William Wirt, 9th U.S. Attorney General

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William Wirt

Birthdate: (61)
Birthplace: Bladensburg, Prince George's County, Maryland
Death: February 18, 1834 (61)
Washington, District of Columbia, United States (Erysipelas)
Place of Burial: Washington, District of Columbia, United States
Immediate Family:

Son of Jacob Wirt and Henrietta Wirt
Husband of Mildred Gilmer Wirt and Elizabeth Washington Wirt
Father of Catherine Gratten Gilmore Wirt; Catherine Gamble Randall and Agnes Cabel Wirt
Brother of Elizabeth Clayton

Occupation: Attorney General US
Managed by: Private User
Last Updated:

About William Wirt, 9th U.S. Attorney General


William Wirt (November 8, 1772 – February 18, 1834) was an American author and statesman who is credited with turning the position of United States Attorney General into one of influence.


He was born in Bladensburg, Maryland, to a Swiss father and a German mother. Both parents having died before he was eight years old, Jasper Wirt, his uncle, became his guardian. Between his seventh and his eleventh year the boy was sent to several classical schools, and finally to one kept by the Rev. James Hunt, in Montgomery County, where he received, during four years, the chief part of his education. For two years he boarded with Hunt, in whose library he spent much of his time, reading with a keen and indiscriminate appetite. In his fifteenth year the school was disbanded, and his patrimony nearly exhausted.

Among his fellow pupils had been Ninian Edwards (afterward governor of Illinois), whose father, Benjamin Edwards (afterward member of congress from Maryland), discovering, as he thought, in young Wirt signs of more than ordinary natural ability, invited him to reside in his family as tutor to Ninian and two nephews, and offered him also the use of his library for the prosecution of his own studies, which invitation was accepted. Under Edwards' roof Wirt stayed twenty months, spending his time in teaching, in classical and historical studies, in writing, and in preparation for the bar, which he had chosen as his future profession.


Wirt was admitted to the Virginia bar in 1792. With the advantages of a vigorous constitution and a good person and carriage, but with the drawbacks of a meagre legal equipment, a constitutional shyness and timidity, and an over-rapid, brusque, and indistinct utterance, he began practice at Culpeper Courthouse, Virginia. In 1795, he married Mildred, daughter of Dr. George Gilmer, and removed to Pen Park, the seat of that gentleman, near Charlottesville. This change introduced him to the acquaintance of many persons of eminence, including Thomas Jefferson and James Monroe. The boundless hospitality of the country gentlemen and the convivial habits of the members of the bar at that time had for a season a fascination for Wirt, who was regarded by his legal brethren rather as a bon vivant and gay, fascinating companion, than as an ambitious lawyer. Wirt quickly forsook this path.

In 1799 his wife died, and he moved to Richmond, where he became clerk of the Virginia House of Delegates, then chancellor of the Eastern District of Virginia, which office he resigned after performing its duties for six months. In 1802, he married Elizabeth Washington, the daughter of Col. Robert Gamble of Richmond. In the winter of 1803/04 Wirt moved to Norfolk, but in 1806, wishing for a wider field of practice, returned to Richmond.

In 1807, President Thomas Jefferson asked him to be the prosecutor in Aaron Burr's treason trial. His principal speech, occupying four hours, and which was characterized by eloquent appeal, polished wit, and logical reasoning, greatly extended his fame. The passage in which he depicted in glowing colors the home of Harman Blennerhassett, and “the wife of his bosom, whom he lately permitted not the winds of summer 'to visit too roughly,'” as “shivering at midnight on the wintry banks of the Ohio, and mingling her tears with the torrents that froze as they fell,” was for many years a favorite piece for academic declamation.

In 1808, Wirt was elected to the Virginia House of Delegates, the only time he consented to serve the state as a legislator. In 1816 he was appointed a district attorney, and in 1817 President James Monroe named him the ninth Attorney General of the United States, a position he held for 12 years, through the administration of John Quincy Adams, until 1829. William Wirt has the record for the longest tenure in history of any U.S. attorney general. After his retirement he resided in Baltimore.

