All Commentary
Friday, June 1, 1984

George Wythe of Williamsburg

Mr. Peterson is Headmaster of the Pilgrim Academy, Egg Harbor City, New Jersey. He teaches economics and is a staunch advocate of the principles of voluntarism in education.

“Nothing would advance me faster in the world,” wrote a young law student, “than the reputation of having been educated by Mr. Wythe, for such a man as he casts a light upon all around him.”[1] So wrote William Munford as he summed up the attitude of the more ambitious youths of revolutionary Virginia. To be taught by George Wythe—as were Henry Clay, Thomas Jefferson, John Marshall and “enough other founding fathers to populate a small standing army”[2]—was the first step on the road to success.

Born in 1726, George Wythe was to become a member of the House of Burgesses, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, and the first man to hold a chair of law in an American college. Often working quietly behind the scenes in the classroom or in his chambers, Wythe helped to lay the foundation for the limited, Constitutional government that brought forth America’s free enterprise system. In Wythe’s life the principles of voluntarism, self-improvement, and liberty found their perfect expression. Teaching both by example and precept, Wythe might well be called America’s “Teacher of Liberty.” At the same time, his contribution to the legal profession as America’s first professor of law earns for him the title of “The Father of American Jurisprudence.”

Like fellow Virginian George Washington, Wythe lost his father early in life. Fortunately, his grandfather had given his mother an excellent classical education. According to the Reverend Andrew Burnaby, one of Wythe’s earliest biographers, Wythe had “a perfect knowledge of the Greek language . . . taught to him by his mother in the back woods.”[3]

An unlikely combination—the Greek classics and the rugged forests of North America—yet this was Wythe’s nursery of liberty.

In his teens, Wythe entered the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg. He was poor, however, and his stay was necessarily brief. A family connection opened the door for him to study in the law office of Thomas Dewey, and at age twenty he was admitted to the bar. Like most of the Founding Fathers, Wythe was truly the product of an educational free market, for hardly a penny of public funds had been spent on his training.

At the age of twenty-nine, Wythe inherited the large family plantation, but continued to live at Williamsburg where he had been elected to represent the town in the House of Burgesses.

Wythe’s young life was marred by a tragedy, the death of his wife Ann within a year of their marriage. About seven years later, Wythe took another bride, Elizabeth Taliaferro (pronounced Tolliver), the daughter of the respected Colonel Richard Taliaferro. Historians believe that Colonel Taliaferro designed the Wythe House for his daughter and son-in-law, which has since been restored by the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation.[4] Wythe’s only child died in infancy. Later, many of Wythe’s students would be as the sons he never had.

Amassing a small fortune through a successful law practice and his marriage into one of Williamsburg’s leading families, Wythe began to exhibit the spirit of voluntarism that is both a prerequisite and a result of the free economy. Wythe became a supporter of the College of William and Mary, a member of the vestry of Bruton Parish Church, a trustee of an asylum for the insane, and a founder of a society for the encouragement of scientific and technical progress. On one occasion, he offered to serve as a Burgess without pay.[5]

In the midst of his busy schedule—he was a lawyer, a planter, a teacher, a philanthropist, and a statesman—Wythe found time for self-improvement. He studied early English literature and laws, as well as the Greek and Roman classics to which he had first been introduced as a child. The Virginia Historical Society has one of his notebooks, a study in which Greek words from the Iliad are compared to their Latin equivalents.[6]

Before Wythe joined the faculty of William and Mary, he tutored young law students in his house on the Palace Green. In 1772-73, he took James Madison into his home, cousin of the Father of the Constitution.[7] Madison later became the President of William and Mary, and in 1790 the first Bishop of the Protestant Episcopal Church in Virginia.

Another student was Bermuda-born St. George Tucker, who boarded at the Wythe home and later became United States judge for the District of Virginia.[8] But his greatest pupil was Thomas Jefferson, who throughout his long life “never ceased to learn from his old teacher.”[9] Jefferson believed that Wythe’s legal instruction was superior even to that offered in Europe, and that a young student could nowhere “apply so advantageously as to Mr. Wythe.”[10]

Wythe and Jefferson

The disciple is not above his master, and students forever bear the imprint of their teachers. In Jefferson’s case, Wythe’s emphasis on the importance of liberty under the law helped to check Jefferson’s fiery spirit and help him understand the difference between liberty and license. Wythe also instilled in Jefferson a love for books. An avid collector of books, Wythe accumulated such an excellent library that even George Mason made use of the collection. In later years, a friendly rivalry developed between Wythe and Jefferson, as each sought to develop the best private library in Virginia. Wythe eventually bequeathed his superb library to Jefferson,[11] a token of his life-long affection for the man who believed that “the best governed are the least governed.”

