George Wythe

  • George Wythe
    George Wythe
    George Wythe, W&M's and the nation's first professor of law, was a statesman, lawyer, and jurist. This painting by David Silvette was given to the Law School in 1979 by Robert and Sarah Boyd.

The following biography of Wythe is contained in a commemorative book published by the College following one of the most glittering occasions in its history. On September 25, 1954, the College and Law School celebrated three milestones: the approaching 200th birthday of Chief Justice John Marshall, among the first to study law at W&M; the 175th anniversary of George Wythe's appointment as W&M's - and nation's - first professor of law; and the creation of a W&M law professorship devoted to taxation.  The Honorable Earl Warren, Chief Justice of the United States, and Lord Goddard, Lord Chief Justice of England, were among the many distinguished guests.

The first chair of law in America and the second in the English-speaking world was established December 4, 1779, at the College of William and Mary. The College's board of visitors included among others Governor Thomas Jefferson, James Blair, James Madison, Edmund Randolph, Thomas Nelson, and Benjamin Harrison. They elected as the first professor to occupy that chair George Wythe, styled by Jefferson as the American Aristides.

Wythe was born in 1726 in Elizabeth City County, Virginia. After finishing his course of study at the College of William and Mary, he studied law in a law office, was admitted to the bar at the age of twenty, and rose rapidly in his profession. He was a member of the Continental Congress and became the first Virginia signer of the Declaration of Independence. He also served as a member of the Constitutional Convention and later presided over some of the Virginia Convention sessions as Chairman of the Committee of the Whole. But for Wythe's services in the Convention of 1788, Virginia would not have ratified the Constitution of the United States as it stood, and the entire course of American history may have been materially changed.

Wythe became sole High Chancellor of Virginia. In 1782, while serving on the High Court of Chancery in the case of Commonwealth v. Caton, twenty-one years before the celebrated case of Marbury v. Madison, Wythe unequivocally stated:

"Nay more, if the whole legislature, an event to be deprecated, should attempt to overleap the bounds prescribed by them by the people, I, in administering the public justice of the country, will meet their united powers at my seat in the tribunal; and pointing to the Constitution, will say to them, 'here is the limit of your authority; and hither shall you go but no further."

This was one the earliest known instances stating that a court may hold a legislative act unconstitutional.

Jefferson said of Wythe, "He was my ancient master, my earliest and best friend, and to him I am indebted for first impressions which have had the most salutary influence on the course of my life."

Besides Jefferson, Wythe at one time or another taught John Marshall, James Monroe, Edmund Randolph, and Henry Clay. Thus the mind of George Wythe, acting through those whom he had trained, dominated the policies of this republic for fully fifty years, and is still a potent force.

Excerpted from the book Marshall Wythe Blackstone Commemoration Ceremonies published by the College of William and Mary.