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The name of every patriot who aided in gaining the liberty we now so permanently enjoy, is remembered and repeated with veneration and respect. A particular regard is felt for those whose names are enrolled on that bold and noble production, the Declaration of Independence. Their names, with many others who espoused the cause of freedom, will glide down the stream of time on the gentle waves of admiration and gratitude, until merged in the ocean of eternity. This single act has placed them on the list of immortal fame.
Among them was GEORGE WYTHE, a native of Elizabeth city in Virginia, born in 1728, of respectable parents. His father was a thriving farmer, and his mother a woman of unusual worth, talents and learning. His school education was limited, and, like Washington, Lafayette, and a large proportion of great men, he was indebted to his mother for the most of his learning and the early impressions of noble and correct principles.
From her he acquired the Latin and Greek languages; by her he was led to the pure fountains of science, and to her he was indebted for the formation of his youthful mind.
Unfortunately for him death snatched away, nearly at the same time, both his parents, leaving him still in his minority without a hand to guide or a voice to warn him against the allurements of pleasure and the seductions of vice.
His father left him a fortune, which, by prudence and frugality, was sufficient to render his circumstances easy and comfortable. But like too many only sons, his father had not inured him to business habits; he was soon led astray—he was captivated by amusementsand from that time until the age of thirty, his time was spent in pursuit of the phantoms of pleasurable diversions, and in idle company, neglecting both study and business.
Like the prodigal, he then came to himself-returned to the paths of virtue, studied the profession of the law, was admitted to the bar, and soon became one of its brightest luminaries-one of its most eminent members. During the remainder of his life, he pursued the paths of wisdom most scrupulously, and showed to his friends and the world that a young man, although led astray by the prowling wolves of vice, can burst the chains that bind him-redeem his character-correct his habits—and become a useful and virtuous member of society. So did George Wythe; go thou and do likewise. He felt most keenly, regretted most sincerely, but redeemed most nobly the misspent time of his younger days. If this should chance to meet the
any man under similar circumstances, let me say to him-imitate the striking example of George Wythe. Perhaps no man ever maintained the professional dignity of the bar better than him, or was more highly
esteemed by his most intimate acquaintances. He was scrupulously honest, and would never proceed in a case until convinced justice required his services. If, by any deception, a client induced him to embark in a suit that he subsequently discovered was unjust, he refunded his fee, and abandoned his cause.
His virtuous habits, extreme fidelity, judicial acquirements, and extensive knowledge, gained for him public confidence and esteem. He was for a long time a member of the House of Burgesses, and under the new government he received the appointment of Chancellor of Virginia, which office he filled with honour to himself and usefulness to his native state until the day of his death. As a legislator he was highly esteemed for talent, integrity and independence. He was not the tool of party, he stood upon his own bottom, and depended upon his own judgment. In 1764, on the 14th of November, he was appointed a member of the committee to prepare a petition to the King, a memorial to the House of Lords, and a remonstrance to the House of Commons on the impropriety and injustice of the proposed stamp act.
The remonstrance was from the able pen of Mr. Wythe, and was drawn in language so bold and strong, that it alarmed many of his colleagues, and underwent considerable modification to divest it of what they deemed a tincture of treason. He understood and properly appreciated the true dignity of man, and was not born to succumb or quail beneath the tyranny of a haughty monarch or an aspiring ministry. He was a prominent and active member of the House of Burgesses in 1768, when Virginia blood and Virginia patriotism were roused, and passed the memorable resolutions asserting their exclusive right to levy their own taxes; accused ministers and parliament of violating the British constitution; and denied the right of the crown to transport and try persons in England for crimes committed in the colonies.
In passing these resolutions parliamentary rules were dispensed with—they went through with the onward course of an avalanche, the members anticipating the proroguing power of the governor, who, on hearing of their tenor, immediately dissolved the house. But he was half an hour too late, they had passed their final reading and were entered upon the records, and beyond his power to veto or expunge.
