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The Exemplary life of George Wythe

George Wythe, Courtesy of Library of Virginia

I was discussing the Founding Fathers with a friend. He contended that all of them were not sincere since they kept slaves. Flabbergasted, I blurted out the only 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 remain faithful to her. And he was a signer of the Declaration of Independence.

(George Wythe, Courtesy of Library of Virginia)

As a child, Wythe was considered to be a dumb student, who did not have the aptitude for learning. Some experts suggested that Wythe may have had ADD. Regardless, he had a loving mother who was well learned in their day. The school system didn’t work out for young George, so his mother home-schools him with classic literature. From that point on, George Wythe excelled in learning.

The Wythe’s were a middle-class family; they could only afford to send the oldest son to college. As for George’s education, he apprenticed to 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 education differently. He tailored learning programs to individual students. Among his many students 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 also grew up together… however, their views could not be further apart... I credit Wythe, staying true to his role as a teacher. He opened the minds of his students and helped them excel.

If education is important, why was it silent in the Constitution? 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, which Thomas Jefferson wrote. 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 hope it is transparent of the ideals Wythe emphasized for years to his star pupil.

This is not the end of George Wythe’s accomplishments. After representing Virginia to execute 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. A four-month-long non-pay event. He argued fiercely for abolition, that slavery was given a sunset date within 20 years (see Constitution Article 1, Section 9, Clause 1 and Federalist 42).

He 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.

Back to the statement of my friend: the Founders not being sincere because they kept slaves… Slavery was rampant throughout the world. It was practiced everywhere. America, however, was different. On the topic of Slavery, America led the way to change it. 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 and I feel safe saying that when George Wythe faced his Maker, He said to George “Well done thou good and faithful servant!”

Art da Rosa, PE, MPA Chantelle Holman, George Wythe University Alumni

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