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Lessons from George Wythe

Nation Builder Robert Weathers is happy to learn from the master

It’s safe to say that Robert Weathers knows George Wythe very, very well. And he’s getting to know him even better.

Weathers steps into Wythe’s shoes every day and interprets the notable 18th-century lawyer for the Foundation’s Nation Builders program. “I tell people that George Wythe is the most important person you’ve never heard of. His thumbprint is on everything and everyone here in Williamsburg,” Weathers said.

Wythe’s influence stretches far beyond his handsome, red-brick home on Palace Green. He was one of America’s sharpest legal minds and mentored such up-and-coming young scholars as Thomas Jefferson and John Marshall, who served as chief justice of the United States from 1801 to 1835. In a sense, George Wythe was an intellectual father under whose tutelage a generation of national leaders learned the law.

Though Williamsburg’s favorite teacher died in 1806, Robert Weathers
has become a devoted student. To deepen his understanding of Wythe and his world, Weathers has embarked on a course of study not unlike what a young Jefferson or Marshall might have learned under Wythe’s wing: an expansive examination of philosophy, the law and even classical languages.

In 2019 Weathers became the fifth interpreter to bring the Revolutionary-era lawyer and educator to life. Prior to that, buoyed by his background in theater, Weathers had portrayed roughly 20 historical figures since joining the Foundation in 2008. This range of characters — from Lord Dunmore, the last royal governor of Virginia, to a trader exchanging goods with American Indians — grounds Weathers’ understanding of Wythe’s community. As Weathers explained, “Having the perspectives of people across varying backgrounds, stations, financial situations, faiths, jobs,
etc. has given me a really good view of the 18th century in Virginia as a whole.”

To better understand the man, Weathers focuses on four topics that influenced Wythe: moral philosophy; natural philosophy, or science; religion; and colloquial laws, “the actual laws on the books in Virginia and throughout the British Empire.”

In his study of religion, for example, Weathers is reacquainting himself with the 66 canonical texts of the Bible and also is reading biblical apocrypha and the Quran. “I am of the opinion that Wythe probably looked to see philosophical truth in all of those texts,” Weathers said. To round out his understanding of natural and moral philosophy, Weathers is sharpening his mathematical skills and reading Plato.

As many students would have in the 18th century, Weathers is also tackling Greek and Latin. “You don’t need to be able to read or speak these languages to interpret George Wythe. But I do think — and I imagine he would agree with this — it gives you a better insight into what exactly he’s taking away from these ancient sources, and why he is leaning
so heavily upon them.”

Understanding 18th-century thinking helps ground Weathers’ interpretation, but his greatest topic of study is George Wythe himself.

“I have to think about how Wythe would respond in the way that I understand him. To do that, I turn to the historical record and make sure that what I am saying, and how I am saying it, would not stand in opposition to what we know about him.”

Weathers looks to scholarly sources but also relies on 18th-century accounts, including the papers that Wythe left behind. Weathers frequently turns to anecdotes from Wythe’s contemporaries. Though they found much to venerate in him, his contemporaries especially praised Wythe’s kindness, gentle spirit and love of community: “He was one of those that a child could approach without hesitation or shrinking,” one admirer wrote. Such comments help Weathers understand Wythe as a human being rather than a towering figure who looms over the history of early America.

Though many of Wythe’s students ultimately built distinguished careers of their own, they continued to lavish praise and affection on their friend and mentor. Wythe was known to deflect the acclaim. “He said that his students were his greatest legacy,” Weathers noted.

In carrying the flame of Wythe’s legacy and interpreting him for new generations in the Historic Area, Weathers has become a teacher, just like the Nation Builder he respectfully brings to life. Weathers enjoys acquainting guests with George Wythe and his world through activities grounded in ongoing research. Reflecting Wythe’s interest in astronomy, for example, Weathers and fellow interpreter Michael Romero had a big idea for the Foundation’s Homeschool Days in 2022: a scale map of the 18th-century solar system running the length of Duke of Gloucester Street, from the Capitol to Merchants Square.

“It’s a really great way to give people an understanding of the worldview of the 18th-century person,” he said.

And Weathers says that interpreting Wythe has also helped him learn more about himself.

“Wythe has taught me to listen more. I’m verbose and naturally assertive in conversations; Wythe was not that way, and it’s not fair to portray him that way. So I take my thoughts out of it and apply them through the lens of what I know about him.”

He added, “I think I crack more jokes than he would. But I don’t get the sense that he would mind that too much.” 

A Teacher’s Books

Re-creating George Wythe’s library

After George Wythe bequeathed his books to Thomas Jefferson, Jefferson merged Wythe’s collection with his own. No record kept by Wythe of his books has been found, but detective work conducted by researchers at Colonial Williamsburg and elsewhere has gone a long way toward identifying the books and has even allowed the Wolf Law Library at William & Mary to establish a special room re-creating the library of America’s first law professor.

The detective work is outlined in “Wythepedia,” an online reference created by the law library and the university.

One of the earliest researchers was Mary R.M. Goodwin of Colonial Williamsburg’s John D. Rockefeller Jr. Library and the author of the 1958 report “The George Wythe House: Its Furniture and Furnishings.” Others included Barbara C. Dean, who expanded the list Goodwin had created for Colonial Williamsburg; Endrina Tay, a librarian at Monticello’s Jefferson Library; Jeremy Dibbell of the Massachusetts Historical Society; and Bennie Brown of The Bookpress Ltd. in Williamsburg. Brown’s bibliography includes 478 titles and is the foundation for the law library’s George Wythe Room. Wythe’s collection included Western classics, history, philosophy, science, mathematics and law. 

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