George Wythe of Virginia: Continental Congress Delegate, Judge, Professor of Law, and Declaration of Independence Signer
George Wythe, Thomas Jefferson’s surrogate father, is recognized as the Godfather of the Declaration of Independence by such authorities as Supreme Court Justice Lewis F. Powell, Jr. and other scholars. Wythe’s significant contributions to America’s founding document include: serving as Jefferson’s influential mentor; co-authoring a precursor to the Declaration; and organizing the Declaration’s legal brief of grievances.
Wythe is also known as the Prophet of the American Revolution for his early call for independence and for his resistance to taxation without representation. In honor of his unflagging contributions to the Revolution, Wythe’s signature was given the top place of honor among Virginia signers of the Declaration, above that of the younger Jefferson. On July 4, 1776, Wythe at age fifty was considered Virginia’s senior statesman, while Jefferson, only thirty-three, was just beginning his career in public life. Wythe was revered for his unflinching patriotism, honorable character, and principled statecraft.
Wythe and his friend John Adams of Massachusetts had been among the indefatigable workers in the Continental Congress in Philadelphia during the months leading to independence. They and their committee members labored daily to raise funds and provide supplies for General George Washington as he prepared for a David and Goliath contest against the western world’s mightiest military force.
Later, Adams was irritated that Jefferson, who had been a quiet member of Congress and also absent much of the time, “ran away with all the glory of it,” simply by putting pen to paper to draft the Declaration. Yet, Adams had strongly asserted that Jefferson should compose the document, as he was the best writer in their group and from Virginia, considered the thought-leader among Southern colonies necessary to win the Revolution.
Years later, Jefferson acknowledged that the ideals he expressed in the lofty preamble were not necessarily original, but reflected thinking prevalent at the time. Specifically, his work drew from that of John Locke, the influential English philosopher who had articulated mankind’s basic rights to life and liberty some decades earlier. During his five years as Wythe’s legal apprentice in Williamsburg, young Jefferson studied Locke, other Enlightenment thinkers, and eminent Greek philosophers. The Declaration of Independence reflects Jefferson’s comprehensive education in the humanities under Wythe’s direction.
When Jefferson began his association with Wythe in his mid-teens, he had recently lost his beloved father, Peter, at age fourteen and was in need of an excellent adult role model. Wythe had no surviving children from his marriage and took the youth under his wing, leading him on a path to greatness. Jefferson referred to him as “my second father,” “my beloved Mentor,” and “one of the greatest men of the age.”
In Philadelphia, when Jefferson was tasked with writing the Declaration of Independence, he studied a document drafted a short time earlier by a committee consisting of Wythe, Edward Rutledge, Sam Adams, and himself, considered a precursor to the Declaration. On May 29, the Continental Congress resolved to publish a “animated address” to the inhabitants of the colonies to “impress the minds of the people with the necessity of their now stepping forward to save their country, their freedom and property.” Significant numbers of Americans were not convinced of the need to sever ties with the Mother Country. The address persuaded the colonies that they must act to deliver their country from bondage by “uniting firmly, resolving wisely, and acting vigorously.” The surviving draft is in Wythe’s handwriting, and Jefferson preserved it among his most important papers.
In another contribution to the Declaration of Independence, attorney Wythe considered this document to be America’s legal brief before the court of world opinion. As such, its accusations against King George III had to be credible and verifiable. The Declaration includes a second part, after Jefferson’s inspired preamble. This consists of a long list of grievances against the king and his military, in acts of plunder, assault, murder, and other atrocities. Several months earlier, Wythe had sent letters to officials in the colonies soliciting their documented grievances.
Wythe was also instrumental in the success of the United States Constitution. If Virginia failed to ratify during the Constitution’s ratification rounds among the thirteen states, the document would have become effectively worthless; Virginia at the time was America’s largest, richest, and most powerful state. Wythe had served as chairman of the Rules Committee at the national Constitutional Convention in 1787 in Philadelphia and was a forceful advocate for a more unified nation.
At the Richmond, Virginia, Ratifying Convention in 1788, Wythe served as chairman of the Committee of the Whole. Patrick Henry and other states’ rights activists threatened to torpedo the ratification vote, fearing an over-reaching federal government. At the end of weeks of heated dispute, senior statesman George Wythe swayed the vote in favor, 89 to 79, with the promise of the addition of a Bill of Rights and a vision for a stronger America under the Constitution. “But for Wythe’s services in the Convention of 1788, Virginia would not have ratified the Constitution of the United States as it stood . . . The entire course of American history may have been materially changed,” noted Oscar Shewmake, former dean of the School of Law at the College of William and Mary.
Wythe served at William and Mary as America’s first collegiate professor of law between 1779 and 1789. He quickly turned his law school into the nation’s first leadership training program for future statesmen. At his death in 1806, his former pupils virtually ran the country, with Jefferson as president, John Marshall as influential chief justice of the Supreme Court, Henry Clay as a rising statesman, and a host of other former students in high offices at every level of the government and judiciary. Wythe arguably ranks as the most influential teacher in American history. He is recognized as the Father of American Jurisprudence.
George Wythe was born near Hampton, Virginia, spent his middle years in Williamsburg as attorney, professor, and leading legislator, and his last two decades in Richmond as a prominent judge in Virginia’s High Court of Chancery. Today, NASA’s Langley Research Center stands near his birthplace, and he would have been fascinated by his beloved country’s advancement in the greater world.
Suzanne Munson is author of the George Wythe biography, Jefferson’s Godfather: The Man Behind the Man. She lectures frequently on the Wythe-Jefferson legacy at university affiliates, historical societies, and other venues. She is currently writing a new book, America’s First Leadership Crisis: 1776.
Podcast by Maureen Quinn.
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