George Wythe, signer of the "Declaration of Independence"

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George Wythe

Birthdate: (80)
Birthplace: Back River, Elizabeth City Co. VA
Death: June 8, 1806 (80)
Richmond, Virginia, United States
Place of Burial: Richmond, Richmond City, Virginia, United States
Immediate Family:

Son of Thomas Wythe, lll and Margaret Wythe
Husband of Anne Wythe and Elizabeth Eggleston Taliaferro
Father of Unknown Wythe
Brother of Thomas Wythe, IV and Anne Sweeney

Occupation: Classics scholar; politician, Lawyer
Managed by: Private User
Last Updated:

About George Wythe, signer of the "Declaration of Independence"

George Wythe (1726 to June 8, 1806) was an American lawyer, a Virginia judge, and a prominent opponent of slavery. He was the first law professor in the United States and a noted classical scholar in Virginia. He taught and was a mentor to Thomas Jefferson and other men who became Virginia leaders. The first of the seven Virginia signatories of the United States Declaration of Independence, Wythe served as a representative of Virginia and a delegate to the Constitutional Convention.

  • Born 1726 in Chesterton, Virginia (now Hampton) Man of integrity and virtue, respected by all. 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 the church where Patrick Henry made his "liberty or death" speech.


Early years

George Wythe (pronounced "with") was born in 1726 at Chesterville in what is now Hampton, Virginia. His father was Thomas Wythe, a planter who died soon after George's birth. Wythe was reared by his mother, Margaret Walker Wythe, and probably received his early education from her. Margaret Wythe instilled in her son a love of learning that served him all his life. Even as an old man, Wythe took up new subjects, teaching himself Hebrew, for example. George Wythe read law with his uncle Stephen Dewey, who lived near Petersburg.

Admitted to the colony's General Court bar in 1746, Wythe first practiced in Elizabeth City County and later with the prominent lawyer Zachary Lewis. In 1747, Wythe married Zachary's daughter Ann. Wythe was admitted to the York County bar January 16, 1748; his wife Ann died August 8 the same year. The young widower was appointed clerk to the Committee of Privileges and Elections of the House of Burgesses in October.

Highly respected by fellow Virginians

George Wythe's signature is first among the Virginia signatures on the Declaration of Independence. He was so highly respected by his fellow Virginians that the other delegates left a space so that his signature would appear first, as he was absent from the meeting the day they signed the document.

"No man ever left behind him a character more venerated than George Wythe," Thomas Jefferson wrote. "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 rights of man, he might truly be called the Cato of his country."

Jefferson learned the law from Wythe, and, in a manner of speaking, Wythe's signature on the Declaration was a teacher's endorsement of his pupil's finest brief. Among Wythe's other law pupils were John Marshall, perhaps the greatest chief justice of the United States, and St. George Tucker. When Wythe was Virginia's chancellor, Henry Clay was his assistant.

Life of significant achievement

If Wythe had accomplished nothing more than signing the Declaration of Independence and teaching Thomas Jefferson, he would have earned a place in history -- but his life was crowded with achievement! He was Virginia's foremost classical scholar, dean of its lawyers, a Williamsburg alderman and mayor, a member of the House of Burgesses, and house clerk. He was the colony's attorney general, a delegate to the Continental Congress, speaker of the state assembly, the nation's first college law professor, Virginia's chancellor, and a framer of the federal Constitution.

Served in the House of Burgesses

Wythe was elected a burgess for Williamsburg in 1754, and soon he married Elizabeth Taliaferro (pronounced "Tolliver"). She was the daughter of planter and builder Richard Taliaferro, who built what is now called "the George Wythe House" about 1755, and also made substantial repairs and additions to the Governor's Palace about 1752. Taliaferro gave his daughter and her husband life rights to the house.

The House of Burgesses sent Attorney General Peyton Randolph to England as its agent in 1753. George Wythe succeeded Randolph as attorney general but resigned the office in Randolph's favor after Randolph returned in 1755. Wythe remained a Williamsburg burgess until 1758, when he was elected burgess for the College of William and Mary. He represented the college until 1761, when he was elected for Elizabeth City County.

Early supporter of revolution

An early opponent of the Stamp Act, Wythe was appointed to the Committee of Petition and Remonstrance in 1764 and drafted the remonstrance to the House of Commons that protested against the tax. Nevertheless, Wythe, like Peyton Randolph and others, opposed freshman burgess Patrick Henry's stormy resolves against the act the next year, regarding the resolves as redundant and ill timed.

