George Wythe

Associated Locations:

  • Elizabeth City County, Virginia

Associated Dates:

  • 1726 – Born

Christ-like Character Sketch

Character Sketch from Lives of the Signers of the Declaration of Independence, B.J. Lossing, the 1848 original.

George Wythe was one of Virginia’s most distinguished sons. He was born in the year 1726, in Elizabeth county, and being the child of wealthy parents, he had every opportunity given him which the colony afforded for acquiring a good education. His father died when he was quite young, and his education and moral training devolved upon his mother, a woman of superior abilities. She was very proficient in the Latin language, and she aided him much in the study of the classics. But before he was twenty-one years of age, death deprived him of her guidance and instruction; and he was left at that early period of life with a large fortune and the entire control of his own actions. His character not having become fixed, he launched out upon the dangerous sea of pleasure and dissipation, and for ten years of the morning of his life he laid aside study and sought only personal gratification.

When about thirty years of age, a sudden change was wrought in him, and he forsook the places of revelry and the companionship of the thoughtless and gay, and resumed the studies of his youth with all the ardor of one anxious to make up lost time. He mourned over his misspent days, even in his old age which was clustered round with honors, and he felt intensely the truth of the assertion that “time once lost, is lost forever.” He at once commenced a course of study, preparatory to entering upon the profession of the law, and he became a student in the office of Mr. J ones, then one of the most distinguished lawyers in the colony. He was admitted to the bar in 1757, and rose rapidly to eminence, not only as an able advocate, but as a strictly conscientious one, for he would never knowingly engage in an unjust cause. Strict in all his business relations, and honorable to the last degree, he was honored with the full confidence of the people of Virginia, and when that state organized an independent government pursuant to the recommendations of Congress, Mr. Wythe was appointed Chancellor of the State, then the highest judicial office in the of the people. That office he held during his life. For several years prior to the Revolution, Mr. Wythe was a member of the Virginia House of Burgesses, and when the Stamp Act aroused the patriotic resistance of the people, he stood shoulder to shoulder in that Assembly with Patrick Henry, Richard Henry Lee, Peyton Randolph and others, who were distinguished as leaders in legislation when the storm of the War of Independence burst upon the land.

In 1775, Mr. Wythe was elected a delegate to the General Congress, and was there in 1776, when his colleague Mr. Lee submitted his bold resolution for Independence. He steadfastly promoted every measure tending toward such a result, and he voted for and signed the Declaration of Independence. During the autumn of that year, he was associated with Thomas Jefferson and Edmund Pendleton in codifying the laws of Virginia, to make them conformable to the newly organized government. This duty was performed with singular ability.

In 1777, he was chosen Speaker of the House of Burgesses of Virginia, and the same year he was elevated to the bench as one of the three judges of the high court of Chancery. When the new court of Chancery was organized, he was appointed sole judge, and occupied that bench with great ability for the twenty years. Always firm in his decisions, which were never made without serious investigation and analysis, he seldom gave dissatisfaction, even to the defeated party. For a while he was a professor of law in the college of William and Mary, but when he removed to Richmond, he found it impractical to attend to its duties, and he resigned the office.

In 1786, Mr. Wythe was chosen a delegate to the National Convention that framed the federal Constitution. He was also a member if the Virginia convention called to consider its adoption, and was twice chosen a United Sates Senator under it. Notwithstanding the constant demand upon his time, which the duties of his official station made he opened and taught a private school, free to those who chose to attend it. Among other pupils was a negro boy belonging to him, whom he taught Latin, and he was prepareing to give him a thorough education, when both he and the boy died. This occurrence took place the eighth day of June, 1800, when Mr. Wythe was in the eighty-first year of his age. His death was sudden and was believed to have been caused by poison placed in his food by a near relative. That person was tried for the crime, but acquitted. The negro boy alluded to, partook of the same food, and died a short time previous to his master.

Mr. Wythe was a man of great perseverance and industry, and benevolent to the utmost; was strict in his integrity, sincere in every word, faithful in every trust; and his life presents a striking example of the forge of good resolutions triumphing over the seductions of pleasure and vice, and the attainments which preserved and virtuous toil will bring to the practician of these necessary ingredients for the establishment of an honorable reputation, and in the labors of his useful life.

Mr. Wythe was twice married, but he left no offspring, an only child, by his first wife, having died in infancy. 1

Character Sketch from Lives of the Signers of the Declaration of Independence, Rev. Charles A. Goodrich, the 1829 original.

George Wythe was a native of the county of Elizabeth city, Virginia, where he was born in the year 1726. His father was a respectable farmer, in easy circumstances, and bestowed upon his son a competent patrimony. At a proper age he was placed at school; but the knowledge which he here obtained was extremely limited and superficial, being confined to the English language, and the elementary rules of arithmetic. Fortunately for young Wythe, his mother was a woman of extensive knowledge for those times, and undertook to supply the defect of his scholastic education. By her assistance, the powers of his mind, which were originally strong and active, rapidly unfolded. He became accurately versed in the Latin and Greek languages, and made honorable attainments in several of the solid sciences, and in polite literature.

Before he became of age, he had the misfortune to lose his excellent mother, whose death was, not long after, followed by that of his father. Being deprived, at this unguarded period of life, of the counsel and example of these natural guardians, he became devoted, for several years, to amusement and dissipation, to which he was strongly enticed by the fortune that had been left him. During this period, his literary pursuits were almost entirely neglected; and there was the greatest reason to fear he would not escape that vortex into which so many young men remedilessly sink. At the age of thirty, the principles which had been instilled into his mind by his virtuous parents, asserted their proper influence over him. He abandoned his youthful follies, applied himself with indefatigable industry to study, and from this date, during a life which was protracted to the uncommon age of eighty years, he maintained a rigid and inflexible integrity of character.