As the War for Independence drew near, the controversies with Great Britain helped to crystallize Wythe’s thoughts on liberty. Wythe argued that due to the slowness of commu nications with England, the American legislatures should be allowed to make laws to meet local needs. The growth in power of the colonial assemblies was part of the whole process of the mid-1700s, which saw the lower houses grow in power, confidence, and ability to govern.[12]

Wythe’s mature political philosophy was similar to that of Adams and Madison. Like Adams and Madison, Wythe believed in the necessity of a “mixed government” in which several “factions” checked each other’s power and influence. Ultimately, this concept found its practical expression in the three branches of government and in the federal relationship between the states and the national government. In 1776, at Wythe’s prompting, John Adams wrote his Thoughts on Government, in which he put forth the concept of separation of powers.[13]

When Jefferson published his A Summary View of the Rights of British America, Wythe supported his former student. According to Jefferson, Wythe refused to stop with “halfway principles as others who failed to follow their reason.”[14]

Wartime Service

When the war began, Wythe volunteered to serve in Virginia’s army, but was instead called to serve in the Continental Congress. In Philadelphia, Wythe emphasized that “we must declare ourselves a free people.”[15] In the winter of 1776, Wythe’s arguments for independence grew more intense. Ironically, Wythe was not there in July to sign his student’s great document, The Declaration of Independence. His vast store of legal knowledge always in demand, Wythe had been called back to Virginia to help set up the new Commonwealth. In deference to his position as a champion of liberty, the Virginia delegation left a space above their names so that Wythe could sign it when he returned. In the fall Wythe returned to Philadelphia and dutifully signed his name, making the Declaration complete. Wythe’s name thus appears before those of Thomas Jefferson, Richard Henry Lee, Carter Braxton, Benjamin Harrison, Francis Lightfoot Lee, and Thomas Nelson.[16]

In 1777, Wythe returned to Virginia to revise the Old Dominion’s colonial laws and adopt them to her new status as a sovereign state. Unlike the revolutionaries in France and Russia, where Whig principles were either ignored or cast aside, Wythe sought to build American laws on English precedents. The fruits of Wythe’s labors confirmed Edmund Burke’s observation that “the Americans are not only devoted to liberty, but to liberty according to English principles and ideas.”[17] Wythe clearly saw the danger of disinheriting America from the Magna Carta, the English Bill of Rights, and England’s unique contribution to the progress of liberty.

In 1779 Wythe was appointed to one of the three seats on the High Court of Chancery, a court which heard special cases involving complicated disputes in commerce and navigation.[18] Wythe also sat ex officio on the Court of Appeals, where he heard many memorable cases. A contemporary writer has described what Wythe’s legal opinions were like:

Not only was legal lore exhausted . . . but the “approved English poets and prose writers”—as he called them—and the more unfamiliar Latin and Greek authors, and even mathematical and natural sciences were quarries from which in concealed places he dug out his allusions and quotations. In the eight pages of one opinion with its footnotes, Bracton and Justinian, Juvenal’s Satires, and Quintilian, Euclid, Archimedes and Hiero, hydrostatic experiments and Coke on Littleton, Tristram Shandy and Petron-ius, Halley and Price and Prometheus, Don Quixote and Swift’s Tale of a Tub, Locke’s Essay on Human Understanding, and Turkish travellers, chase one another up and down to the bewilderment of all but the universal scholar. All contemporaries stood in awe of his erudition, and referred to him as the famous judge.[19]

For Fairness and Justice

Unlike many present-day judges, who pluck their decisions from the nebulous regions of “public policy” and popular opinion, Wythe based his decisions on past precedent and a close reading of the state constitution. In the Commonwealth vs. Caton case of 1782, Wythe wrote that “if the whole legislature, an event to be deprecated, should attempt to overlap the bounds, prescribed to them by the people, I, in administering the public justice of the country, will meet the united powers at my seat in this tribunal; and, pointing to the Constitution, will say to them, here is the limit of your authority; and hither shall you go, but no further.”[20]

Such decisions earned for Wythe the title of “the American Aristides,” an allusion to the ancient Athenian who was known for his fairness and justice.[21]

