Wythe was born late in 1726 or early in 1727, almost certainly at Chesterville, the family plantation on Back River in Elizabeth City County. He was probably the youngest of the three children of Thomas Wythe and Margaret Walker Wythe. The Wythes were a substantial but not wealthy family. For four generations their enslaved laborers had cultivatedat Chesterville, and four generations of Thomas Wythes had sat on the Elizabeth City County Court, including George Wythe’s older brother. Although there was a wharf at Chesterville the family also purchased a half interest in a wharf in the town of Hampton.
Wythe’s father died in 1729. His will entailed the family land to the elder son, and as a result when Wythe was a young man he had to find another means of support than farming. His mother, who did not remarry and reared him until her death in about 1746, was certainly the most formative influence in his early life. Unlike most women in Virginia at the time, she was literate. She was the daughter of George Walker and Anne Keith Walker, who educated their children regardless of gender. Wythe’s great-grandfather was the fiery college-educated Scot George Keith, a colonial Quaker missionary who had been a crusader against slavery. Wythe owned at least one book his great-grandfather wrote and had probably read Keith’s militant pamphlet on slavery. Wythe’s passionate devotion to liberty for his country and all its inhabitants thus likely also welled up out of his mother’s tutelage. Wythe learned reading, writing, arithmetic, and the basics of Latin at his mother’s knee. Whether he ever had any formal schooling is uncertain, but he loved learning, apparently taught himself Greek, geometry, and natural history (that is, science), studied Hebrew in the 1790s, read voraciously all of his life, and eventually became a teacher. Latin and Greek words pepper his judicial opinions.
Choosing to be a lawyer, Wythe had a pedestrian experience studying under his uncle Stephen Dewey and essentially taught himself law with the aid of Benjamin Waller, an accomplished Williamsburg attorney. In June 1746 Wythe received his license to practice law and moved to Fredericksburg to work with Waller’s eminent brother-in-law Zachary Lewis. On December 26, 1747, Wythe secured a marriage license and on that date or soon thereafter married his law partner’s daughter Anne Lewis. Wythe’s practice blossomed but on August 8, 1748, his wife died, probably of complications of pregnancy. Devastated, Wythe took to drink, but with the help of friends soon pulled himself together and moved to Williamsburg, where his Waller connections aided him to build a lucrative law practice.
Political Career and Revolution
In October 1748 members of the House of Burgesses named Wythe clerk of the important committees of Privileges and Elections and of Propositions and Grievances. In the next assembly, which first met in February 1752, Wythe again was appointed to the influential clerkships. Late in January 1754 the lieutenant governor appointed Wythe acting attorney general of the colony. He served until early in 1755 and again from November 1766 to June 1767.
In the autumn of 1754 Wythe won a special election to fill a vacant seat in the House of Burgesses representing Williamsburg and served on the Committee for Courts of Justice as well as the Committees of Privileges and Elections and of Propositions and Grievances, for both of which he had formerly been clerk. Early the following year, after Wythe’s brother died childless, he inherited Chesterville and succeeded his brother on the Elizabeth City County Court. About the same time on an unrecorded date Wythe married Elizabeth Taliaferro, the teenaged daughter of a James City County planter. They had no children and lived in Williamsburg in what became known as the Wythe House, which his father-in-law designed and gave him a life estate in. During probably the happiest time of Wythe’s life he formed close social and intellectual friendships with William Small, a young professor at the College of William and Mary, the learned lieutenant governor, and, when he arrived in the 1760s to be Wythe’s student, Thomas Jefferson. The four dined together often. Jefferson was the first of several young men who under Wythe.
Wythe was among the original trustees for the colony’s hospital for the mentally ill, a Williamsburg alderman for two decades, and the city’s mayor in 1768–1769. He did not win reelection to the House of Burgesses in 1756, but in 1758 the president and professors of the College of William and Mary chose him to represent the college, and he won elections in 1761 and 1766 to represent Elizabeth City County. Wythe served on the same committees as in his first term and beginning in 1764 on the Committee on Trade. He was one of the most active members of the House. From March 1768 to the end of the colonial period, Wythe was the last clerk of the House of Burgesses.