In June 1830, a delegation of Cherokee led by Chief John Ross selected Wirt on the urging of Senators Webster and Frelinghuysen to defend Cherokee rights before the U.S. Supreme Court. Wirt argued, in Cherokee Nation v. Georgia, that the Cherokee Nation was "a foreign nation in the sense of our constitution and law" and was thus not subject to Georgia's jurisdiction. Wirt asked the Supreme Court to annul and void all Georgia laws extended over Cherokee territory on the grounds that they violated the U.S. Constitution, United States-Cherokee treaties, and United States intercourse laws.

Although the Court determined that it did not have original jurisdiction in this case, the Court held open the possibility that it yet might rule in favor of the Cherokee. Wirt therefore waited for a test case to again resolve the constitutionality of the laws of Georgia. The opportunity came on March 1, 1831, when Georgia passed a law aimed at evicting missionaries, who were perceived as encouraging the Cherokee resistance to removal, from Cherokee lands. The American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions, an interdenominational missionary organization hired Wirt to challenge the new law. The decision in Worcester v. Georgia, handed down by Chief Justice John Marshall on March 3, 1832, held that the Cherokee Nation was "a distinct community, occupying its own territory, with boundaries accurately described, in which the laws of Georgia can have no force, and which the citizens of Georgia have no right to enter but with the assent of the Cherokees themselves or in conformity with treaties and with the acts of Congress."


During the 1820s, Wirt was a member of the prestigious society, Columbian Institute for the Promotion of Arts and Sciences, who counted among their members former presidents Andrew Jackson and John Quincy Adams and many prominent men of the day, including well-known representatives of the military, government service, medical and other professions.

Wirt was also inducted as an honorary member into the American Whig-Cliosophic Society.

Later in life

After leaving Washington, D.C., he returned to Baltimore, Maryland, was an unsuccessful candidate for President in 1832 as the candidate of the Anti-Masonic party. This was perhaps ironic because he was, in fact, a former Freemason[citation needed] and, according to some sources, even gave a speech at the Anti-Masonic convention defending the organization[citation needed] although others said that he regretted having been a member. This event was the first national nominating convention ever held by a U.S. political party. He won Vermont, and thus was the first candidate of an organized third party to carry a state. Wirt practiced law until his death in 1834.

Published works

In 1816, Wirt wrote Life and Character of Patrick Henry, a biography of Patrick Henry which contained the supposed text of some of Henry's speeches, many of which had never been published. Some historians have since speculated that some of Henry's phrases that have since become famous, such as "Give me Liberty, or give me Death!," were fabricated by Wirt for this book and even contemporary Thomas Jefferson shelved his copy of the biography under fiction. He had the distinction of being regarded for many years as the chief man of letters in the South.

Grave robbery

In the early 2000s, after a series of mysterious phone calls to the cemetery, it was discovered that in the 1970s someone had broken into the Wirt Tomb at Washington, D.C.'s Congressional Cemetery and had stolen Wirt's skull. After the skull was recovered from the house of a historical memorabilia collector, it spent time in D.C. Council member Jim Graham's office while he tried to get it returned to its rightful crypt. Finally in 2005 investigators from the Smithsonian Institution were able to determine the skull, which had gold block letters saying "Hon. Wm. Wirt" painted on it, was indeed his and had it returned.


Wirt County, West Virginia (formerly Virginia), is named in his honor.

[edit] Important Cases Argued

Gibbons v. Ogden
McCulloch v. Maryland
Cherokee Nation v. Georgia
Worcester v. Georgia
view all

William Wirt, 9th U.S. Attorney General's Timeline

November 8, 1772
Bladensburg, Prince George's County, Maryland
Age 26
Albemarle County, Viginia, USA
Age 34
Richmond, VA, USA
Age 42

Birth c. 1815

February 18, 1834
Age 61
Washington, District of Columbia, United States
Washington, District of Columbia, United States