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John Blair (1732-1800)

Image: National Archives, Records of Exposition, Anniversary, and Memorial Commissions


John Blair was born in Williamsburg, Virginia in 1732 to a locally prominent family. His father, John Blair, was a colonial official; his uncle, James Blair, was the founder and first president of the College of William and Mary. Blair graduated from William and Mary and then studied law at London's Middle Temple before returning to Williamsburg to begin his practice.

Upon his return, Blair followed family tradition by becoming active in civic life. He served as William and Mary's representative to the Virginia House of Burgesses from 1766-1770, and as clerk of the Royal Governor's council from 1770-1775.

He also became an active patriot. When the Royal Governor dissolved the House of Burgesses on May 17, 1769, he and its other members defiantly continued to meet in Williamsburg's Raleigh Tavern. A month later, he signed the Virginia Association, an agreement to boycott importation of British goods until the onerous Townshend Revenue Acts were repealed. Four years later, he joined in the call for a meeting of the colonies in a Continental Congress. In 1776, he participated in the Virginia Constitutional Convention, serving on the committee that drafted a declaration of rights, as well as plans for the new commonwealth government.

Blair was a member of Virginia's Privy Council from 1776 to 1778, when the Virginia legislature elected him to serve as a judge of the General Court. Two years later, he was elected to Virginia's High Chancery Court.

II. Constitutional Convention

Blair, who became a distinguished jurist, was one of Virginia's representatives to the Constitutional Convention when it met in Philadelphia in 1787. Although Blair never spoke at the convention or served on a committee, he actively supported other members of the Virginia delegation throughout the convention, including George Washington and James Madison. Blair was one of the 39 delegates who signed the U.S. Constitution on September 17, 1987, and he subsequently worked hard to win support for the new plan of government at Virginia's ratification convention.


In 1789, President George Washington appointed Blair to the United States Supreme Court, where he served until 1796. On the Court, he was a vigilant defender of the principle of separation of powers in the new federal government. After his resignation, Blair, a widower since 1792, returned to Williamsburg, where he lived until his death in 1800 at the age of 68.

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James Madison (1751-1836)

Image: From the Collection of Gilcrease Museum, Tulsa


Born in 1751, James Madison was the eldest son of a prosperous Virginia family. He grew up on the Montpelier plantation in Orange County, which was to be become his lifelong home. Madison was a sickly youth but an excellent scholar. In 1771 he graduated from the College of New Jersey (which later became Princeton University), where he studied history and government. He briefly considered becoming a minister and remained at the college for a year after graduating to study Hebrew and ethics. Because of a weak speaking voice, Madison decided against the ministry in favor of a career in politics.

Back at Montpelier, Madison embraced the patriot cause and immersed himself in public life. In 1775 he was elected to the Orange County Committee of Safety. In 1776 he served as a delegate to the Virginia Convention, where he participated in the framing of Virginia's constitution and bill of rights. Between 1776 and 1788, he served various terms in the Virginia House of Delegates, the Council of State, and the Continental Congress. Madison was instrumental in the convening of the Constitutional Convention in 1787. He wrote extensively about the deficiencies of the Articles of Confederation and in 1786 participated in the convention in Annapolis that called for a constitutional convention attended by all the states.


Madison is known as the "Father of the Constitution" for his brilliant leadership at the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia. At the convention, Madison led the delegates who advocated a strong central government. The Virginia Plan, which laid the foundation for the Constitution, was based on principles gathered from Madison's years of study about the history of government and his recent experiences in government. Notwithstanding earlier concerns about his speaking voice, Madison spoke frequently and convincingly at the convention. His meticulously detailed journal of the convention is the most accurate and complete record of the event.

Despite his doubts about the new Constitution, Madison vigorously supported its ratification in the Continental Congress. In New York, where the Congress was meeting, he collaborated with Alexander Hamilton and John Jay in a series of essays that appeared in newspapers and were published in book form as The Federalist (1788). This set of essays is regarded as an authoritative exposition of the republican principles that informed the framers of the Constitution and a significant contribution to political theory. Madison also led the ratification process in Virginia, where he defended the document against such powerful opponents as Patrick Henry and George Mason.

As a member of the House of Representatives (1789-97), Madison helped frame and ensure passage of the Bill of Rights. He also assisted in organizing the executive branch and creating a system of federal taxation. Madison became increasingly critical of the financial policies proposed by Alexander Hamilton's Federalists and assumed the leadership of the Jeffersonian, or Democratic-Republican, Party in Congress.


In 1794, Madison had married Dolly Payne Todd, a vivacious widow sixteen years his junior. When he retired from Congress in 1797, Madison expected also to retire permanently from public life. In 1798, however, he responded to the Alien and Sedition Acts with the Virginia Resolutions, which declared the rights of the states to judge the constitutionality of acts of Congress. In 1801, Thomas Jefferson drafted Madison to serve as his Secretary of State (1801-09), and in 1809, Madison succeeded Jefferson as president.

