Thomas Jefferson Papers

Thomas Jefferson’s Notes for a Biography of George Wythe, [ca. 31 August 1820]

Notes for a Biography of George Wythe

[ca. 31 Aug. 1820]

Notes for the biography of George Wythe.

George Wythe was born about the year 1727. or 1728. of a respectable family in the county of Elizabeth city on the shores of the Chesapeak.

he inherited from his father a fortune sufficient for independance & ease.

he had not the benefit of a regular education in the schools, but acquired a good one of himself, and without assistance; insomuch as to become the best Latin and Greek scholar in the state. it is said that while reading the Greek testament his mother held an English one to aid him in rendering the Greek text conformably with that. he also acquired by his own reading a good knolege of Mathematics, of natural and moral philosophy.

he engaged in the study of the law under the direction of a mr Lewis of that profession, and went early to the bar of the General court, then occupied by men of great ability, learning & dignity in their profession.

he soon became eminent among them, and, in process of time, the first at the bar, taking into consideration his superior learning, correct elocution, and logical style of reasoning. for in pleading he never indulged himself with an useless or declamatory thought or word; and became as distinguished by correctness and purity of conduct in his profession, as he was by his industry & fidelity to those who employed him.

he was early elected to the House of representatives, then called the House of Burgesses, and continued in it until the revolution.   on the first dawn of that, instead of higgling on halfway principles, as others did who feared to follow their reason, he took his stand on the solid ground that the only link of political union between us and Great Britain was the identity of our Executive; that that nation and it’s parliament had no more authority over us than we had over them, and that we were co-ordinate nations with Great Britain and Hanover.

in 1774. he was a member of a Committee of the H. of Burgesses, appointed to prepare a Petition to the king, Memorial to the H. of Lords, and a Remonstrance to the H. of Commons, on the subject of the proposed stamp act. he was made draughtsman1 of the last, and following his own principles, he so far overwent the timid hesitations of his colleagues that his draught was subjected by them to material modifications. and, when the famous resolutions of mr Henry, in 1775. were proposed, it was not on any difference of principle that they were opposed by Wythe, Randolph, Pendleton, Nicholas, Bland and other worthies, who had long been the habitual leaders of the House; but because those papers of the preceding session had already expressed the same sentiments and assertions of right, and that an answer to them was yet to be expected.

In Aug. 1775. he was appointed a member of Congress, and in 1776. signed the Declaration of Independance, of which he had, in debate, been an eminent supporter. and subsequently in the same year he was appointed, by the legislature of Virginia, one of a Committee to revise the laws of the state, as well of British, as of colonial enactment, and to prepare bills for reenacting them with such alterations as the change in the form and principles of the2 government, and other circumstances required: and of this work he executed the period commencing with the revolution in England, and ending with the establishment of the new government here;3 excepting the Acts for regulating descents, for religious freedom, and for proportioning crimes & punishments.

In 1777. he was chosen Speaker of the H. of Delegates, being of distinguished learning in Parliamentary law and proceedings; and towards the end of the same year he was appointed one of the three Chancellors to whom that department of the Judiciary was confided, on the first organisation of the new government. on a subsequent change of the form of that court, he was appointed sole Chancellor in which office he continued to act until his death which happened in June 1806. about the 78th or 79th year of his age.

Mr Wythe had been twice married, first, I believe to a daughter of the mr Lewis, with whom he had studied law: and afterwards to a miss Taliaferro, of a wealthy and respectable family, in the neighborhood of Williamsburg, by neither of whom did he leave issue.

No man ever left behind him a character more venerated than G. 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 rights of men, he might truly be called the Cato of his country, without the avarice of the Roman; for a more disinterested person never lived. temperance and regularity in all his habits gave him general good health, and his unaffected modesty and suavity of manners endeared him to every one.

he was of easy elocution, his language chaste, methodical in the arrangement of his matter, learned and logical in the use of it, and of great urbanity in debate. not quick of apprehension, but with a little time profound in penetration, and sound in conclusion. in his philosophy he was firm, and neither troubling, nor perhaps trusting any one with his religious creed, he left to the world the conclusion that that religion must be good which could produce a life of such exemplary virtue

his stature was of the middle size, well formed and proportioned and the features of his face manly, comely and engaging.   Such was George Wythe, the honor of his own, and model of future times.

MS (ICN: Thomas Jefferson Letters); entirely in TJ’s hand; undated. PoC (DLC: TJ Papers, 218:38933–4); edge chipped. Enclosed in TJ to John Sanderson, 31 Aug. 1820.

