Forgotten Founding Fathers: George Wythe

George Wythe: The Fathers' Mentor

George Wythe (1726-1806) of Virginia was a signer of the Declaration of Independence and delegate to the Constitutional Convention. After serving as a colonial politician, he became a professor of law and police at the College of William and Mary, where he taught Thomas Jefferson, James Monroe, John Marshall and Henry Clay.

George Wythe: The Fathers' Mentor

George Wythe (1726-1806) of Virginia was a signer of the Declaration of Independence and delegate to the Constitutional Convention. After serving as a colonial politician, he became a professor of law and police at the College of William and Mary, where he taught Thomas Jefferson, James Monroe, John Marshall and Henry Clay.

Wythe started his career in 1746 as a clerk in the House of Burgesses and was appointed Virginia attorney general in 1753. In 1764, he drafted a resolution with the Committee of Petition and Remonstrance to protest the Stamp Act to the House of Commons. Wythe opposed Parliament's legislation but didn't align with Patrick Henry and other colonial radicals. He then served as mayor of the Virginia colonial capital of Williamsburg for one year before becoming a professor at William and Mary in 1769. He worked as a professor for more than 20 years, and Wythe greatly enjoyed nurturing young minds.

As a delegate to the Continental Congress, he voted in favor of independence and the declaration. After the Virginia Declaration of Rights was ratified in 1776, Wythe argued to have blacks included among "all men" born free and independent. "They should be considered free until proven otherwise," he stipulated, but to no avail. In 1777, Wythe was elected Speaker of the Virginia House of Delegates, and in 1789 became a judge on the Chancery Court of Virginia. He later designed Virginia's state seal inscribed with the motto "Sic Semper Tyrannis" ("Thus Always to Tyrants") and worked on the committee that revised Virginia's laws.

His service at the Constitutional Convention was brief and he didn't sign the document, but a nineteenth century historian wrote about Wythe, "Being convinced that the confederation was defective in the energy necessary to preserve the union and liberty of America, this venerable patriot, then beginning to bow under the weight of years, rose in the convention, and exerted his voice, almost too feeble to be heard, in contending for a system, on the acceptance of which he conceived the happiness of his country to depend. He was ever attached to the Constitution, on account of the principles of freedom and justice which it contained; and in every change of affairs he was steady in supporting the rights of man." Wythe's grandnephew and heir accidentally poisoned him with arsenic.

Jefferson said about his friend, colleague and mentor, "No man ever left behind him a character more venerated than George 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 man, he might truly be called the Cato of his country. ... He was 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 County and Wytheville in Virginia, and George Wythe College in Utah are named in his honor.

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Tags: constitution, delcaration of independence, forgotten founding fathers, founding father, Virginia (all tags)

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