This step of the governor was unfavourable to the interests of the crown, and the people proudly and boldly returned all the old patriotic members to the next session, with several new ones of the same stamp. During the recess, the love of liberty and liberal principles had in. creased in their bosoms, and they had imparted the same sentiments to their constituents.
Among the new members was Thomas Jefferson, who had been the pupil of Mr. Wythe—had imbibed his principles, and now stood forth a bold and prominent champion of liberty and equal rights.
From this time onward Mr. Wythe continued to oppose parliamentary oppression and vindicate the rights of his country. At the commencement of the revolutionary movements he joined a volunteer
corps, shouldered his musket, determined to vindicate in the field the principles he had inculcated in the legislative hall. But his talents as a statesman did not permit him to move long in this sphere of action, and in August, 1775, he was called to take a seat in that congress which, in less than a year from that time, proclaimed to the astonished Britons and to the world, the freedom and emancipation of the colonies, affixed their names to the Declaration of Independence, resolved that it should prove either the chart of liberty or the warrant of death-appealing to heaven for the justice of their cause.
In 1776, in November, Messrs. Wythe, Pendleton, and Jefferson were appointed to revise the laws of Virginia, and although much other business devolved upon them, they prepared and reported to the general assembly one hundred and twenty-six bills by the 18th of June, 1779. The new code commenced the revision at the time of the revolution in England, and brought it down to the establishment of the new government. It underwent the revision of Mr. Wythe, was truly republican, and does great honour to the heads, hearts and learning of the committee.
In 1777 he was chosen speaker of the House of Delegates; the same year a judge of the High Court of Chancery, and subsequently, under a new organization of the judiciary, sole chancellor. A more impartial judge never graced the bench than George Wythe. Nothing could induce him to swerve from the strictest rules of justice, and as a profound jurist and expounder of the law, he stood pre-eminent. He was elected to the professorship of the law in the college of William and Mary, where he continued with success until his increasing duties compelled him to resign. He was one of the members of the Virginia legislature at the adoption of the Federal Constitution.
He put in full practice his principles of liberty by emancipating his slaves, and providing them with the means of support. One of them, who died prematurely, he had not only given a common education, but had taught him Latin and Greek, determined upon a development of African talent.
In his private character Mr. Wythe was amiable, modest, charitable and humane. He sought to improve the society in which he moved, and used great exertions to guard young men against the purlieus of vice. He was industrious, temperate, practically a christian, and above reproach. He died suddenly from the effects of poison on the 8th of June, 1806, universally esteemed, beloved and regretted. It is believed the poison was administered by George Wythe Sweny, a grandson of his sister, who expected to arrive sooner by his death at the enjoyment of a part of his estate, but which fortunately was prevented by a codicil 'made just before his decease. Although the ungrateful wretch could not be reached by the laws of his country, the circumstances were so strong against him that he was stamped by the public mind with the black, the awful, the enduring stigma of a murderer.
Jefferson in delineating the character of the instructor of his youth, remarks: "No man ever left behind him a character more venerated than George Wythe. His virtue was of the purest kind; his integrity inflexible, and his justice exact; of warm patriotism, and devoted as he was to liberty and the natural and equal rights of men, he might be truly called the Cato of his country, without the avarice of a Roman; for a more disinterested person never lived. Such was GEORGE WYTHE, the honour of his own and a model of future times."
Many of the most useful men who have at various periods of time figured upon the great theatre of human affairs, have ascended the ladder of fame without the aid of a collegiate education. A clear head, a strong mind, a matured judgment, and a good heart are the grand requisites to prepare a man for substantial usefulness. Without these, you pour upon him the classic stream in vain; it is like water poured upon the sand, it moistens and invigorates for the moment, then sinks and leaves the surface dry and unproductive. The advantages of a liberal education I most cheerfully acknowledge; that a man may become eminently useful without it, is a fact beyond dispute. To the long list of names conspicuous upon the pages of history for patriotism, philanthropy and eminent usefulness, and not recorded on the books of any of the high places of learning, that of ABRAHAM CLARK may be justly added.
