Ornamental Separator

Extolling Virtues

Newest Nation Builder examines a Founder’s moral fiber in interpreting George Wythe

The seal of Virginia depicts the triumph of virtue over tyranny. A man, crown fallen from his head, lies prostrate as Virtus, personified as an Amazon warrior with a spear in one hand and a sword in the other, treads on him.

Emphasizing the point, the motto Sic semper tyrannis — “Thus always to tyrants” — runs underneath. The design, which dates back to 1776, remains the commonwealth of Virginia’s seal to this day. And it is largely credited to America’s first law professor, George Wythe.

Wythe wanted his government, particularly the legal system and those who worked within it, to live up to a high moral standard.

“Public and moral virtue were very important to this man,” said Robert Weathers, who began portraying George Wythe during the fall as part of Colonial Williamsburg’s Nation Builders program. “It’s obvious in the way that he teaches, in what he puts into the government and in how he conducts his life.”

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.” George Wythe Munford, only 3 years old when his namesake died, grew up learning Wythe’s reputation from his father, William Munford, a former Wythe student. “[Men] knew he held the even scales of justice well balanced in his hands, and that nothing but undoubted equity and law could turn those scales to the right or the left,” George Wythe Munford wrote.

Weathers has framed his portrayal around Wythe’s lifelong pursuit of virtue, which Weathers believes led Wythe to his most notable contributions to the American legal system’s foundation, earning respect among friends and rivals alike.

Wythe is best known as a teacher of some of early America’s most influential minds, such as Jefferson, John Marshall, and St. George Tucker. But Weathers wants guests to know that 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.

Wythe’s resume is robust. He was a signer of the Declaration of Independence; a member of the House of Burgesses, Virginia Conventions, the Continental Congress and the Constitutional Convention; speaker of the House of Delegates; and a judge on the High Court of Chancery of Virginia.

His ideals, which he no doubt attempted to instill in his students, have proven to be long-lasting. Wythe advocated the ideas of the Enlightenment, which emphasized reason and individualism. 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.” He introduced Virginia to the concept of judicial review, giving the courts authority to strike down laws as unconstitutional, in his opinion for Commonwealth v. Caton in 1782 — nearly 20 years before Marshall introduced it at the federal level in Marbury v. Madison.

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.

“The Enlightenment is about pursuing knowledge, about choice, about looking into the world around you and drawing your own conclusions,” Weathers said.

Kindness stood at the core of Wythe’s sense of virtue. His contemporaries admired his warmth and thoughtfulness. Wythe had a way of delivering his principled views without antagonizing those who disagreed, and he frowned on using style over substance to sway favor in an argument.

“He was one of those that a child could approach without hesitating or shrinking,” Munford wrote. “He was one of those before whom a surly dog would unbend, and wag his tail with manifest pleasure, though never seen before.”

To embody Wythe’s kindness, Weathers is deliberate in his movements and words. His walk is unhurried. He employs a cane more as an accessory than a tool and sometimes holds his hands behind his back to emphasize Wythe’s thoughtful demeanor. As Wythe, Weathers looks people directly in the eye, engages anyone who looks his way, talks slowly and takes long pauses to think before he speaks.

Weathers started with The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation as an actor-interpreter on a six-month contract in January 2008. Nearly 12 years later, he has portrayed more than 20 people who lived in 18th-century Williamsburg, such as Lord Dunmore and Henry Knox. Weathers’ portrayal of Wythe follows that of Chris Hull, who retired in November 2017.

Though Weathers’ plan may have been to stay with Colonial Williamsburg for only six months, he had long known he wanted an acting career. He grew up just outside of Atlanta and earned an associate of fine arts degree from Young Harris College, located in the mountains of northeast Georgia. A bachelor’s degree in fine arts in theatrical performance from Valdosta State University followed. After graduation, he performed with various companies on a contract basis. Even in his early years with Colonial Williamsburg, he received offers to perform elsewhere but chose to remain in Williamsburg.

