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George Wythe - One of America's Founding Fathers

Posted on Sunday, January 12, 2020

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Birth: December 3, 1726
Death: June 8, 1806 (age 79)
Colony: Virginia
Occupation: Lawyer, Politician, Judge
Significance: Signed The Declaration of Independence (at the age of 49)

George Wythe

George Wythe was one of the Founding Fathers of the United States. Born in Virginia, Wythe was tutored by his family and studied to be a lawyer. Wythe became a successful lawyer and began working as a legal clerk for the Virginia House of Burgesses in 1748. Wythe was named as the Attorney General of Virginia in 1754, but he left that office the following year after he was elected to the Virginia House of Burgesses. Wythe also taught at the College of William and Mary where from 1762 until 1767, he taught Thomas Jefferson. Wythe became a mentor of Jefferson, and the two became lifelong friends.

Despite a career that had been intertwined with the British backed Virginia Government for nearly two decades, Wythe nonetheless became an outspoken critic of the British Government following the implementation of the Stamp Tax and fierce defender of the rights of Colonists.

On June 15, 1775, the Second Continental Congress, which had begun meeting in Philadelphia a month earlier, named George Washington Commander in chief of the newly formed Continental Army. As Washington departed Philadelphia to lead the army, Wythe was elected to replace Washington as one of Virginia's delegates to the Second Continental Congress. When the time came, Wythe voted for Independence, and he signed The Declaration of Independence. After signing The Declaration of Independence, Wythe returned to Virginia where he had a hand in shaping the Virginia Constitution.

In 1779, Wythe returned to William and Marry where he became a professor of law until he was selected to serve as a judge on Virginia's high court in 1789.

Wythe was a descendant of early Quakers, and had long expressed opposition to the insitution of slavery. Wythe nonetheless continued to own and personally profit from the institution in slavery until late in his life when Wythe freed all of his slaves and became an outspoken opponent of slavery. While sitting on Virginia's high court, in 1806 he ruled in the Hudgins v. Wright case that every Virginian should be presumed free due to the state's 1776 Declaration of Rights. Wythe's ruling would have effectively ended slavery in the nation's largest slave holding state nearly half a century before the Civil War. However, Wythe's ruling was overturned and slavery continued in Virginia. 

Wythe continued to serve as a judge until 1806, when he died under mysterious circumstances, supposedly poisoned by his grand-nephew in an attempt to claim Wythe's inheritance.

George Wythe in Philadelphia

Wythe arrived in Philadelphia in 1775 as a Delegate to the Second Continental Congress. While serving as a member of the Second Continental Congress, Wythe worked at Independence Hall, and he signed The Declaration of Independence. A plaque commemorating Wythe for signing The Declaration of Independence can be found on Signers' Walk on the 600 block of Chestnut Street (between 5th and 6th Streets). Signers' Garden pays tribute to the Founding Fathers, including those such as Wythe, who signed The Declaration of Independence. Signer's Walk, Signers' Garden, and Independence Hall are all visited on The Constitutional Walking Tour!

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