he was admitted to the Bar in Spotsylvania County, Virginia. In 1753, he was appointed Attorney General by Governor Robert Dinwiddie. Two years later, he was elected to represent Williamsburg in the House of Burgesses. Around that time, his brother died, and Wythe inherited the family property.
Opposition to the Stamp Act in Virginia
In 1764, after the Sugar Act was passed, word reached the colonies that Parliament was also considering a Stamp Act. The House of Burgesses did not approve of the Stamp Act and a committee was set up to draft a remonstrance to send to Parliament. Wythe was a member of the committee that wrote the remonstrance.
When the Stamp Act was passed in 1765, Patrick Henry delivered a fiery speech to the Hosue of Burgesses on May 29, 1765. The speech included several resolutions against that opposed Parliament that some members of the House believed were treasonous. However, some of Henry’s resolutions were adopted by the House the next day, May 30, as the “Virginia Resolves on the Stamp Act.”
Although Wythe did not support the Stamp Act, he also disapproved of Henry’s approach.
George Wythe at the Second Continental Congress
In 1775, Wythe was elected to represent Virginia in the Second Continental Congress. During his two years in Congress, he voted in favor of the Lee Resolution and the Declaration of Independence. Wythe was not there the day the Declaration was signed, but his fellow delegates from Virginia left room for him to add his name later. In fact, they left room for his name to appear at the top of their delegation, as a sign of their respect for him.
This painting by John Trumbull depicts the Committee of Five presenting the draft of the Declaration of Independence to John Hancock. Image Source: Wikipedia.
George Wythe Helps Form the New Virginia Government
In 1776, Wythe returned to Virginia to help form the new state government and helped work on the draft that was primarily written by George Mason.
Wythe also served on a committee that revised the state laws, along with Mason, Thomas Jefferson, Thomas Ludwell Lee, and Edmund Pendleton.
There was also a two-person committee designated to design the new state seal and Wythe was one of the members. The seal includes the motto “Sic Semper Tyrannis,” which translates to “Thus Ever to Tyrants.”
The following year, he was elected as the Speaker of the House of Delegates. Then, in 1778, he was elected to be one of the three Chancellors of the State of Virginia. For a portion of his time as Chancellor, Henry Clay was his assistant. Wythe served as a Chancellor until his death in 1806.
George Wythe, the First Law Professor in America
In 1761, Wythe was elected to the Board of Visitors at the College of William and Mary. Then, in 1779, Governor Thomas Jefferson appointed Wythe to the position of Chair of Law and Police, which made him the first professor of law in America. During his time at William and Mary, he taught some of the most prominent legal minds of the American Revolution and Federalist Period, including:
- Thomas Jefferson
- James Monroe
- John Marshall
- Henry Clay
- John Breckinridge
When Wythe died, he left his library of books to Thomas Jefferson. Image Source: Wikipedia.
Constitutional Convention and Ratification
Wythe was chosen to attend the Constitutional Convention in 1787. He was there for a short time and worked with the committee to develop the rules of procedure for the convention. However, he was forced to leave and return home to be with his wife, Elizabeth, who was sick. She died on August 18 and Wythe did not return to Philadelphia.
The following year, he was selected as a delegate from York County to attend the Virginia Ratification Convention. During the convention, he was the Chairman of the Committee of the Whole, however, he stepped down so that he could cast a vote in favor of the new United States Constitution. Virginia ratified the Constitution on June 25, 1788, by a vote of 89 to 79.
George Wythe Frees His Slaves
Wythe was an abolitionist and argued in two court cases that the Virginia Bill of Rights made the practice of slavery unconstitutional in the state. However, the Court of Appeals overruled him. After his wife died, Wythe started to free the slaves he owned, or he returned them to their previous owners. Some of them decided to stay on the farm and work for him, and he paid them. By the time of his death, he did not own any slaves.
The Murder of George Wythe
In 1805, Wythe was living in Richmond. In his household was a former slave, Lydia Broadnax, and a young man, a free mulatto named Michael Brown. That same year, Wythe’s nephew, George Wythe Sweeney, went to live with him as well. Sweeney, who was 17 at the time, unfortunately, caused trouble for Wythe.
Wythe suspected him of stealing some of his books to sell, so he could pay off gambling debts. Later, he accused Sweeney of forging his signature on checks.
On May 25, 1805, Wythe, Sweeney, and Brown became ill and doctors suspected they had cholera. However, Wythe told his doctor that Sweeney had poisoned them. When Sweeney tried to cash a check, the people working at the bank became suspicious, because they knew Wythe was very sick. Sweeney was arrested and put in jail. Wythe refused to post the bond.
On June 1, Brown died from the sickness and a few days later Wythe had his will changed so Sweeney was disinherited.
Wythe died on June 8, 1806. He was 80 years old. He was buried at St. John’s Church in Richmond, Virginia.
Sweeney was charged with poisoning Wythe and Brown. The murder charge against Brown was dropped and Sweeney was acquitted of the charge of murdering Wythe due to lack of evidence. In another trial, Sweeney was convicted of forging Wythe’s signature on the checks but was released on a technicality.
Lydia Broadnax eventually recovered but suffered for the rest of her life.
George Wythe Quick Facts
- Date of Birth: George Wythe was born on December 3, 1726.
- Place of Birth: He was born in Chesterville, Virginia.
- Date of Death: Wythe died on June 8, 1806.
- Place of Death: He died in Richmond, Virginia.
- Spouse: His wife was Elizabeth Taliaferro.
Interesting Facts About George Wythe
- George Wythe was the first law professor in the United States.
- Wythe signed the Declaration of Independence.
- When he died, he left his library of books to Thomas Jefferson.
- He is buried at the same church where Patrick Henry delivered his “Give Me Liberty or Give Me Death” speech.
- On the night of April 14, 1865, assassin John Wilkes Booth shouted “Sic Semper Tyrannis” to the crowd at Ford’s Theater in Washington, D.C. just after he shot President Abraham Lincoln.
Significance of George Wythe, Founding Father
George Wythe is important to the history of the United States because he is a Founding Father. He helped shape the foundation of the United States by signing the Declaration of Independence. He also played an important role in the development of the state of Virginia, and he voted in favor of the United States Constitution.