Wythe, George (1725/61806), lawyer and revolutionary politician in America, was born on Chesterville plantation in Elizabeth City county, Virginia, the second son of the planter Thomas Wythe (c.16911729) and Margaret Walker (d. c.1746), granddaughter of the Quaker George Keith. George Wythe was a lifelong member of the Church of England. He married, first, on 26 December 1747, Anne (1726/71748), daughter of Zachary Lewis of Spotsylvania county and Mary Waller of Williamsburg, and, second, probably in 1755, Elizabeth (d. 1787), daughter of Richard Taliaferro of James City county and Elizabeth Eggleston. There were no surviving children from either marriage.
According to tradition Wythe's mother was unusual for the era in her ability to teach him Latin. George may have attended a free school in Hampton and grammar school at the College of William and Mary. In the early 1740s he studied law with his mother's brother-in-law, Stephen Dewey, near Petersburg. He qualified for the bar in Elizabeth City county in June 1746 and in several other counties shortly after. He briefly practised with Zachary and John Lewis in Spotsylvania. Upon the death of his first wife Wythe relocated to Williamsburg in association with her uncle, Benjamin Waller, and secured appointment as clerk for two legislative committees, inaugurating a relationship of nearly thirty years with the house of burgesses. He also practised in association with the colony's treasurer, Robert Carter Nicholas. Wythe quickly established himself in the capital, and became alderman in 1750. Delighting in Williamsburg's intellectual atmosphere, he formed particularly close bonds with Governor Francis Fauquier, William Small, professor of natural philosophy, and Small's outstanding student, Thomas Jefferson, who read law with Wythe between 1764 and 1766.
Williamsburg elected Wythe a burgess in 1754. That year he became involved in the first of two celebrated confrontations with royal authorities. When Governor Robert Dinwiddie dismissed Peyton Randolph as attorney-general, Wythe accepted the post. By the autumn Dinwiddie had relented, and Randolph returned to office. The second episode resulted from Wythe's inheritance of Chesterville, following the death in 1755 of his elder brother without an heir. George's income significantly increased, permitting a second marriage. His propertied status led to his presiding over the Elizabeth City county court, and an involvement in the Parson's Cause. In the case of the Reverend Thomas Warrington, one of five suits on the issue, Wythe upheld Virginia's Two Penny Acts reducing the value of clerical salaries paid in tobacco when the crop failed. Wythe continued to reside in Williamsburg, where his father-in-law, a prominent builder, constructed a home for the newly-weds near the governor's palace.
In 1756 and 1758 Wythe lost bids for the legislature from Elizabeth City, but in the latter year won for William and Mary. He sat for Elizabeth City from 1761 until 1766. Committee work, rather than debate, became his forte. He helped compose the burgesses' constitutional objections to the stamp tax in December 1764, but in the following May he vehemently opposed Patrick Henry's more inflammatory resolutions. At the death of Speaker John Robinson in 1766, Wythe sought the post, and then the attorney-generalship, but failed on both occasions. The same year he provoked intense criticism by advising three general-court members that they could grant bail to an accused murderer, Colonel John Chiswell, without convening the court. To many the affair smacked of class privilege. Applauding Wythe's opposition to Henry, Governor Fauquier appointed Wythe clerk of the house of burgesses in 1767, a post he held until independence. Between 1768 and 1771 Wythe also served as Williamsburg's mayor.
For a while Wythe kept a low profile in opposing imperial policies. He did not sign the association of 1769 or of 1774 blocking British imports, but in August 1774 he supported Jefferson's argument that only the crown, not parliament, had authority over Virginia. Wythe was probably clerk for Virginia's first extralegal convention in August, and in December he served on a Williamsburg committee to enforce the association. He represented Williamsburg in August 1775 at Virginia's third convention, which elected him to the continental congress. There, too, he seldom debated, but he won praise as a committee member. Late in 1775 he engaged John Adams in discussions leading to Adams's influential pamphlet for independence, Thoughts on Government. Although Wythe returned from congress too late for Virginia's vote on independence, the May 1776 convention appointed him to help design a state seal. Having returned to congress in September, he signed the Declaration of Independence, then resigned before the year's end to join Jefferson and Edmund Pendleton in revising Virginia law. During the next spring and autumn Wythe was elected speaker when Pendleton could not serve. Wythe and Pendleton had long been antagonists in the courtroom, where Pendleton's eloquence favoured him. In the revisal Wythe sided with Jefferson when Pendleton opposed abolishing primogeniture and entail or disestablishing the Anglican church. In 1778 the legislature appointed both Wythe and Pendleton to the high court of chancery, and the next year put them on the court of appeals with all other superior-court judges.
As governor, Jefferson remodelled the College of William and Mary and in 1779 named Wythe the first American professor of law, a position that perfectly suited his nature. Whether at home or the college, he taught law and the classics for most of his career, and, besides Jefferson, counted among his students James Monroe, St George Tucker, Spencer Roane, John Marshall, and Henry Clay. Because war impeded implementation of the previous revisal, the legislature asked the chancellors to prepare their revisal in 1784, only to enact most of the earlier report within two years. Wythe attended the 1787 constitutional convention in Philadelphia, but his wife's fatal illness forced him to depart early. At the state ratifying convention the next year Pendleton, who presided, frequently appointed Wythe chair of the committee of the whole. Wythe introduced the resolution for ratification. The legislature in 1789 separated the court of appeals from other courts, and transferred Pendleton to preside. Wythe remained sole chancellor. Their rivalry, formerly respectful, now became public and bitter. In over 150 appeals from Wythe's decisions, Pendleton's court reversed or modified a majority. In 1795 the chancellor rebutted his nemesis in the sometimes vituperous Wythe's Reports.
Wythe resigned from the college in 1789 and moved to Richmond in 1791. At first an enthusiastic federalist, as a member of the electoral college in 1800 he voted for Jefferson. He died, aged eighty, in Richmond on 8 June 1806 of arsenic poisoning by his nephew, George Wythe Sweeney, who resented not being Wythe's sole heir. A public critic of slavery, Wythe freed three slaves by will. He had earlier emancipated three others, but had divided twelve among his in-laws at his second wife's death. Wythe was buried the day after his death, in St John's churchyard, Richmond.
John E. Selby
W. E. Hemphill, George Wythe, the colonial Briton: a biographical study of the pre-revolutionary era in Virgina, diss., University of Virgina, 1937 · R. B. Kirtland, George Wythe: lawyer, revolutionary judge, diss., U. Mich., 1983 · D. J. Mays, Edmund Pendleton, 17211803: a biography, 2 vols. (1952) · A. T. Dill, George Wythe: teacher of liberty (1979) · J. P. Boyd and W. E. Hemphill, The murder of George Wythe: two essays (1955) · R. Kirtland, Wythe, George, ANB
attrib. H. Benbridge, watercolour drawing, c.1770, R. W. Norton Art Gallery, Shreveport, Los Angeles · J. B. Longacre, engraving, Virginia State Library, Richmond, Virginia
Wealth at death
owned three slaves and a city block: Kirtland, George Wythe