Despite Virginia's deepening disputes with the Crown, Wythe maintained close friendships with governors Francis Fauquier and Norborne Berkeley, baron de Botetourt.

Association with Jefferson and the college

Thomas Jefferson met George Wythe during Governor Fauquier's administration. They were introduced by Professor William Small of the College of William and Mary. Wythe in turn introduced Jefferson to Fauquier, who invited the young man to play his violin in a Palace amateur quartet. Small, Wythe, Fauquier, and Jefferson often made a party of four at Palace dinners, where science, politics, and morals became regular topics of conversation.

Wythe was appointed to William and Mary's board in 1768 and was elected Williamsburg's mayor December 1 of that year . He became a vestryman of Bruton Parish Church in 1760 and was appointed clerk of the House of Burgesses July 16, 1769. When the burgesses ordered the Public Hospital built in 1770, Wythe was named one of its trustees. He remained house clerk until 1775, when he was elected a delegate to the Second Continental Congress.

Following instructions from the Virginia Convention in Williamsburg, Richard Henry Lee, another member of the Virginia delegation, rose at the Second Continental Congress and moved for American independence. Jefferson's declaration was approved July 4, but the document was not engrossed and ready for signing until August 2. By that time, Wythe had returned to Williamsburg, thus he and the other absent delegates signed later. Below Wythe's name appear the signatures, in order, of: Richard Henry Lee, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Harrison, Thomas Nelson Jr., Francis Lightfoot Lee, and Carter Braxton.

Designed seal of Virginia

Though 50 years old, Wythe proposed to fight in the Revolution, but his true service remained in government. He worked on the drafting of the first Virginia constitution, written mostly by George Mason. Wythe served with Jefferson, Mason, Thomas Ludwell Lee, and Edmund Pendleton on the committee that revised Virginia's laws. George Wythe was one of two members of the committee who designed the seal of Virginia. Virtue, sword in hand, stands with her foot on the prostrate form of Tyranny, whose crown lies nearby. The motto, "Sic Semper Tyrannis," may be translated "Thus Ever to Tyrants."

First professor of law in America

In 1777, Wythe was elected speaker of the Virginia House of Delegates. Two years later, he accepted appointment as professor of law and police in now-Governor Jefferson's reorganization of the College of William and Mary. It was the first such professorship in the nation. After the government moved to Richmond in 1780, Wythe taught classes, presided over moot courts, and conducted mock legislatures in the old Capitol.

Wythe accepted law students as boarders in his home and treated them as if they were the sons he never had. His kindness was returned by admiring pupils like Jefferson, who called him "my faithful and beloved Mentor in youth, and my most affectionate friend through life."

Late in the1780s, student William Munford preserved a glimpse of Wythe's domestic establishment. "Old as he is," Munford wrote, "his habit is, every morning, winter and summer, to rise before the sun, go to the well in the yard, draw several buckets of water, and fill the reservoir for his shower bath, and then, drawing the cord, let the water fall over him in a glorious shower. Many a time have I heard him catching his breath and almost shouting with the shock. When he entered the breakfast room his face would be in a glow, and all his nerves were fully braced."

In a dispute with the administration, Wythe resigned from the college in 1789 and accepted an appointment as judge of Virginia's Court of Chancery in Richmond. He moved there in 1791, turning his home over to Taliaferro's heir. The Reverend James Madison, president of the College of William and Mary, bought the house in 1792 following the death of the Taliaferro heir.

Chancellor Wythe seized the opportunity of one of his cases to try to cripple the institution of slavery. He ruled that Virginia's Declaration of Rights -- written by Mason and adopted in 1776 -- included African Americans among the "all men" born free and equally independent. "They should," Wythe said, "be considered free until proven otherwise." His ruling did not survive appeals.

Murdered by an heir

Elizabeth Taliaferro Wythe died in 1787. Long a foe of slavery, George Wythe freed several slaves, including Lydia Broadnax, who chose to remain in Wythe's service. He conveyed other slaves to Elizabeth's Taliaferro relatives. Near the end of his life, Wythe wrote his will in favor of a grandnephew, George Wythe Sweeney, but also gave generous bequests to his former slaves Mathew Brown and Lydia Broadnax. A ne'er-do-well, Sweeney forged checks against Wythe's accounts to cover pressing debts. Hoping to avoid detection and inherit his great uncle's entire estate, he resorted to murder. Strawberries or coffee seem to have been the vehicle by which Sweeney poisoned both his great uncle and Matthew Brown, who died within days. Wythe endured two weeks of agony, but as he lay dying, Sweeney's forgeries were discovered, and Wythe revised his will.