Devoting himself to the profession of law, he pursued his preparatory studies under the direction of Mr. John Lewis. The courts in Virginia, where he was called to practice, were filled by gentlemen of distinguished ability in their profession. With these he soon held an equal rank, and eventually, by his superior learning, greater industry, and more powerful eloquence, occupied the chief place at the bar.

The estimation in which he was held by his fellow-citizens, was early manifested in an appointment from his native county to a seat in the house of burgesses. This station he held for several years, even to the dawn of the revolution..In this assembly were found, from time to time, men of distinguished genius and of great attainments. Among these, George Wythe was conspicuous. In 1764, he assisted in preparing a petition to the king, a memorial to the house of lords, and a remonstrance to the house of commons, on the subject of the stamp act, which was then occupying the deliberations of parliament.. The remonstrance to the house of commons was the production of his pen. The tone and language of this paper were both in spirit and style of too independent a character for the times, especially in the estimation of the more timid in the house of burgesses, who required, before it received their sanction, that its asperities should be softened.

We have had frequent occasion, in the course of these biographical sketches, to allude to the friendly feelings of the Americans, at this time, to the parent country. Few, if any, were to be found whose views or wishes extended to a separation from Great Britain. Hence, the language which was used by the colonies, in setting forth their rights, was generally supplicatory in its style. Their remonstrances were mild and conciliatory. These, however, it was at length found, were in vain, and a loftier tone was adopted.

The passage of the celebrated stamp act, in January, 1765, diffused a spirit of discontent and opposition throughout all the American colonies, and was the signal for the commencement of those stronger measures which led on to the great revolutionary struggle.

In measures of this kind, it is well known that Virginia took the lead. About this time, Patrick Henry, a young man, became a member of the house of burgesses. Although a young man, he was possessed of a most powerful eloquence, and of an intrepidity of character which eminently fitted him to take the lead in the work of opposition.

Towards the close of the session, in May, 1765, Mr. Henry presented to the house the following resolutions:

“Resolved, That the first adventurers and settlers of this, his majesty’s colony and dominion, brought with them, and transmitted to their posterity, and all other his majesty’s subjects, since inhabiting in this, his majesty’s said colony, all the privileges, franchises, and immunities, that have at any time been held, enjoyed, and possessed by the people of Great Britain.

“That by two royal charters granted by King James the First, the colonists aforesaid are declared entitled to all the privileges and immunities of denizens and natural born subjects, to all intents and purposes, as if they had been abiding and born within the realm of England.

“That the taxation of the people by themselves, or by persons chosen by themselves to represent them, who can only know what taxes the people are able to bear, and the easiest mode of raising them, is the distinguishing characteristic of British freedom, and without which the ancient constitution cannot subsist.

“That his majesty’s liege people of this most ancient colony have, uninterruptedly, enjoyed the right of being thus governed by their own assembly in the article of their taxes and internal police; and that the same hath never been forfeited, or any other way given up, but hath been constantly recognized by the king and people of Great Britain.

“Resolved, therefore, that the general assembly of this colony have the sole right and power to lay taxes and impositions upon the inhabitants of this colony: and that any attempt to vest such power in any person or persons whatsoever, other than the general assembly aforesaid, has a manifest tendency to destroy British as well as American freedom.”

The language of these resolutions, so much stronger than the house had been accustomed to hear; at once caused no inconsiderable alarm among many of its members. A powerful opposition arose to their passage, and in this opposition were to be found some of the warmest friends of American independence. Among these was Mr. Wythe; not that he, and many others, did not admit the justice of the sentiments contained in the resolutions; but they remonstrated on the ground of their tending to involve the colony, at a time when it was unprepared, in open hostility with Great Britain. The eloquence of Henry, however, silenced, if it did not convince the opposition, and produced the adoption of the resolutions without any material alteration. As the fifth resolution was carried by a majority of only a single vote, the house, on the following day, in the absence of Henry, rescinded that resolution, and directed it to be erased from the journals.

The above resolutions spread rapidly through the American colonies, and in every quarter of the country found men, who were ready to justify both their spirit and language. They served to rouse the energies of the American people, and were among the measures which powerfully urged on the revolutionary contest. The bold and decided measure thus adopted in the colony of Virginia, loudly called upon the patriots of other states to follow her in measures of a similar character. This they were not backward in doing. After the temporary revival of the affection of the colonies, consequent upon the repeal of the stamp act, had ceased, their opposition became a principle, and in its operation was strong and lasting. In the history of the opposition of America to Great Britain, the colony of Virginia did themselves immortal honor. In this honor, as an individual, Mr. Wythe largely participates. For many years, during the approach of the great conflict, he held a seat in the house of burgesses; and by his learning, his boldness, his patriotic firmness, powerfully contributed to the ultimate liberty and independence of his country. 2



Lives of the Signers to the Declaration of Independence, Rev. Charles A. Goodrich, Benjamin Rush

Lives of the Signers to the Declaration of Independence, B.J. Lossing

  1. Lives of the Signers of the Declaration of Independence, B.J. Lossing, 1848 original
  2. Lives of the Signers of the Declaration of Independence, Rev. Charles A. Goodrich, 1829 original
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