The Richmond History Podcast

Thursday, December 1, 2011

George Wythe's Grave

George Wythe's grave, St John's Church, photo by Jeff Majer
Thomas Jefferson said "No one ever left behind him a character more venerated than George Wythe.  His virtue was of the purest tint; his integrity inflexible, and his justice exact; of warm patriotism, and, devoted as he was to liberty, and the natural and equal rights of man, he might truly be called the Cato of his country."1  That is pretty nice praise.

Jefferson also called him "my faithful and beloved Mentor in youth, and my most affectionate friend through life,"1  but 1806 President Jefferson did not make sure Wythe had a proper marker at his grave, but then again, no one else did either.  He is buried at St. John's Church in Richmond, VA with what a St. John's interpreter described as "an iron pipe" as a marker.  “Kings may require mausoleums to consecrate their memory, saints may claim the privilege of canonization; but the venerable George Wythe needs no other monument than the services rendered to his country, and the universal sorrow that the country sheds over his grave", was the view of the Richmond Enquirer 4 days after Wythe's death.3  That sounds poetic but a little weak if you ask me.

This is not because he died in obscurity.  His death sparked one of the most salacious trials in our countries early history.  George Wythe Sweeney, George's heavy drinking & gambling nephew "allegedly" poisoned his uncle George and George's 2 servants Michael Brown and Lydia Broadnax.  GW had freed his two former slaves, made provisions for them in his will, was teaching Mike the law and treating them both like family.  All three became ill after their coffee one morning .  The only other person to drink that coffee was G W Sweeny, who Lydia saw mess with the coffee, grab his joe and quickly leaving.  Sweeny wanted the inheritance and had been forging his uncles checks and stealing his valuable law books to sell.  It seems he wanted it all.  As the three got sick and they put the story together.   It took so long for the poison to kill George, he had time to cut Sweeny out of his will.
Lydia survived the incident and had the testimony to convict Sweeney but, until 1867 blacks were not allowed to testify against whites in VA, so Sweeney walked.4  The irony is that George Wythe was on the team that revised all of VA laws.  One that he left on the books was the one preventing blacks from testifying against whites... it wouldn't have saved his life but justice is better then nothing.3
George Wythe's grave, St John's Church, photo by Jeff Majer

On May 24, 1922 the current marker was put up.2  The delay of a proper marker prompted the colonial clad interpreter to question whether that is the exact location or if he is just in that area.

Why is George Wythe important?  Here a few selected achievements.

He was America's first law professor, students include Thomas Jefferson, John Marshall1, Henry Clay5
He was instrumental in designing the VA State seal1
He was a  Framer of the Constitution1
When George Washington went to Williamsburg during the Revolution he chose to stay with Wythe6
And the best example of his influence, he was so respected by his peers that when the Declaration of Independence was signed on Aug 2, 1776 (he had returned to Williamsburg) the other VA signers left space above their names so he could sign above them1

2.Proceeding of the...annual meeting,Volume 33 By Virginia Bar Assosiation
4.Murder in Colonial Virginia, Mills, Charles A
6. Washington: A Life, Ron Chernow

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