Founding Fathers Friday: George Wythe

by Derrick G. Jeter

Contrary to popular myth, and the joking of Benjamin Franklin that “we must . . . all hang together, or most assuredly we shall all hang separately,” not a single signer of the Declaration of Independence ever had his neck stretched or was targeted for retribution by the British. A few were captured and spent time in prison because they just happened to fall into the hands of the British—all were later released. And a few had property stolen or damaged, which probably would have occurred simply due to the nature of have a war fought on their front lawn. But none were killed by British soldiers or loyalist neighbors. In truth, the British army had bigger game to bag than a gaggle of dandies committing treason with their quills. The British were hunting those committing treason with their guns—George Washington and his (literal) rag-tag rabble, known as the Continental Army. And though history is rarely less exciting than legend, in this case it is so.

This is not to say, however, that intrigue and history don’t shake hands in the lives of the signers. Two signers did die through violent means—just not at the hands of the British. Button Gwinnett died in a duel with a political rival. And George Wythe was murdered by a close relative.

Wythe (pronounced “with”), like his Virginian brethren, was the son of a wealthy planter. His father died when he was a child of three. His mother, Mary Walker Wythe, was, for that day, unusually well educated. She was proficient in Latin and in the study of the classics. And she taught young Wythe both. While in his teens, Wythe studied law with an uncle. He passed the bar at twenty. But sometime before his twenty-first birthday, his mother passed away. A large fortune fell into his lap. Freed from parental control and money to burn the young man succumbed to what the old King James called “riotous living” (Luke 15:13). According to one biographer, “His character not having become fixed, he launched out upon the dangerous sea of pleasure and dissipation, and for ten years of the morning of his life he laid aside study and sought only personal gratification.”

But something happened when Wythe was about thirty—something now lost to history. He suddenly grew serious and threw himself into the practice of law. He was conscientious and honest to the nth degree. And such scrupulousness won him a post as an attorney general within the royal legal system, a seat in the House of Burgesses in 1754, and a gavel as the mayor of Williamsburg.

While in Williamsburg, Wythe also became a professor of law at the College of William and Mary (earning him the distinction as the first law professor in the United States). During his tenure as a professor (and after his retirement) he taught and mentored such notables as James Monroe (future President of the United States), John Marshall (future Chief Justice of the Supreme Court), and Henry Clay (future Senator and Secretary of State). But Wythe’s most famous accolade was Thomas Jefferson. The two men formed a fast and enduing friendship that lasted until Wythe’s death. Of his friend and mentor, Jefferson said that Wythe was “my faithful and beloved mentor in youth and my most affectionate friend through life”; he was “my ancient master, my earliest and best friend” . . . “my second father.”

Like most colonists, whether Yankee or Southerner, Wythe was a loyal subject of the king. But the Stamp Act of 1765 changed all that. The House of Burgesses asked him to write a reply to Parliament. But the document he produced was so scathing the House feared it might lead to an open breach with the crown, so watered it down before accepting it.

In 1774, Wythe was sent to the First Continental Congress and served until just after the vote for independence in 1776. According to Benjamin Rush, “He seldom spoke in Congress, but when he did, his speeches were sensible, correct and pertinent. I have seldom known a man possess more modesty or more dovelike simplicity and gentleness of manner.” But Rush was quick to added that Wythe was “a profound lawyer.” Indeed he was.

Wythe was the first delegate to suggest that America should become a separate, equal, but loyal nation within the British Empire (much like Canada and Australia today). Along with Richard Henry Lee, Wythe also laid the colonies’ troubles at the foot of the throne (not Parliament), arguing that as king and sovereign over his subjects, George III was responsible for righting the wrongs done to them. And if the king spurned his people’s pleas, then America had a legal right to break away from Great Britain and declare herself independent.

When it became all but inevitable that America must declare her independence, Wythe was also the first to argue for formal alliances with other nations to aid her in her plight.

