Teacher of law and mentor to Thomas Jefferson, James Monroe, St. George Tucker, and John Marshall, George Wythe, here Chris Hull, stands before William and Mary's Wren Building.
In the college yard, Professor Wythe meets students portrayed, from left, by Spencer Slough, Kris Jeager, and Jason Bailey.
Presiding over a moot court at the General Court in the Capitol, Wythe runs his tyros through their paces as they conduct a mock trial.
As well as knowledge from books and theory, Wythe wanted students to have practical experience of law and politics.
Peopling the Past: Meet George Wythe
by Ed Crews
Editor’s note: Another installment in a series of first-person, question-and-answer interviews with historic figures interpreted in Colonial Williamsburg’s Historic Area.
The College of William and Mary appointed George Wythe the first professor of law and police in America on December 4, 1779. He taught until 1789. His belief in mixing theory and practice in the classroom influences legal education today. He is credited with introducing the moot court to law schools. Chris Hull portrays Wythe at Colonial Williamsburg. Here, speaking as Wythe might, Hull discusses his appointment, educational beliefs, and views on the courtroom skills of Patrick Henry. Hull’s comments have been edited and condensed.
- Why did the college decide to offer law courses?
Formal education for aspiring attorneys is long overdue. Now is the perfect time to reform their training. We will have a new system of government and courts. My goal is to prepare these young men so they will be well-qualified to do the best work possible for our citizens.
- Why did the college choose you?
That question might best be put to the school’s officials. I assume that I was selected for my experience. I was admitted to the bar in 1746 and first practiced in Spotsylvania County. I served as the attorney general in the 1750s. I have been actively engaged in politics in the House of Burgesses and the Continental Congress. In addition, I have been tutoring young men in the law for the better part of two decades.
- How did you learn the law?
Some men are fortunate enough to study in London at the Inns of Court. Others may be clever enough to master the subject on their own. Like most people, I learned through an apprenticeship. I read the law under my uncle, Stephen Dewey, in Charles City County
Many young apprentice lawyers do little more than sharpen quills, fill inkwells, and fetch meals for their mentors. Learning the law by watching a lawyer is a bit like trying to learn to play the harpsichord by watching a musician perform. My experience persuaded me that reading the law is poor training, a haphazard affair.
Some men do well; others do not. The quality of their training depends entirely on the quality of the lawyers they serve. Some attorneys schooled by this system do not understand the law in full.
In that regard, Mr. Patrick Henry comes to mind. His rhetoric is powerful, although it frequently overwhelms substance. I hope that William and Mary graduates will show more respect for the judicial system than does the Right Honorable Mr. Henry.
- But you and Mr. Henry sometimes agree.
We are on the same side. Yet I must confess that I find his style incendiary at times. Years ago, if you told me that we’d be politically aligned, I would have responded by saying that could happen only if I lost my mind and were clapped in irons.
- Still, Mr. Henry is impressive in the courtroom.
It pains me to cede this point, but, sir, you are correct. His ability to sway a jury is uncanny—almost like witchcraft. Mr. Henry is not brilliant, like Thomas Jefferson, who I became close to when he was a student at the college, and later read law with me. Yet, were I on trial for my life and I wished to avoid a date with the hangman, I reluctantly confess, I would choose Mr. Henry’s defense over one prepared by my good friend, the talented Mr. Jefferson.
- How will you teach law?
I want students to learn theory and practice. Naturally, we will study what the ancients—Aristotle, Cicero, Plato—said about law, society, and government. The young men will become very familiar with William Blackstone’s Commentaries on the Laws of England. We will examine judge’s decisions. Most importantly, I will have my pupils prepare and argue cases. Let me note, that this will be invaluable to them in court.
Moreover, we will conduct mock legislative sessions. I will serve as speaker of the house, a position I have had in fact, and the students will act as elected representatives. This will give them a deeper appreciation for the business of government. I believe this is excellent training and will provide them the skills to serve as leaders in Virginia and in the nation.
Materials found in today's Wythe House represent the scholar's knowledge that was transferred to his students.