Moral High Ground
George Wythe George Wythe (1726 – 1806) was a citizen of Enlightenment, deeply interested in politics and history and science. He emphasized reason and individualism. In his lifetime, he argued both publicly and privately against slavery, urging the emancipation of enslaved people and owning none himself by the end of his life. He bolstered John Locke’s assertion of the natural rights of man — that all are equal and independent and “no one ought to harm another in his life, health, liberty or possessions.”
Wythe was known for his lifelong pursuit of virtue, holding his government, particularly the legal system and those who worked within it, to a high moral standard. In letters during and after Wythe’s lifetime, Thomas Jefferson was quick to note his mentor’s virtue as “spotless” and “of the purest tint.”
In fact, the Enlightenment values Wythe held for himself, his college and his government are represented today in the three official seals he is credited with designing over the course of his life — the seal of Virginia, William & Mary’s second official seal, and the seal for the High Court of Chancery of Virginia.
Wythe bestowed his Enlightenment ideals and ideas upon his many students, who became state and federal judges, state governors, and even president. Thomas Jefferson, John Marshall, James Monroe, and St. George Tucker all benefited from the tutelage of this great thinker.
Wythe taught his students a wide range of subjects, such as Greek, Latin, mathematics, literature and science to name a few. The wider world was a classroom that prepared students to be better citizens of the world.
But the longtime Williamsburg resident’s place in America’s history goes beyond a list of the notable people he taught and the home that still stands along the Palace Green in Williamsburg.
Wythe’s resume is robust. A prominent lawyer, he was a member of Virginia’s House of Burgesses and a revolutionary delegate to Virginia Conventions and the Continental Congress. When it came time to sign the Declaration of Independence, Wythe’s fellow Virginia delegates paid him the honor of leaving the top space open so his name would be listed first.
Wythe was also a delegate to the 1787 Constitutional Convention and moderator of a contentious debate at the Virginia Ratification Convention. Wythe, with Thomas Jefferson and Edmund Pendleton, served on the General Assembly’s committee to revise and codify Virginia laws. He served as a justice of the peace in Elizabeth City County and as a judge on Virginia’s Court of Chancery.
Wythe and his students engaged the many questions facing a new nation, chipping away the first rough forms in the continuing struggle to realize the ideals of our revolutionary founding.
The inclusion of George Wythe in Colonial Williamsburg’s Nation Builders program is generously funded by Judge Paul R. Michel and Ms. Brooke England as well as The Kern Family Foundation.
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