June 23, 2021
The Exemplary Life of George Wythe
by: Columnist Art da Rosa and Chantelle Holman
Recently, while discussing the Founding Fathers with a friend, he contended that none of them were sincere because they kept slaves. Flabbergasted, I blurted out the first name that came to mind, “George Wythe didn’t!” Indeed, he was an abolitionist. That I already knew. But he was more than that. Of all the Founding Fathers, Wythe lived a most exemplary life. He overcame a learning disability. He sacrificed his career in favor of education. He loved his wife and remained faithful to her. And he was a signer of the Declaration of Independence.
As a child, Wythe was not considered a good student. It was believed that he did not have an aptitude for learning. Some experts suggested that Wythe may have had ADD. Regardless, he had a loving mother who was well-learned for their day. The school system didn’t work out for young George, so his mother began homeschooling him using classic literature as the foundation for his learning. From that point on, George Wythe excelled.
The Wythe’s were a middle-class family, thus, they could only afford to send their oldest son to college. George, therefore, was made an apprentice in his uncle’s law office at the age of 16. His industry and keenness soon earned him respect, and Wythe was permitted to take the bar exam at the age of 20, which he passed with flying colors. After serving as an attorney and judge, Wythe was offered a teaching position at the College of William and Mary, becoming the first law professor at any American University.
Drawing from his own educational experience, Wythe approached teaching differently. He tailored learning programs to individual students. Among his many pupils were Thomas Jefferson, John Marshall, James Monroe, and St. George Tucker.
Perhaps one characteristic of a good teacher is how well his students learn. Two of Wythe’s students were Thomas Jefferson and John Marshall, who were cousins and who grew up together. Despite this, their views could not have been further apart. I credit Wythe for the fact that each man thought for himself, illustrating that Wythe stayed true to his role as a teacher. He opened the minds of his students and helped them excel, teaching them to think for themselves, rather than what to think.
If education is important, why is the Constitution silent about it? Perhaps the prime reason is that politics and education belong to separate sectors of society. (There is a Constitution class in Pocatello. The topic of the seven sectors of society will be discussed in August.)
Regardless, when Congress was finally functional, the first law that they passed was the Northwest Ordinance, written by Thomas Jefferson. Regarding education, the ordinance states, “Religion, morality and knowledge being necessary to good government and the happiness of mankind, schools and the means of education shall forever be encouraged.” I believe that this view is a result of the ideals Wythe emphasized for years to his star pupil.
This is not the end of George Wythe’s accomplishments. After representing Virginia in executing the Declaration of Independence, Wythe served in many other capacities. As a law professor, he was a natural choice to be sent to the Constitutional Convention. This was a four-month-long, non-paying, event. Wythe argued fiercely for abolition, and for slavery to be given a sunset date within 20 years (see the U.S. Constitution, Article 1, Section 9, Clause 1 and Federalist 42).
Wythe believed in freedom for all, supporting John Locke’s declaration 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.” After several attempts to legislate abolitionist ideals, Wythe freed his slaves and made provisions for their support until they could earn a living for themselves.
In the days of Wythe, slavery was rampant throughout the world. It was practiced everywhere. America, however, was different. With respect to slavery, America led the way in abolishing the practice. The story of racism and slavery in America is not a story of human weaknesses, but one of learning, awakening, and maturing. The birth of our nation marked the beginning of a new era. George Wythe played an integral role in this process.
I am grateful to men like George Wythe who lived a truly exemplary life. I feel safe saying that when George Wythe faced his Maker, He said to George, “Well done thou good and faithful servant!”