A grand jury indicted Sweeney for murder, but Sweeney went free, because the evidence against him was circumstantial. No witness was able to testify that he saw Sweeney poison the food. African American Lydia Broadnax was thought to have been in the kitchen when the food was poisoned, but she was not allowed to testify against a white person in court.

Wythe is buried at St. John's Church in Richmond, the church in which Patrick Henry made his "Liberty or Death" speech.

from - © 2008 The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation

"Regularly, on the 8th of June, the anniversary of his murder, George Wythe emerges from the closet of his bedroom and lays a chilly hand on the face of whoever is sleeping therein." from "The Ghosts of Williamsburg" Vol. II by L.B. Taylor, Jr.

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George Wythe (1726 – 8 June 1806) was an American lawyer, a judge, a prominent law professor and "Virginia's foremost classical scholar." Wythe's signature is positioned at the head of the list of seven Virginia signatories on the United States Declaration of Independence. Wythe served as a representative of Virginia and a delegate to the Constitutional Convention—though he left the Convention early and did not sign the final version of the Constitution.

Wythe was born in Elizabeth City County, Virginia (present day Hampton). He served as mayor of Williamsburg, Virginia, from 1768 to 1769. In 1779 he was appointed to the newly created Chair of Law at William and Mary, becoming the first law professor in the United States. Wythe's pupils included Thomas Jefferson, Henry Clay, James Monroe, and John Marshall.

Of these men, Wythe was closest to Thomas Jefferson. 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.

Wythe was elected to the Continental Congress in 1775, voting in favor of the resolution for independence and signing the Declaration of Independence. He helped form the new government of Virginia, was elected Speaker of the Virginia House of Delegates in 1777, and also as part of a committee designed the Seal of Virginia, inscribed with the motto "Sic Semper Tyrannis", which is still in use today. In 1789 he became Judge of the Chancery Court of Virginia.

In 1787, 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. $2 bill, but Wythe's image is cut off in that depiction. A slaveholder, Wythe became an abolitionist, freeing his slaves and providing for their support. Wythe provided for freed Lydia Broadnax and her son Michael Brown in his will; Broadnax had stayed on as a servant. The will also contained a provision for Brown's education. Jefferson biographer Fawn M. Brodie has alleged Broadnax was Wythe's concubine, and Brown was his son.

Wythe's other heir, his grand-nephew, George Wythe Sweeney, decided to avoid this dilution of his fortune by poisoning the servants with arsenic. In the process, he killed Wythe as well, though Wythe lingered long enough to change his will to eliminate his bequest to his murderer. Broadnax survived the poisoning.

It was the only punishment his 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, a law Wythe ironically had himself penned. 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, in his will, left his extraordinary book collection to Thomas Jefferson who described Wythe as "... my ancient master, my earliest and best friend, and to him I am indebted for first impressions which have [been] the most salutary on the course of my life."

Wythe is buried at St. John's Church in Richmond, the same church in which Patrick Henry made his "Give me Liberty, or give me Death!" speech.

Will of George Wythe, 1806, leaving books to Thomas JeffersonWythe's home in Williamsburg, Virginia has survived and stands next to Bruton Parish Church of which Wythe was a vestryman. It was acquired by the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation in 1938 and is today a museum known as the Wythe House.

Wythe County, Virginia, its county seat Wytheville, Virginia, two George Wythe High Schools (one in Wytheville and one in Richmond, Virginia), George Wythe Elementary in Hampton, Virginia (the present day name of Elizabeth City County, Virginia) and George Wythe College of (Cedar City, Utah) are all named after George Wythe. The Marshall-Wythe School of Law at the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia, a section of US-301 named Wythe Street that intersects I-95 in Petersburg, Virginia, and the Olde Wythe Neighborhood in Hampton also bear his name.

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George Wythe, signer of the "Declaration of Independence"'s Timeline

Back River, Elizabeth City Co. VA
June 8, 1806
Age 80
Richmond, Virginia, United States
June 1806
Age 80
Richmond, Richmond City, Virginia, United States