George Wythe was one of the Founding Fathers. He has also been called The Father of Jurisprudence. He was the first man to sign the Declaration of Independence for Virginia, but he was so much more than just a signer. He is believed to have been born in 1726 and was a law professor at William and Mary College. I chose him to write about today because Thomas Jefferson was one of his pupils.
Wythe was a self-taught man, who studied with Mr. Jones, a distinguished lawyer in Virginia. He was admitted to the bar in 1757.
|The Courthouse in Williamsburg|
He was a member of one of the wealthiest families in Virginia. His father died when he was young. His mother taught him Latin and the classics. Unfortunately his mother died when he was 21. He was left with a large fortune and control of his own life. While he was quite the upstanding man during the time of the revolution, before that he was quite the wild man and sowed his oats quite thoroughly.
Finally when he was thirty, he decided to straighten out his life. This is when he decided to study law with Mr. Jones. Wythe became a member of the House of Burgesses. He was good friends with Patrick Henry, Richard Henry Lee, Peyton Randolph, and others to object to the Stamp Act.
While teaching law at William and Mary, his students included Thomas Jefferson and John Marshall, who went on to become on of the Chief Justices of the Supreme Court. He tutored James Madison who later became President of William and Mary and was the cousin of the Madison who became president and wrote the Constitution.
He felt that since Great Britain was so far away and communication took too long, the colonists should be allowed to make their own laws. As the colonial governments grew in power, confidence in independence also grew. Wythe felt there should be a mixed government where each part could check the other, so no part grew too powerful (this became the basis for our checks and balances system - our government in three parts). Another of his ideas included the separation of powers between church and state.
During the Revolution, he served in the Continental Congress. He did volunteer for the Virginia army but he was needed to help formulate the declaration. "We must declare ourselves a free people". His fellow delegates held him in such high regard that when it came time to sign the declaration, they left the top spot open for him. When he returned from Virginia, he signed above the other Virginia delegates - Thomas Jefferson, Richard Henry Lee, Carter Braxton, Benjamin Harrison, Francis Lightfoot Lee, and Thomas Nelson.
While he was alive, he freed his adult slaves through manumission. One of them, Lydia Broadnax, had worked for him for years. He even provided for freedom for the younger slaves and offered support to those whom he freed.
He was married twice. His first wife died giving birth, but they never had any children. His second wife was Elizabeth Taliaferro, who was the daughter of Richard Taliaferro. They had one child who died before the age of one.
In 1777, he was made Speaker of the House of Burgesses. He was also given the job of High Chancellor in Virginia. He supported those who fought for freedom and agreed whole-heartedly backed the revolution.
In 1786, he was a delegate to the National Convention and helped frame the Constitution.In his lifetime, he started a private school that was free to whoever chose to attend. One of his pupils was a negro boy who was one of his slaves. He taught the boy Latin. He was prepared to teach him law as well, but both him and boy died.
Many believed his death to be the result of poison. A relative, George Wythe Sweeney, was accused of the poisoning but was acquitted. The boy, who also ingested the poison died. Wythe languished for two weeks, but during that time, he revised his will, cutting his nephew out from inheriting his wealth.
His last act of justice and fairness was before he died - he managed to free his last slaves.