Before he became a writer and a judge, Nathaniel Beverley Tucker read law under George Wythe. He once described his teacher as tall and pale with a countenance that he and other boys “beheld with a feeling akin to superstitious awe.” Later, Wythe surprised the boy with a pat on the head, and wrapping Tucker’s hand with “his long bony fingers,” the elderly man took his younger charge to “a swarm of bees at work in a hive which he had fitted against one of the panes of his window.”
We remember Wythe as a prominent lawyer, a member of Virginia’s House of Burgesses and a revolutionary delegate to Virginia Conventions and the Continental Congress. He was a signer of the Declaration of Independence, 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.
Yet for all these accomplishments, George Wythe’s greatest legacy is that which Beverley Tucker remembered — a teacher.
The names of teachers are not prominently featured in American history. Individuals of “accomplishment” — politicians, activists, generals, scientists, inventors, explorers and entrepreneurs — are celebrated instead.
And yet, we are a nation founded on ideas. Other nations define themselves by national borders, ethnicity and religion. But ideas are the essence of American identity. It is a heritage that cannot be transmitted biologically. It must be taught to each generation.
George Wythe was the nation’s founding educator. Many know that Thomas Jefferson read law with the gentleman who resided on Williamsburg’s Palace Green. But Jefferson was only one of his pupils. For more than 40 years, Wythe was the teacher of revolutionaries, founders and statesmen.
Wythe scholars shaped the legal profession of the young country. More important, they served the American republic. His students sat in state and national legislatures as representatives and senators. Henry Clay served nine years as the speaker of the United States House of Representatives. Two of Wythe’s students served as United States ambassadors. He taught men who later were confirmed as secretary of war and attorney general, and four students later went on to be secretary of state.
Many of Wythe’s students became state and federal judges, including Associate Justice of the Supreme Court Bushrod Washington and Chief Justice John Marshall. Four were state governors. Two — Thomas Jefferson and James Monroe — were elected president of the United States. And this brief résumé of Wythe’s teaching career does not include those influenced by his student, St. George Tucker, who continued his mentor’s legacy of service and teaching.
Education in 18th-century Virginia was an informal system. Much depended on the family’s financial standing. The young men of well-to-do families such as the Randolphs, Byrds, Lees or Carters started their education with tutors at home. Then they went to William & Mary or even to Westminster School in London or Queen Elizabeth Grammar School in Wakefield before studying law at London’s Inner Temple or Middle Temple.
George Wythe’s parentage was not on par with these wealthy families. He followed the more common educational path of apprenticeship and mentorship.
Wythe was born in 1726, but his father died just three years later. George was a second son from a moderately successful planter’s family. The laws of primogeniture dictated that his older brother inherited the family property. Wythe needed to make his own way. The young Wythe may have attended a neighborhood school for a short time to learn basic reading, writing and arithmetic. These schools were often run by local ministers who charged tuition. Or he may have attended the Syms-Eaton Academy in nearby Hampton, Virginia, established in 1634 to provide free education to boys in the adjoining Elizabeth City and Poquoson parishes.
According to the stories recorded by Wythe’s friends and biographers, however, his mother, Margaret Walker Wythe, was the greatest influence on her son’s instruction. This was remarkable in and of itself. Women of the time rarely received a formal education, but Margaret Wythe’s Quaker parents educated their daughters as well as their sons. Margaret Wythe instilled in the young George a love of learning. What’s more, she is credited with encouraging her son in both Latin and Greek. Jefferson understood that while young George read the New Testament in Greek, “his mother held an English one to aid him in rendering the Greek text.” As a result, Wythe became “the best Latin and Greek scholar in the state.” And “by his own reading,” Wythe developed a good knowledge of mathematics along with “natural and moral philosophy.” Some biographers speculate that Wythe spent a brief time studying at William & Mary, but there is no evidence for it. It seems more likely that Wythe was a self-made scholar.
In 1742 or 1743, George Wythe went to live with his uncle Stephen Dewey, a prominent lawyer in Charles City, Virginia. The young man worked as a law clerk for his uncle and immersed himself in the time-honored legal apprenticeship — reading law with a member of the bar. Clerking gave apprentices practical lessons in the business of lawyering. In addition, the young clerk gained access to the master’s law library.
Young men quite literally read legal statutes, the legal cases of precedence, and the commentaries of such legal minds as Sir Edward Coke and, in the later 18th century, William Blackstone. After three or four years of study, Wythe was examined by members of the bar and found competent to practice law. In 1746 and 1747, he was admitted to the bar of several Virginia county courts.