Ironically, Wythe wasn’t in Philadelphia on July 2, 1776, to cast his vote for independence. Nor was he in the city on August 2 to sign the document his protégé crafted. For years historians assumed that Wythe signed sometime in the fall of 1776, when he returned to Philadelphia, but recent scholarship questions whether he signed the Declaration at all—that he had a clerk or secretary sign for him. The theory is based on the difference of how Wythe typically signed his name—“G. Wythe”—and how it appears on the Declaration—“George Wythe.” However, the hypothesis hasn’t received wide acceptance in the historical community. For one thing, there appears to be little or no difference, other than the complete spelling of Wythe’s first name, in the shape of the lettering. And second, it stands to reason that Wythe might forego his “everyday” signature and choose to include his full name on such an important document.

In any case, Wythe left Congress in 1776 and returned to Virginia to help Jefferson establish a new constitution for the state, which Wyth drafted. He also designed the state’s seal. In 1777, he was elected as Speaker of the House of Burgesses. And in the same year, was elevated to the bench as one of three judges to the state’s highest court. In 1787, he served as a delegate to the Constitutional Convention, and later in the Virginia ratifying convention. Upon ratification, Wythe was elected to the United States Senate and served two terms.

An ardent lover of the classics and education, Wythe established a free school that was open to anyone who wished to learn. He also became an ardent abolitionist. When his second wife died he freed his slaves—a radical thing to do in colonial Virginia—but felt a moral obligation to their welfare. Two of his former slaves stayed with and cared for him in his old age: Lydia Braodnax, his housekeeper, and Michael Brown, a young man Wythe was tutoring in the classics. Such affection existed between Wythe and these two former slaves he included them in his will.

Wythe had no children of his own, so the majority of his inheritance would fall to his grandnephew and namesake, George Wythe Sweeney—the nineteen-year-old grandson of Wythe’s sister. Sweeney was a troubled youth who drank and gambled. Wythe thought he could mold the boy into something—after all, he had had his own rebellion as a youth—so Sweeney came to live with Wythe, Braodnax, and Brown.

Sweeney knew Wythe’s will stipulated that if Broadnax and Brown died before his great-uncle passed away he would inherit the entire estate. One morning Sweeney made a pot of coffee. Broadnax saw him drink from the pot, throw a piece of paper into the fire, and leave the house. Later that morning, the entire household drank from the same pot, and all became violently ill. Broadnax recovered, but Brown died and Wythe lingered with severe stomach cramps for weeks. Investigators, with the aid of Broadnax, pieced together what happened. Sweeney put arsenic into the pot then burned the wrapping paper used to hold the drug.

Wythe lasted two weeks before he died in terrible agony. But before his death, Wythe, suspecting his nephew poisoned him out of greed, ordered officials to search Sweeney’s room for poison and altered his will by cutting Swenney out entirely. On June 8, 1806, Wythe cried, “I am murdered” and breathed his last.

Sweeney was caught and charged with the murder of Wythe and Brown, and with forging his uncle’s name on some checks. But in a twist of historic and unjust irony, Broadnax’s damning testimony was thrown out as inadmissible because at the time blacks couldn’t testify against white men. Sweeney was convicted of forgery but acquitted of the murders. Later he appealed the forgery charge and the prosecutors declined to pursue the case. Sweeney was a free man—on a technicality and an unjust law—and walked off the pages of history.

It would be an injustice to this honorable man to end his story with the release of his murderer, however. So a much more fitting ending is this one provided by an early biographer:

Mr. Wythe was a man of great perseverance and industry, king and benevolent to the utmost; was strict in his integrity, sincere in every word, faithful in every trust; and his life presents a striking example of the force of good resolution triumphing over the seductions of pleasure and vice, and the attainments which persevering and virtuous toil will bring to the practician of these necessary ingredients for the establishment of an honorable reputation, and in the labors of a useful life.

And a useful life it was—honorable and honoring. We would do well to emulate it.