Guest Author - Vance Rowe
George Wythe, pronounced “with”, was born in 1726 and was an influential leader when he was an adult. His father died shortly after his birth and was raised and educated by his mother. He had a love of learning and that followed him through his life. He was highly respected as an adult and even became the first American Law Professor, giving him the moniker of “Father of American Jurisprudence. He was born in Virginia in Chesterville which is now known as Hampton. He was also the first delegate from Virginia to sign the Declaration of Independence. He was not there the day the Declaration was signed, but, he was so well respected, that the signers left a space for him to put his signature. Although he was a representative from Virginia and a delegate in the Constitutional Convention, he left the convention before the final draft of the Constitution was drawn up and was not able to sign it.
George Wythe studied law with fervor and in 1746, he was admitted into Virginia’s General Court bar and in 1748, he was elected to the York County bar. He was also appointed clerk to the Committee of Privileges and Elections of the House of Burgesses in October of that year, just a couple of months after his young wife died. George Wythe served as mayor of Williamsburg from 1768 to 1769. In 1775, George Wythe was elected to the Continental Congress.
He was a proponent for America’s quest for independence and helped form the government of Virginia. He even designed the state seal of Virginia with the words “Sic Temper Tyrannis” and is still used today. Then in 1779, he was elected to the new Chair of Law at William and Mary College and became the first law professor. His students included Thomas Jefferson, James Monroe and Henry Clay. Thomas Jefferson grew very close to Wythe and considered him his “second father”.
He died in 1806 and was buried at the same church where Patrick Henry gave his famous “Give Me Liberty or Give me Death” speech. He was allegedly poisoned by his grand nephew, George Wythe Sweeney. Sweeney was in Wythe’s will as was a former slave of Wythe’s named Lydia Broadnax and her son. He was a slave owner but was also a proponent for abolition and freed his slaves. Broadnax stayed to work for him. Sweeney took offense to Broadnax and her son being in the will, so he poisoned them and his uncle. He also wrote checks against Sweeney’s fortune and poisoned him so he wouldn’t find out. When Wythe found this out, he changed the will, taking Sweeney out of it. Wythe died shortly after and Sweeney was charged with the murder but there was not enough evidence to convict him. Lydia Broadnax survived the poisoning but could not testify as blacks were not allowed to testify against whites back then.
George Wythe left behind a legacy that is virtually unmatched and was truly a shaper of our government as we know it today.