George Wythe was one of the first law professors in America, a noted classic scholar, and a judge in Virginia. Born at Chesterfield, a plantation in Hampton, Virginia, in 1726, Wythe was from a Quaker family and was raised with a love of books and scholarship. He was a tutor and mentor to Thomas Jefferson, John Marshall, and Henry Clay, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, and one of Virginia's representatives to the Continental Congress. He was a delegate to the Constitutional Convention. Appointed to the College of William and Mary's Board of Visitors in 1761, Wythe had a long and distinguished career as a teacher and a professor. Jefferson insisted that Wythe was unequivocally anti-slavery, and Wythe did free some household slaves. But he also returned some slaves from his wife's household to her family when she died in 1787. As a judge, Wythe consistently ruled on cases to limit or abolish slavery. His death was mired in scandal. His 17 year old nephew, George Wythe Sweeney, poisoned Wythe, his housemaid and cook, Lydia Broadnax, and a young mixed-race man, Michael Brown, whom Wythe had agreed to educate. Brown and Wythe died from the poisoning but Broadnax survived. Sweeney was acquitted of murder for reasons that are not entirely known; it may be that a law forbidding testimony from black witnesses (even if they were freemen) threw out Broadnax's testimony that she saw Sweeney putting a powder in Wythe's coffee. Wythe left his large book collection to Jefferson that formed the basis of his extensive library, which Jefferson donated to start the Library of Congress.
George Whythe House, photo from colonialghostts.com
The Wythe House was built between 1752-54 by George Wythe's father- in-law, Richard Taliaferro, in Williamsburg, Virginia. Taliaferro gave the house to Wythe as a wedding present after his marriage to Elizabeth Taliaferro in 1755. Washington used the house as his headquarters in 1781 prior to the siege of Yorktown. The house is a Georgian structure of red brick and white woodwork. The walls were laid in Flemish bond brick with lightly colored, "rubbed bricks" framing the windows and doors. The rose colored frames of the windows and doors give the house an exquisitely balanced appearance that matches perfectly the symmetrical design. The roof is supported by a modillion cornice, and the hip roof has brick chimneys rising from the side of the slopes of the roof. The interior is a standard center-passage, double-pile plan with a staircase that rises on the left side of the passage. The gardens laid out today by Colonial Williamsburg are conjectural, containing several outbuildings and an external kitchen. The house was one of the most prominent in Williamsburg, demonstrating for all to see the wealth and prestige of the occupant. Wythe lived in the house until 1791 when he moved to Richmond to become a judge.
George Whythe (1726-1806), photo from Colonial Williamsburg
Drawing of the cross-section of the house by Historic American Engineering Record
Dining Room, photo by Habitually Chic.
Hall, photo from Historic Structures.
George Wythe (1726-1806), photo from Colonial Williamsburg
Portrait of George Wythe by James Barton Longacre, 1825, National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution; photo by Mark Gulezian for the NPG.