He was born at Elizabethtown, Essex county, N.J., on the 15th of February, 1726, of respectable parents. He was the only son of Thomas Clark, who held the office of Alderman, at that time usually bestowed upon men of merit and distinction. He was a farmer, a man of good sense, and instilled into the mind of his son the enduring principles of moral rectitude that governed his actions and framed his character in after life. Abraham received what is termed a good English education, and was designed by his father for the pursuit of agriculture. Of a slender frame and of a delicate constitution, he was never able to endure hard labour, but continued to superintend the business on the farm which his father left him, when not absent on public duty. He made himself familiar with mathematics, and attended to the business of surveying and conveyancing. He also made himself acquainted with the elementary principles of law, and became a safe counsellor, imparting his legal advice gratuitously, often saving his friends from entering into the vexatious labyrinth of litigation, acting the part of a peace maker between the contending parties. He was called the poor man's counsellor,” and did much to allay disputes and produce harmony in his neighbourhood. He was often selected as arbitrator in different counties to settle disputed titles of land. His decisions were uniformly based on correct legal principles and impartial justice. His knowledge and judgment became so much respected that he was appointed by the General Assembly to
settle the claims to undivided commons. He filled the office of sheriff and was appointed clerk of the assembly, acquitting himself with ability and credit in both stations. As he became known to the public his talents were highly appreciated, not because they kindled to a blaze calculated to excite the huzzas of the multitude, but because they were surrounded by the halo of pure patriotism, strict justice, moral worth, and undeviating rectitude.
When the storm of oppression was poured upon his native land by the mother country, Mr. Clark was among the first who openly contended for equal rights and liberal principles. Cool, reflecting, and deliberate, he had the confidence of his fellow citizens, and exercised over them a wise and salutary influence. His actions flowed from the pure fountain of a good heart, guided by a clear head and a matured judgment. The subject of British injustice towards the American colonies he weighed impartially, and felt most keenly. He was an active and bold leader in the primary meetings of his native colony, opposing coolly but firmly, the audacious and unreasonable claims of the crown. He was a prominent member of the Committee of Safety, and contributed largely, by precept and example, to the consolidation of that phalanx of sages and veterans who resolved on liberty or death. He had a peculiar tact in rousing his fellow citizens to proper action, always moving within the orbit of reason and sound discretion.
He richly merited and freely received the confidence of the friends of equal rights. In June, 1776, he was appointed a member of the Continental Congress, where he nobly sustained the high reputation he had already acquired for good sense and unalloyed patriotism. To such men as Mr. Clark the cause of American independence owed its ultimate success. Revolution is too often the offspring of faction, and although successful in annihilating the powers assailed, leaves its ambitious actors to sink in a tenfold corruption. Demagogues may kindle to a flame the angry passions of the inultitude, but it requires such men as Franklin, Clark, Sherman, Washington, &c., to guide these streams of mental fire, and conduct them harmless in their course. Although the American revolution did not originate in faction, the zeal of many of its able advocates naturally carried them beyond the safe line prescribed by prudence and wisdom. Upon such men the salutary influence of Mr. Clark was happily exercised, and in a manner which gained for him their esteem and conferred lasting benefits on our common country.
To those who have discernment and skill to guide the ship of state clear from the rocks and shoals of error, and avoid the breakers of rashness, intrigue and corruption, although they cannot make a flowery speech that will cost our nation thousands of dollars,—to such men, I say, we owe our political safety and existence. These are they who will preserve, to the utmost of their powers, the silken cords of our union. They are the neutralizers of the inflammatory gases that proceed from the fiery craniums of many of our legislators, who are more classical than discreet, more in the forum than in the committee rooms, more anxious to promote their party than the glory of our country.