As president, Madison inherited the foreign policy problems that had plagued the Jefferson administration. British and French ships involved in ongoing European wars continued to seize U.S. ships, goods, and men on the high seas. The French eventually recognized U.S. neutrality, but the British continued their interference with shipping and Madison declared war against Britain in the spring of 1812. The war went badly for Madison; he and other federal officials had to flee their own capital when the British invaded. In December 1814, eager to end the war, American diplomats signed the Treaty of Ghent, which did not resolve the issues of impressment and neutral shipping rights. But, thanks to Andrew Jackson's spectacular victory at the Battle of New Orleans in January 1815, most Americans believed they had won the war. An ebullient nationalism marked Madison's last years in office, a period in which the Democratic-Republicans held virtually uncontested sway.

Madison retired to Montpelier after his second term but continued to be active in public affairs. He devoted long hours to editing his journal of the Constitutional Convention, which the government published after his death. He served as co-chairman of the Virginia Constitutional Convention of 1829 and as rector of the University of Virginia during the period 1826-36. He acted as James Monroe's foreign policy advisor and wrote newspaper articles defending the Monroe administration. Madison also spoke out against the emerging sectional controversy that threatened the existence of the Union. Although a slaveholder all his life, he was active during his later years in the American Colonization Society, whose mission was the resettlement of slaves in Africa. Madison died at the age of eighty-five in 1836, survived by his wife and stepson.

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George Mason (1725 -1792)

Image: National Archives, Records of Exposition, Anniversary, and
Memorial Commissions (148-CP-121)


George Mason was born in 1725 to George and Ann Thomson Mason. When he was ten years old his father died, and young George's upbringing was left in the care of his uncle, John Mercer. As a consequence, the future jurist's education was profoundly shaped by the contents of his uncle's 1500-volume library, one-third of which concerned the law.

As he matured, George Mason established himself as an important figure in his community. As owner of Gunston Hall, he was one of the richest planters in Virginia. In 1750 he married Anne Eilbeck, and over 23 years of marriage they had five sons and four daughters. In 1752 he acquired an interest in the Ohio Company, an organization that speculated in western lands. When the Crown revoked the company's rights in 1773, George, the company's treasurer, wrote his first major state paper, Extracts from the Virginia Charters, with Some Remarks upon Them.

During this time George also pursued his political interests. He was a justice of the Fairfax County court, and from 1754 to 1779 he was a trustee of the City of Alexandria. In 1759 he was elected to the Virginia House of Burgesses. When the Stamp Act of 1765 aroused outrage in the colonies, George Mason wrote an open letter explaining the colonists' position to a committee of London merchants to enlist their support.

In 1774 he was again at the forefront of political events when he assisted in drawing up the Fairfax Resolves, a document that outlined the colonists' constitutional grounds for their objections to the Boston Port Act. Virginia's Declaration of Rights, framed by Mason in 1776, was widely copied in other colonies. It served as a model for Thomas Jefferson's drafting of the first part of the Declaration of Independence, and was the basis for the federal Constitution's Bill of Rights.

The years between 1776 and 1780 were filled with great legislative activity in the newly-free colonies. The establishment of a government independent of Great Britain required the abilities of persons such as George Mason. He supported the separation of church from state and was active in the organization of military affairs, especially in the West. The influence of his early work, Extracts from the Virginia Charters, is seen in the 1783 peace treaty with Great Britain, which fixed the Anglo-American boundary at the Great Lakes instead of the Ohio River. After independence, George Mason drew up the plan for Virginia's cession of its western lands to the United States.

By the early 1780s, however, Mason grew disgusted with the conduct of public affairs and retired. He married his second wife, Sarah Brent, in 1780. In 1785 he attended the Mount Vernon meeting that was a prelude to the Annapolis convention of 1786, but although appointed, he did not go to Annapolis.

II. Constitutional Convention:

At Philadelphia in 1787 Mason was one of the five most frequent speakers at the Constitutional Convention. He exerted great influence, but in the last two weeks of the convention, decided not to sign the document. That Mason refused to sign elicits some surprise today because his name is so closely linked with constitutionalism. At the time, however, he explained his reasons at length, citing the absence of a declaration of rights as his primary concern. He then discussed the provisions of the Constitution point by point, beginning with the House of Representatives.

The House he criticized as not truly representative of the nation; the Senate, as too powerful. He also claimed the power of the federal judiciary would destroy the state judiciaries, render justice unattainable, and enable the rich to oppress and ruin the poor. These fears led Mason to conclude that the new government was destined to become either a monarchy or a corrupt, oppressive aristocracy. Two of Mason's greatest concerns were later incorporated into the Constitution. The Bill of Rights answered his primary objection and the 11th amendment addressed his call for limits on the judiciary.