“Here I get to perform every single day,” Weathers said. “But more importantly, I recognized early on that some of the people I worked with were the best in the world at what they do, and I had the opportunity to be mentored by them.”

Weathers’ appetite for learning — like Wythe’s — has continued long past his formal education. Before he came to Williamsburg, he had little dance experience; now he manages the evening dance ensemble in addition to his new responsibilities as a Nation Builder. In high school, he studied French; in adulthood, he learned basic Latin through his own study and the help of co-workers — a handy skill for the portrayal of Wythe, who often read and cited the Latin and Greek classics.

Weathers was named the new George Wythe in March 2019, and he put in months of studying before debuting his portrayal in the Historic Area. And he thinks that research into Wythe’s public and private life will go on for many years to come as he continues to pore over the voluminous extant documents that explain a man known as much for his erudition as his modesty.

“I hope that my attempts to portray him as a humble and relatable person come across,” Weathers said. “I hope that in my feeble brain I can somehow construct a character who is as ornate of mind as he was.”

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.

The Wythe Seal of Approval

George Wythe designed three official seals over the course of his life, each of which promote the Enlightenment values he held for himself, his college and his government.

Wythe is largely credited as the principal designer of the seal of Virginia, though he did serve on a four-man committee tasked with creating the seal in 1776. The front of the seal depicts virtue’s victory over tyranny; the back depicts three more goddesses representing the gratifications of freedom: Libertas, the goddess of liberty; Ceres, agriculture and its bounty; and Aeternitas, eternity.

In 1783, Wythe designed William & Mary’s second official seal, which remained in place until 1929. The seal showed a temple, labeled as the Temple of Minerva dedicated to the Roman goddess of wisdom, in the style of Greek Revival architecture. The three steps and four pillars are inscribed with abbreviations that stand for logic, geometry, grammar, medical arts, natural philosophy, moral philosophy and jurisprudence.

In 1791, Wythe designed the seal for the High Court of Chancery of Virginia, on which he served as a judge. The imagery he chose underscored his belief that the virtue of impartiality should characterize the office. The image on the seal is based on the story of Sisamnes in Herodotus’ The Histories.

In that story, Sisamnes is a corrupt judge who accepts a bribe to deliver an unjust verdict. His punishment is to be flayed alive; his seat is then upholstered with his skin, upon which Sisamnes’ son must sit in his place.

The chancery court seal shows the son, Otanes, seated in that chair with “Let thy justice be direct” written in Greek above him. On the back are two female figures: a robed Justice seated on clouds with a sword resting on her right shoulder and a set of scales in her left hand and a Native American woman supported by the four rivers of Virginia holding tobacco leaves in one hand.

Wythe House Anniversary

March 30, 2020, marks the 80th anniversary of the George Wythe House’s opening as an exhibition building.

The two-story brick home, which stands along the Palace Green, is believed to have been built by Wythe’s father-in-law, Richard Taliaferro, in the mid-1750s. Wythe and his second wife, Elizabeth, lived there together for more than 30 years.

Elizabeth died in 1787. George remained in their home until 1791 when he took a position in Richmond as a judge on the High Court of Chancery.

Gen. George Washington used the house as his headquarters just before the British siege of Yorktown, and the Comte de Rochambeau, a general who commanded French troops during the Revolutionary War, made it his headquarters for a short time after.

Colonial Williamsburg acquired the property in 1938 and opened it as an exhibition building in 1940.

Where to Find George Wythe

George Wythe’s story is told in the Historic Area through programs such as Visit a Nation Builder and Walk Through History with a Nation Builder. You might also find him in his home or at R. Charlton’s Coffeehouse.

Visit colonialwilliamsburg.com/calendar for a full schedule. Guests can track George Wythe’s location on their smartphones by downloading the Colonial Williamsburg app.

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