George Wythe (ca. 1726–1806), attorney, educator, public official, and signer of the Declaration of Independence, was probably born in Elizabeth City County. Largely self-educated, he was admitted to practice in the county courts in 1746. Wythe moved within a few years to Williamsburg, where he rose to prominence within both the legal profession and colonial politics. He held a seat in the Virginia House of Burgesses, 1754–55 and 1758–68, and was clerk of the House, 1768–76. Wythe mentored TJ while the latter was a student at the College of William and Mary early in the 1760s, and the two men remained close thereafter. During the Revolutionary War he supported independence as a member of the Second Continental Congress, 1775–76, undertook, along with TJ and Edmund Pendleton, the task of revising the laws of Virginia, and was Speaker of the House of Delegates, 1777–78. In the latter year Wythe was elected a judge of Virginia’s High Court of Chancery, a position he retained until his death. A delegate who served only briefly at the 1787 constitutional convention in Philadelphia, he voted in favor of the new federal constitution at his state’s ratification convention the following year. After serving as professor of law at William and Mary for a decade, Wythe relocated by 1791 to Richmond, where he continued to take students. He died there, having apparently been poisoned by his grandnephew George Wythe Sweeney, the principal beneficiary of his will. Sweeney was never prosecuted for his actions because the key testimony of Lydia Broadnax was inadmissible under state law due to her status as a free woman of color. However, Wythe lingered long enough to disinherit him. In codicils to his will Wythe left TJ his library and some silver from which TJ had commemorative cups made (ANB description begins John A. Garraty and Mark C. Carnes, eds., American National Biography, 1999, 24 vols. description ends ; DAB description begins Allen Johnson and Dumas Malone, eds., Dictionary of American Biography, 1928–36, 20 vols. description ends ; Imogene E. Brown, American Aristides: A Biography of George Wythe [1975]; John Sanderson and others, eds., Biography of the Signers to the Declaration of Independence [Philadelphia, 1820–27; Poor, Jefferson’s Library description begins Nathaniel P. Poor, Catalogue. President Jefferson’s Library, 1829 description ends , 5 (no. 152)], 2:155–80; Leonard, General Assembly description begins Cynthia Miller Leonard, comp., The General Assembly of Virginia, July 30, 1619–January 11, 1978: A Bicentennial Register of Members, 1978 description ends ; Bernard Schwartz, Barbara Wilcie Kern, and Richard B. Bernstein, eds., Th: Jefferson and Bolling v. Bolling: Law and the Legal Profession in Pre-Revolutionary America [1997]; William and Mary Provisional List description begins A Provisional List of Alumni, Grammar School Students, Members of the Faculty, and Members of the Board of Visitors of the College of William and Mary in Virginia. From 1693 to 1888, 1941 description ends , 50; Doc. Hist. Ratification description begins Merrill Jensen, John P. Kaminski, and others, eds., The Documentary History of the Ratification of the Constitution, 1976– , 29 vols. description ends , vols. 8–10; Julian P. Boyd and W. Edwin Hemphill, The Murder of George Wythe: Two Essays [1955]; Richmond Enquirer, 10 June 1806; gravestone inscription in Saint John’s Episcopal churchyard, Richmond; TJ to John Le Tellier, 27 Mar. 1810).

Zachary lewis was Wythe’s father-in-law, but Wythe actually studied law under Stephen Dewey. our executive: George III, king of Great Britain. The petition, memorial, and remonstrance of the House of Burgesses protesting the proposed Stamp Act dated from 1764, not 1774. Patrick Henry’s famous resolutions on the same subject passed in 1765, not 1775.

The revolution in england was the so-called “Glorious Revolution” of 1688, which resulted in the ouster of the Catholic James II and accession to the throne of his Protestant son-in-law and daughter, William III and Mary II. TJ had himself drafted the Virginia acts for regulating descents, for religious freedom, and for proportioning crimes & punishments (PTJ description begins Julian P. Boyd, Charles T. Cullen, John Catanzariti, Barbara B. Oberg, James P. McClure, and others, eds., The Papers of Thomas Jefferson, 1950– , 43 vols. description ends , 2:391–3, 492–507, 545–53).

1Manuscript: “draughstman.”

2Preceding four words interlined in place of “of.”

3Word interlined.

Index Entries

  • Bible; Greek language search
  • Bland, Richard; and Stamp Act Resolutions search
  • Cato the Elder; mentioned search
  • Continental Congress, Second; and Declaration of Independence search
  • Declaration of Independence; signers of search
  • Dewey, Stephen search
  • George III, king of Great Britain; mentioned search
  • Great Britain; and Stamp Act (1765) search
  • Great Britain; House of Commons search
  • Great Britain; House of Lords search
  • Great Britain; parliament of search
  • Great Britain; Revolution of1688 (“Glorious Revolution”) search
  • Greek language; works in search
  • Henry, Patrick (1736–99); and Stamp Act Resolves search
  • Jefferson, Thomas; Opinions on; G. Wythe search
  • Jefferson, Thomas; Writings; A Bill Directing the Course of Descents search
  • Jefferson, Thomas; Writings; A Bill for Proportioning Crimes and Punishments search
  • Jefferson, Thomas; Writings; Notes for a Biography of George Wythe search
  • Jefferson, Thomas; Writings; Virginia Act for Establishing Religious Freedom search
  • Lewis, Zachary search
  • Nicholas, Robert Carter (1729–80); and Stamp Act Resolutions search
  • Pendleton, Edmund (1721–1803); and Stamp Act Resolutions search
  • Randolph, Peyton (ca.1723–75); and Stamp Act Resolutions search
  • religion; Virginia Act for Establishing Religious Freedom search
  • Stamp Act (1765); resolutions opposing search
  • Stamp Act Crisis; memorials and petitions in response to search
  • Virginia; Act for establishing Religious Freedom search
  • Virginia; and Stamp Act (1765) search
  • Virginia; courts of chancery search
  • Virginia; General Assembly search
  • Virginia; General Court search
  • Virginia; House of Burgesses search
  • Virginia; House of Delegates search
  • Virginia; laws of search
  • Wythe, Ann (Anne) Lewis (George Wythe’s first wife) search
  • Wythe, Elizabeth Taliaferro (George Wythe’s second wife) search
  • Wythe, George; family of search
  • Wythe, George; identified search
  • Wythe, George; TJ on search
  • Wythe, George; TJ’s Notes for a Biography of George Wythe search