George Wythe, Signer of the Declaration of Independence



If you visit Colonial Williamsburg, you can tour the home of a member of our family, George Wythe: eminent Virginia judge, member of the Continental Congress and signer of the Declaration of Independence. The Wythe home is one of the original structures in Williamsburg, finished in 1754. It was one of the finest homes in the city, located on the grassy mall between the Governor's Palace and the Bruton Parish Church. Wythe's mother was Margaret Walker, a great aunt of ours. Wythe had no children who survived to adulthood, so we are among his closest living relatives.

Thomas Jefferson and John Marshall both read law with George Wythe, and revered him as their mentor. When the Declaration of Independence was signed, Wythe was still en route to Philadelphia. The other members of the Virginia delegation left a space above their signatures, so that Wythe cold be the first of the 7 signatories from Virginia (see opposite page, in the 3rd column of signatures).

Although he owned slaves most of his life, Wythe was an early abolitionist, and freed his own slaves gradually after his second wife died in 1787. In 1806, he tried to end slavery in Virginia with a judicial decision in which he freed a family of American Indian descent, based on the 1776 Virginia Declaration of Rights. The Virginia Supreme Court upheld his decision, but not the legal reasoning that would have ended slavery for all.

The family of Wythe's mother, our Walker family, includes a long line that traces back 11 generations to two of our direct ancestors who lived in the 1600s: George Walker, a Scottish Quaker who was one of the early settlers of Jamestown, and Rev. George Keith, a renowned Scottish Quaker minister who conducted Quaker mission trips with William Penn.

George Wythe lived to age 80, but came to an unfortunate end: he was poisoned by a ne'er-do-well great nephew, George Sweeney. Sweeney was deeply in debt, and poisoned his great uncle to inherit the considerable estate. As it happened, Wythe took 2 weeks to die from the poisoning, and wrote young Sweeney out of his will. Sweeney was acquitted of murder in a sensational trial that may have been this country's first "Trial of the Century", recounted in a recent book "I Am Murdered" by historian Bruce Chadwick: the jury felt that the evidence was too circumstantial. However, Sweeney was convicted of check forgery, served a prison term in Richmond, then moved to Tennessee where he was convicted of horse thievery, and was again sent to penitentiary. After that, young Sweeney was lost to history, just as well.

Wythe's funeral in Richmond was the largest in state history to that time; businesses closed for the day and thousands lined the funeral route. He was buried at St. Johns Church, where Patrick Henry had given his "Give me liberty or give me death!" speech 31 years earlier.