When the College of William and Mary was reorganized in 1779, Wythe was named “professor of law and police.” The first professorship of law in the United States, it was antedated in the Anglo-Saxon world only by the Vinerian Chair at Oxford University, first occupied in 1758 by Sir William Blackstone.[22]

As a teacher, Wythe was as demanding as he was innovative. One account of what it was like to study under Wythe has been left by Little-ton Waller Tazewell, who was later to become governor of Virginia. According to Tazewell, the student had to be in Wythe’s study by sunrise. Before breakfast, Wythe would have the student translate passages from one of his Greek books without the aid of a Greek dictionary or grammar. Wythe would then correct the student’s work, and then send him home for breakfast. At midday the student would return for a similar exercise in Latin. The afternoon was taken up with the study of algebra and French, while the evening was devoted to English literature and current events.[23]

Professor of Law

At William and Mary, Wythe used the lecture method, which was also being introduced at Princeton by another signer of the Declaration of Independence, Scottish preacher-patriot John Witherspoon.[24] Wythe’s lectures included study of the United States Consitution, making him the first scholar in the United States to make American constitutional law the subject of regular instruction.[25] Wythe’s study of jurisprudence prompted him to revive the practices of “readings” and “mootings,” which had not been used at the famous English Inns of Courts since the 1600s. One of Wythe’s students, John Brown of Staunton, who was later to become one of Kentucky’s first two U.S. Senators, has left an account of Wythe’s innovations:

Mr. Wythe, ever attentive to the improvement of his pupils, founded two institutions for that purpose, the first in a Moot Court, held monthly or oftener in the place formerly occupied by the Gen. Court in the Capitol. Mr. Wythe and the other professors sit as judges. Our audience consists of the most respectable of the Citizens, before whom we plead causes given out by Mr. Wythe. Lawyer like I assure you. He has [also] formed us into a Legislative Body, consisting of about 40 members. Mr. Wythe is Speaker to the House and takes all possible pains to instruct us in the Rules of Parliament. We meet every Saturday and take under our consideration those Bills drawn up by the Committee appointed to revise the laws, then we debate and alter (I will not say amend) with the greatest freedom. I take an active part in these Institutions and hope thereby to rub off that natural bashfulness which at present is extremely prejudicial to me. These exercises serve not only as best amusement after severer studies, but are very useful and attended with many important advantages.[26]

Wythe encouraged his students to learn not only from Latin and Greek orators, but from contemporary speakers like Patrick Henry as well.[27]

Wythe’s chief aim as an educator was to train his students for leadership. In a letter to his friend John Adams in 1785, Wythe wrote that his purpose was to “form such characters as may be fit to succeed those which have been ornamental and useful in the national councils of America.”[28] The idea that education was to help young people “adjust to society” was as foreign to Wythe as was the idea that the government should clothe, feed, and house its citizens. “Mr. Wythe’s School”—both in his study and in the Wren Building at the College of William and Mary—produced a generation of lawyers, judges, ministers, teachers, and statesmen who helped fill the need for leadership in the young nation.

The Constitutional Convention

In 1787 Wythe was chosen to be part of the Virginia delegation to the Constitutional Convention, joining what Jefferson called that “assembly of demigods.” Indeed, the moral force of George Wythe’s life alone is a cogent argument against Charles Beard’s socialist interpretation of the Constitution.

Unfortunately, Wythe’s beloved wife Elizabeth fell sick early in the summer. Dedicated patriot that he was, he knew that his first duty was to his family, and so, on June 4, Wythe left the convention and headed back to Williamsburg. Despite Wythe’s best efforts, Elizabeth Taliaferro Wythe died on August 14, 1787.

His wife gone, and having no children, Wythe once again answered the call of duty and fought for the passage of the Federal Constitution at the Virginia State Convention. Wythe’s prestige and influence, as well as the votes of five of his former students,[29] helped to overcome strong opposition from the Antifederalists, led by Patrick Henry. Later, Wythe helped to develop the Bill of Rights, basing his work on George Mason’s Virginia Declaration of Rights.

Wythe left his teaching position in 1789 when the High Court of Chancery moved to Richmond, the new state capital. There, his brilliant career ended tragically in 1806. Wythe was poisoned by George Sweeney, a grand-nephew who lived with him. Hopelessly in debt, Sweeney had hoped to profit as the principal beneficiary under his uncle’s will. Wythe lived on in agony for two weeks, long enough to both forgive and yet still disinherit his prodigal nephew. In one last act which showed his dedication to the principles of liberty, Wythe set his slaves free.

