Rediscovering Americans: George Wythe

Written by Samuel Postell, Director of the Center for Liberty and Learning In Lin Manuel Miranda’s musical Hamilton, the protagonist exclaims that he is “just like my country, I’m young, scrappy, and hungry.” When one learns more about the forgotten founding fathers, one realizes that this might be an apt description not just of Hamilton, but of the entire founding generation. The quiet and meek law professor, George Wythe, paradoxically provides the perfect example.

Wythe would eventually become America’s first law professor and the man to teach Thomas Jefferson,

John Marshall, Bushrod Washington, James Madison, James Monroe, and Henry Clay how to understand the law.

However, Wythe’s was not an easy path to a comfortable academic life. When he was three years old his father died. Luckily for Wythe, his mother was educated in the classics and instilled in him a love of liberty and learning. Unluckily for Wythe, his mother died when he was a teenager. Thereafter, Wythe’s older brother inherited the family’s savings and took no interest ensuring that money went to helping George remain educated. Evidence of this fact is that George entered school at the College of William and Mary but was forced to withdraw when he could not pay school fees.

As fortune would have it, even dropping out of school could not bar Wythe from learning the law. He procured a position in the law office of Stephen Dewey. By the age of twenty his aptitude for the law led to his admittance to the Spottsville County Bar so that he could practice law in 1746.

By the year 1761, Wythe’s achievements in law and politics had become so prolific that many came to consult him on matters of law. The College of William and Mary–the very same university that had rejected him because he could not pay his school dues–elected him to the Board of Visitors. Thereafter he became the first professor of law at the college. He taught there for twenty years.

Despite taking the post at the college, Wythe continued to participate in the nation’s politics. Wythe was a signer of the Declaration of Independence and attended the Constitutional Convention. Wythe also served as Speaker of the Virginia House of Delegates in 1777.

At the Constitutional Convention, James Madison described Wythe’s character in the following language, “Mr. Wythe is the famous Professor of Law at the University of William and Mary. He is confessedly one of the most learned legal Characters of the present age. From his close attention to the study of general learning he has acquired a compleat knowledge of the dead languages and all the sciences. He is remarked for his examplary life, and universally esteemed for his good principles. No Man it is said understands the history of Government better than Mr. Wythe, – nor any one who understands the fluctuating condition to which all societies are liable better than he does, yet from his too favorable opinion of Men, he is no great politician.”

It could be said that Wythe’s “too favorable opinion of Men” was what killed him. Wythe believed in the abolition of slavery. After his brother died, he inherited the family property and the slaves who worked that property. He manumitted the slaves he inherited, gave some of them money from his own pocket until they could make a living through procuring employment, or provided them with some of his own land if they preferred. It is rumored that Wythe’s grandnephew and heir, George Wythe Sweeney, poisoned him with arsenic to stop the elder Wythe from freeing the slaves that he hoped to inherit. However, the only witness to the crime was a freed slave who was disqualified from testifying, so the grandnephew was acquitted.

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