George Wythe was born in Elizabeth City County, Virginia (now part of the City of Hampton). He became a prominent lawyer and a scholar of the classics. He taught a large number of our country’s early leaders, including Thomas Jefferson, John Marshall and Henry Clay. Wythe also served in all three branches of government.
Wythe was an early advocate of American independence, a member of the Second Continental Congress and a signer of the Declaration of Independence. He was instrumental in Virginia’s ratification of the U.S. Constitution, a development crucial to its adoption by the country as a whole. He also advocated for law reform and judicial development in Virginia following the Revolution.
Wythe was also an early advocate of abolition. He wanted enslaved Black men, women and children freed, with compensation for their past labor. He opposed transporting freed people to Africa. He supported education for Black people. Nevertheless, until late in life, he owned enslaved human beings and benefitted from their labor.
In 1753, Wythe moved to Williamsburg to practice law. Following the completion of Thomas Jefferson’s undergraduate studies at William & Mary, Wythe became his law professor, mentor, and friend. Later, when William & Mary’s Board of Visitors created America’s first law school on December 4, 1779, Jefferson, then Governor of Virginia, recruited Wythe to lead the new school.
He did so from 1779 to 1789, introducing a new curriculum for legal study, which impacted legal training elsewhere as law schools were started. Among his early students was John Marshall, later Chief Justice of the United States. Jefferson and Wythe intended the new law school to train lawyers devoted to the public good — “citizen lawyers” in modern terms.
In 1791, Wythe left Williamsburg and moved to Richmond to focus on his work as a judge. As a teacher, Wythe had urged the abolition of slavery. As a judge he broke with prevailing Virginia law and ruled in 1806 that all men were “presumptively free in Virginia” in accord with the Commonwealth’s 1776 Bill of Rights. He wrote “freedom is the birthright of every human being.” In a 1799 case involving a will, Wythe ordered 185 enslaved Black persons freed immediately and another 246 freed upon reaching age 30, as the will provided. For all those freed, Wythe ordered pay for their uncompensated labor. This opinion was partially reversed by the Virginia Court of Appeals. His 1806 ruling was wholly reversed by the same court.
Notwithstanding his steady opposition, Wythe benefited from slavery. He inherited his family’s Chesterville Plantation and those enslaved there. When he sold the property in 1795, it was advertised as including “some negroes.” Wythe also married into a family that enslaved Black people. When his wife died in 1787, most of the enslaved people in their household reverted to her family. Before Wythe moved to Richmond, he freed four individuals from slavery. At his death, Wythe owned no human beings.
Wythe’s household in Richmond consisted of a Black woman, Lydia Broadnax, whom he had freed and who had become his paid housekeeper; a free Black youth, Michael Brown, whom Wythe was teaching Greek and Latin; and a wayward great-nephew, George Wythe Sweeney, whom Wythe sought to reform. When Sweeney learned that some of Wythe’s estate was to go to the two Black people in the household, he was incensed. He likely poisoned them and his great uncle. Wythe and Brown died agonizing deaths. Broadnax survived. Virginia law prevented her from testifying against Sweeney at his murder trial. Wythe’s death was mourned nationally, with special intensity in the Commonwealth.
Many, perhaps most, of Wythe’s papers have been lost. They likely would have shed significant light on Revolutionary and early national history, slavery included, and they would have provided valuable insight into the first years of legal training at William & Mary.
It is likely Wythe designed the Temple Seal that became William & Mary’s coat of arms from 1783-1929 when the university restored its Colonial arms. The Seal is now used by the William & Mary Law School. A George Wythe Society, devoted to service, has long existed at the Law School.
Statues of John Marshall and George Wythe stand together at the school. Wythe’s home on Palace Green in Colonial Williamsburg is one of that institution’s prime teaching and architectural resources.
Material in the Special Collections Research Center
- George Wythe in SCRC Database
- George Wythe Shoe Buckle in SCRC University Archives Artifacts Collection
References and Further Reading
- Chadwick, Bruce. I Am Murdered: George Wythe, Thomas Jefferson, and the Killing that Shocked a Nation. Omaha, Neb.: The Notable Trials Library, 2015. (Call Number: HV6555.U62 R42 2009a)
Dill, Alonzo Thomas. George Wythe, Teacher of Liberty. Williamsburg, Va.: Virginia Independence Bicentennial Commission, 1979. (Call Number: KF363.W9 D5)
Kirtland, Robert Bevier. George Wythe: Lawyer, Revolutionary, Judge. New York: Garland, 1986. (Call Number: KF363.W9 K57 1986)
McKnight, Andrew Nunn. "Lydia Broadnax, Slave, and Free Woman of Color," Southern Studies: An Interdisciplinary Journal of the South 5, no. 1/2 (1994): 17-30.
Munson, Suzanne Harman. Jefferson’s Godfather: The Man Behind the Man: George Wythe, Mentor to the Founding Fathers. Richmond, Va.: The Oaklea Press, 2018. (Call Number: KF363.W9 M86 2018)
Strahan, Thomas. "George Wythe – Revolutionary, Lawyer, Teacher and Judge," Christian Lawyer 6, no. 29 (1976): 24-33.
William & Mary Law School, Wolf Law Library. "Wythepedia: The George Wythe Encyclopedia." http://lawlibrary.wm.edu/wythepedia/index.php/Main_Page.