George Wythe (1726-1806) was Thomas Jefferson's legal mentor. He was the son of Thomas Wythe, a Virginia planter, and Margaret Walker Wythe. Early in life, George was educated by his widowed mother, and in 1748 he passed the bar in York County, Virginia. He rose in prominence during the 1750s and was elected to the House of Burgesses and appointed to the office of attorney general.
William Small introduced Thomas Jefferson and George Wythe when Jefferson was a student at the College of William and Mary. The three men shared many dinners with Governor Fauquier at the Governor's Palace in Williamsburg, the older men thus providing the young Jefferson with an "unofficial" political and cultural education.1 Jefferson went on to study law under Wythe from 1762 until 1767.
In 1775, Wythe joined Jefferson, Richard Henry Lee, Benjamin Harrison, Thomas Nelson, Jr., Francis Lightfoot Lee, and Carter Braxton at the Continental Congress. Wythe became one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence. After returning to Virginia, Wythe played a role in creating the state's new constitution and served with Jefferson on the committee that revised Virginia's laws. Wythe also sat on the committee to design Virginia's seal.
In 1779, Wythe assumed a professorship of law and policy at the College of William and Mary and remained there until 1789. He served as a judge on the High Court of Chancery and was elected as a Virginia delegate to the Constitutional Convention, but resigned due to his wife's illness. He died in 1806, allegedly poisoned by his grandnephew, George Sweeney.
Jefferson wrote a brief sketch of Wythe near the end of his own lifetime, praising his mentor in no uncertain terms:
No man ever left behind him a character more venerated than G. Wythe. his virtue was of the purest tint; his integrity inflexible, and his justice exact; ... a more disinterested person never lived. ... and his unaffected modesty and suavity of manners endeared him to every one.2