Wythe’s apprenticeship in law did not conclude his education. Throughout his life, George Wythe demonstrated a thirst for learning and for teaching. Following the death of his first wife, Wythe moved to Williamsburg and was admitted to the bar of Virginia’s highest court, the General Court. He served as a committee clerk for the House of Burgesses and was later elected burgess. When his brother died childless, Wythe inherited the family property in Elizabeth City County. He married Elizabeth Taliaferro, whose father, Richard Taliaferro, gave the couple a life interest in the Palace Green house that bears his name today.
Wythe rose significantly in Virginia society. By the 1760s, he was associated with the elite and learned class of Virginia. His Palace Green neighbors Robert Carter and Gov. Francis Fauquier were among his colleagues. So, too, was William Small, a Scottish enlightenment philosopher and the professor of natural philosophy at William & Mary. Wythe gained a reputation not just for his knowledge and skill at the law, but as a learned and educated gentleman.
More important, Wythe was wont to share that knowledge with others.
George and Elizabeth did not have any children of their own, but there were always boys in the household. For most of his time in Williamsburg, Wythe conducted a school at his home. Boys began their lessons with Wythe at about age 12. It was not an easy course of study. Littleton Waller Tazewell described the daily regimen.
At sunrise, the student presented himself at the door of Wythe’s study. This sunrise session was devoted to the study of Greek. The master browsed his library and randomly picked a text, handed it to the student and bade him read. As the student read, Wythe (without the benefit of any other text) elaborated on grammar, word definition and historical context. At the conclusion of the lesson, the student was excused to have his breakfast. At noon, the boy returned for a two-hour lesson in Latin structured much the same as the morning’s Greek lesson. After a break, the student returned at 4 o’clock to focus on mathematics (taught using French texts) as well as lessons to address the works of English authors, the character of leaders and public affairs.
This was an avocation for Wythe. St. George Tucker placed his stepson, Richard Randolph, under Wythe’s instruction and made the mistake of offering the teacher compensation. The parent was contacted by William Nelson, a close family friend, and advised that Wythe did not accept tuition and that Tucker “had better never mention the subject to him again.”
For a Wythe scholar, lessons in Greek, Latin, mathematics or even the law were only a beginning. Wythe’s love of learning placed him at the center of a like-minded enlightened community. Every student associated with the Wythe household benefited from the conversation and the scientific inquiry engendered by a host of learned visitors. Jefferson described how Wythe “introduced me to the acquaintance and familiar table of Governor Fauquier, the ablest man who had ever filled that office.” It was to these Fauquier gatherings that included “Dr. Small & Mr. Wythe” and others that Jefferson “owed much instruction.”
American revolutionaries reshaped institutions to reflect enlightenment ideals. In Virginia, education was one institution that received attention. William & Mary’s board of visitors, with Gov. Thomas Jefferson’s encouragement, undertook a redesign of the cur-riculum in 1779. It instituted new professorships in anatomy and medicine, modern languages, as well as law and police. The board elected George Wythe the first American professor of law and police.
For William & Mary, Wythe developed a course of lectures based on William Blackstone’s 1766 Commentaries on the Laws of England. More innovative, he met with his students in the Capitol building and conducted moot courts and legislative assemblies, a critical linking of theory, scholarship and practical application.
George Wythe was, Jefferson recalled, “of the purest tint; his integrity inflexible, and his justice exact.” Wythe was “of warm patriotism” and devoted “to liberty, and the natural and equal rights of men.” Students witnessed his character and it had an impact. These scholars founded and constructed the constitutional republic we enjoy today, and they built it on the enlightenment principles learned from their teacher.
In an era of monarchy and empire, Wythe’s students conceived a nation founded on liberty, equality and the rule of law. They embraced aspirational ideals, understanding that they, as individuals, fell short of the ideal. Every subsequent generation of Americans has embraced these founding principles and struggled with the nobility of our Founders’ aspirations.
This does not mean that they were of one mind. John Marshall’s leadership on the Supreme Court strengthened the role of the federal government in the republic. Thomas Jefferson advocated for limited government and expertly honed the craft of American partisan politics. James Monroe, when ambassador to France, embroiled himself in controversy, criticizing President Washington, John Jay and the treaty with Great Britain. Henry Clay became the “Great Compromiser” who played a key role in allowing the expansion of slavery, a compromise that, in the end, heightened the sectional crisis in America. St. George Tucker laid before the General Assembly a proposal for gradual emancipation in Virginia. As governor of Virginia, Littleton Waller Tazewell fought to preserve the institution of slavery and decried radical northern abolitionists.
Wythe’s students engaged the many questions facing a new nation and the struggle to realize the ideals of our revolutionary founding. Their work building our republic is a testament to the power of education and the teaching legacy of George Wythe.
William E. White is an American historian, author and civics educator. Retired after a 50-year career at The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, he is a visiting distinguished scholar at Christopher Newport University’s Center for American Studies.