After Wythe’s death, several attempts were made to try to convict Sweeney. All failed, however, because the only witness was a slave. Disinherited and dishonored, Sweeney soon left Virginia and was never heard from again.

All Virginia mourned the death of the great American Aristides. To Benjamin Rush, he was “A profound lawyer and able politician,” a man who possessed “modesty” and “dove-like simplicity” and “gentleness of manner.”[30] William Ellery had written years before: “Let Wythe take the laurels his genius demands. I ask but this boon: to be classed with his friends.”[31] William Munford, whose education Wythe had graciously subsidized, named a son after him. But perhaps the mature Thomas Jefferson best summed up his old master’s character when he wrote:

No man ever left behind him a character more venerated than George Wythe. His virtue was of the purest tint; his integrity inflexible and his justice exact; of warm patriotism, and, devoted as he was to liberty and the natural and equal fights of man, he might truly be called the Cato of his country, without the avarice of the Roman, for a more disinterested person never lived.[32]

George Wythe—a man “devoted to liberty”—still stands as one of America’s greatest champions of freedom. His life is an example of what one man can do to advance the principles of liberty. []

1.   William Munford, quoted in: Alonzo Thomas Dill, George Wythe: Teacher of Liberty (Williamsburg: Virginia Independence Bicentennial Commission, 1979), p. 43.

2.   Forrest McDonald, The Formation of the American Republic (Baltimore: Penguin Books, 1965), p. 158.

3.   The Rev. Andrew Burnaby, quoted in Dill, p. 7. I am indebted to Dill’s George Wythe: Teacher of Liberty, op. cit., ref. 1, for much of the information in this article.

4.   Colonial Williamsburg Official Guidebook (Williamsburg: The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, 1972, 7th ed.), p. 90.

5.   Charles S. Sydnor, American Revolutionaries in the Making (New York: The Free Press, 1965), p. 51.

6.   Dill, p. 19.

7.   Dill, p. 42.

8.   Tucker later authored the first American textbook on jurisprudence. See Park Rouse, Jr., Virginia: The English Heritage in America (New York: Hastings House Pub., 1966), p. 108.

9.   Dill, p. 21.

10.   Jefferson, quoted in Saul K. Padover, ed., Thomas Jefferson on Democracy (New York: D. Appleton-Century Co., Inc., 1939), p. 91.

11.   Fawn Brodie, Thomas Jefferson: An Intimate History (New York: W. W. Norton and Co., Inc., 1974), p. 62.

12.   Jack P. Greene, The Quest for Power (New York: W. W. Norton and Co., 1972, first pub. in 1963 by the University of North Carolina Press) 528 pp.

13.   The mixed government theories are explained in detail in Gordon S. Wood, The Creation of the American Republic, 1776-1787 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1969), see esp. pp. 197-255.

14.   Dill, p. 28.

15.   Lyman H. Butterfield, et al., eds., Diary and Autobiography of John Adams, 4 vols. (Cambridge, Mass., 1961), II, p. 230.

16.   Dill, p. 33.

17.   Edmund Burke, quoted in Wallace Note-stein, The English People on the Eve of Colonization (New York: Harper and Row, 1954), p. ix.

18.   Dill, p. 41.

19.   Dill, p. 60.

20.   Dill, p. 62.

21.   John and Katherine Bakeless, Signers of the Declaration (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1969), p. 99.

22.   Dill, p. 42.

23.   Dill, pp. 55-56.

24.   Ashbel Green, “The Life of the Rev’d John Witherspoon, D.D., Ll.D., With a Brief Review of His Writings; and a Summary Estimate of His Character and Talents,” MS, New Jersey Historical Society, Newark, N.J., n.d., p. 106.

25.   Dill, p. 43.

26.   Dill, pp. 44-51.

27.   Dill, p. 51.

28.   George Wythe to John Adams, Dec. 5, 1785, quoted in Oscar L. Shewmake, The Honorable George Wythe (n.p., 1954), p. 16.

29.   Forrest McDonald, We the People: The Economic Origins of the Constitution (Chicago, Ill.: University of Chicago Press, 1958), p. 259.

30.   Bakeless, p. 99.

31.   Dill, p. 31.

32.   Padover, p. 183.

  • Mr. Peterson is headmaster of The Pilgrim Academy in Egg Harbor City, New Jersey. His articles have appeared in a variety of publications, including National Review and Human Events.