Colonial Hall -- Biographies of America's Founding Fathers

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George Wythe


   In 1775, he was appointed a delegate from his native state to the continental congress in Philadelphia; and in the following year, assisted in bringing forward and publishing to the world the immortal declaration of independence. During this latter year, Mr. Wythe was appointed, in connection with Thomas Jefferson, Edward Pendleton, and several others, to revise the laws of the state of Virginia, and to accommodate them to the great change which had been effected in her transition from a colony to an independent state. In this important work, only the three gentlemen mentioned were actually engaged. The original commission included also the names of George Mason and Thomas Ludwell Lee; the former of whom deceased before the committee entered upon the duties assigned them; and the latter tendered his resignation, leaving the arduous task to be accomplished by the gentlemen already named.
   "The report of this committee was at length made, and showed such an intimate knowledge of the great principles of legislation, as reflected the highest honor upon those who formed it. The people of Virginia are indebted to it for the best parts of their present code of laws. Among the changes then made in the monarchical system of jurisprudence, which had been previously in force, the most important were effected by the act abolishing the right of primogeniture, and directing the real estate of persons dying intestate, to be equally divided among their children, or other nearest relations; by the act for regulating conveyances, which converted all estates in tail into fees simple, thus destroying one of the supports of the proud and overbearing distinctions of particular families; and finally by the act for the establishment of religious freedom. Had all the proposed bills been adopted by the legislature, other changes of great importance would have taken place. A wise and universal system of education would have been established, giving to the children of the poorest citizen the opportunity of attaining science, and thus of rising to honor and extensive usefulness. The proportion between crimes and punishments would have been better adjusted, and malefactors would have been made to promote the interests of the commonwealth by their labour. But the public spirit of the assembly could not keep pace with the liberal views of Wythe."
   In the year 1777, Mr. Wythe was elected speaker of the house of delegates, and during the same year was appointed judge of the high court of chancery of Virginia. On the new organization of the court of equity, in a subsequent year, he was appointed sole chancellor, a station which he fined, with great ability, for more than twenty years.
   During the revolution, Mr. Wythe suffered greatly in respect to his property. His devotion to public services left him little opportunity to attend to his private affairs. The greater part of his slaves he lost by the dishonesty of his superintendant, who placed them in the hands of the British. By economy and judicious management, however, Mr. Wythe was enabled, with the residue of his estate, and with his salary as chancellor, to discharge his debts, and to preserve his independence.
   Of the convention of 1787, appointed to revise the federal constitution, Mr. Wythe was a delegate from Virginia, having for his colleagues Washington, Henry, Randolph, Blair, Madison, and Mason. "During the debates, he acted for the most part as chairman. Being convinced that the confederation was defective in the energy necessary to preserve the union and liberty of America, this venerable patriot, then beginning to bow under the weight of years, rose in the convention, and exerted his voice, almost too feeble to be heard, in contending for a system, on the acceptance of which he conceived the happiness of his country to depend. He was ever attached to the constitution, on account of the principles of freedom and justice which it contained; and in every change of affairs he was steady in supporting the rights of man. His political opinions were always firmly republican. Though in 1798 and 1799, he was opposed to the measures which were adopted in the administration of President Adams, and reprobated the alien and sedition laws, and the raising of the army, yet he never yielded a moment to the rancour of party spirit, nor permitted the difference of opinion to interfere with his private friendships. He presided twice successively in the college of electors in Virginia, and twice voted for a president whose political principles coincided with his own.

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Last modified July 2, 2005