Wythe had opposed‘s resolutions against the in 1765 because he believed them too strong, but he did not approve of the law. He was a member of the committee that residents of Williamsburg elected late in 1774 to enforce the Virginia and Continental Associations adopted to pressure English merchants to force an alteration in Parliamentary policies. The Virginia Convention of July–August 1775 elected Wythe a delegate to the Second Continental Congress. Along with John Adams, Samuel Adams, and , he proved to be one of the strongest advocates for American independence. Wythe’s signature is the first of the Virginians’ signatures on the Declaration of Independence. Late in June before Congress voted on independence, he returned to Williamsburg to serve during the final weeks of the Convention of 1776 that adopted the first written constitution for Virginia.
On November 5, 1776, the House of Delegates named Wythe, Jefferson, Edmund Pendleton, and two others who declined to participate to a committee to revise Virginia’s laws consistent with revolutionary principles. In June 1779 they submitted 126 comprehensive bills to the General Assembly, and during the following decade the assembly passed most of them, some of them after modification.
Judge and Law Professor
Wythe represented Williamsburg in the House of Delegates during the 1777–1778 sessions and on May 8, 1777, was elected Speaker of the House. On January 14, 1778, the General Assembly elected Wythe a judge of the newly created High Court of Chancery. When Virginia created a Supreme Court of Appeals in 1789 he chose to remain as the state’s sole chancellor and served until his death. He was resourceful, forward-looking, courageous, and immune to popular pressure as a judge. In Commonwealth v. Caton (1782) Wythe made one of the earliest and most persuasive arguments for the power of the courts to rule statutes unconstitutional. In Page v. Pendleton (1793), to the consternation of the many Virginians who owed pre-Revolutionary debts to British creditors and believed that victory had meant cancellation of them, Wythe ruled that the debts were indeed payable. He twice confounded the legal basis of white Virginia’s prosperity by holding that under the language in the Commonwealth’s Bill of Rights—”all men are by nature equally free”—slavery was unconstitutional, but the Court of Appeals overruled Wythe’s assertion in Pleasants v. Pleasants (1799) and Hudgins v. Wright (1806).
Wythe was professor of law and police at the College of William and Mary from 1780 through 1789, the first law professor at an American university, and among his students was John Marshall. He taught against slavery during the decade. After Wythe’s wife died on August 18, 1787, he began freeing some of his slaves and owned none at his death. Moreover, he paid those who stayed to work for him. He was shunned by many for these views.
In December 1786 the General Assembly named Wythe a member of the state’s outstanding delegation to the Constitutional Convention. His only major contribution to that august body was the rules of procedure because he was called home by the illness of his wife less than a month after the convention had met. Consumed with grief at her death Wythe did not return to Philadelphia. In 1788 his York County neighbors surprised him by selecting him as a delegate to the Virginia Ratification Convention. Wythe ably chaired the Committee of the Whole during the intensive debate, then stepped down to endorse the Constitution and move its adoption. It passed by a vote of 89 to 79.
In 1791 Wythe moved to Richmond where he bought a home. He had had a bad experience with his overseer at Chesterville, who proved to be a British spy and apparently pillaged the property. Wythe allowed his chosen heir, his sister’s son George Wythe Sweeney, and his wife to enjoy the estate from 1786 to 1792, but Wythe’s trust proved misdirected. In 1792 Wythe sold Chesterville to a Richmond merchant who was unable to maintain payments. Wythe was forced to buy the property at a tax sale in 1801 and sold it again in 1802.
Wythe’s familial attention turned to his great-nephew, George Wythe Sweeney Jr., who moved into his home by 1806 following the deaths of his parents. In his will Wythe made the young man the residuary legatee of his estate. A gambler, rake, and thief, Sweeney poisoned Wythe for the inheritance. The only witness against Sweeney was an African American woman who under Virginia’s laws could not give testimony against a white person, so Sweeney was not convicted. George Wythe lived long enough to disinherit Sweeney before dying at his Richmond home on June 8, 1806. After his body laid in repose at the Capitol, he was buried in the cemetery at what later came to be known as Saint John’s Church.