Throughout his career Mason was guided by his belief in the rule of reason and in the centrality of the natural rights of man. He approached problems coolly, rationally, and impersonally. In recognition of his accomplishments and dedication to the principles of the Age of Reason, Mason has been called the American manifestation of the Enlightenment. Mason died on October 7, 1792, and was buried on the grounds of Gunston Hall.

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James McClurg
(No Portrait Available)

James McClurg was born near Hampton, VA, in 1746. He attended the College of William andMary and graduated in 1762. McClurg then studied medicine at the University of Edinburgh andreceived his degree in 1770. He pursued postgraduate medical studies in Paris and London andpublished Experiments upon the Human Bile and Reflections on the Biliary Secretions (1772) inLondon. His work and writings were well-received and respected by the medical community, andhis article was translated into several languages. In 1773 McClurg returned to Virginia and servedas a surgeon in the state militia during the Revolution.

Before the end of the war the College of William and Mary appointed McClurg its professor ofanatomy and medicine. The same year, 1779, he married Elizabeth Seldon. James McClurg'sreputation continued to grow, and he was regarded as one of the most eminent physicians inVirginia. In 1820 and 1821 he was president of the state medical society.

In addition to his medical practice, McClurg pursued politics. In 1782 James Madison advocatedMcClurg's appointment as secretary of foreign affairs for the United States but was unsuccessful. When Richard Henry Lee and Patrick Henry declined to serve as representatives to theConstitutional Convention in 1787, McClurg was asked to join Virginia's delegation. InPhiladelphia McClurg advocated a life tenure for the President and argued for the ability of thefederal government to override state laws. Even as some at the convention expressedapprehension of the powers allotted to the presidency, McClurg championed greaterindependence of the executive from the legislative branch. He left the convention in early August,however, and did not sign the Constitution.

James McClurg's political service did not end with the convention. During George Washington'sadministration McClurg served on Virginia's executive council. He died in Richmond, VA, onJuly 9, 1823.

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Edmund Randolph (1753 -1813)

Image: National Archives, Records of Exposition, Anniversary, and Memorial Commissions


Edmund Randolph was born on August 10, 1753, in Tazewell Hall in Williamsburg, Virginia, to Ariana Jenings and John Randolph. Edmund attended the College of William and Mary and then studied law under his father's tutelage.

When the Revolution broke out, father and son followed different paths. In 1775, John Randolph, a Loyalist, followed the royal governor, Lord Dunmore, to England. Edmund remained in the care of his uncle, Peyton Randolph, a prominent figure in Virginia politics. During the war Edmund served as aide-de-camp to General George Washington and also attended the convention at which Virginia's first state constitution was adopted in 1776. He was the convention's youngest member at age 23. Randolph married Elizabeth Nicholas in 1776.


Randolph continued to advance in the political world. He became mayor of Williamsburg and Virginia's Attorney-General. In 1779 he was elected to the Continental Congress, and in November of 1786, he became Governor of Virginia. In 1786 he was a delegate to the Annapolis Convention.

Four days after the opening of the federal convention in Philadelphia, on May 29, 1787, Edmund Randolph presented the Virginia Plan for creating a new government. This plan proposed a strong central government comprised of three branches: legislative, executive, and judicial. The plan also enabled the legislative branch to veto state laws and to use force against states failing to fulfill their duties. After many debates and revisions, including striking the section permitting the use of force against a state, the Virginia Plan became in large part the basis of the Constitution.

Although Randolph himself introduced the highly centralized Virginia Plan, he fluctuated between Federalist and Antifederalist positions in his own mind. He sat on the Committee of Detail which was responsible for preparing a draft of the Constitution, but by the time the document was adopted, Randolph declined to sign. He felt it was not sufficiently republican, and he was especially wary of creating a one-man executive. He preferred a three-man council since he regarded "a unity in the Executive" as the "foetus of monarchy." In a letter dated October 10, 1787, Randolph explained at length his objections to the Constitution. The old Articles of Confederation were inadequate, he agreed, but the proposed new plan of union contained too many flaws. Randolph was a strong advocate of the amendment process. He feared that if the Constitution were submitted for ratification without leaving the states the opportunity to amend it, the document might be rejected, thus closing off any hope of another plan of union. However, he hoped amendments would be permitted and second convention called to incorporate the changes.

By the time of the Virginia convention for ratification, Randolph supported the Constitution and worked to win his state's approval of it. He stated his reason for his switch: "The accession of eight states reduced our deliberations to the single question of Union or no Union."

III. Other Government Offices and Later Life:

Under President Washington, Edmund Randolph became Attorney General of the United States. After Thomas Jefferson resigned as Secretary of State, Randolph assumed that post for the years 1794-95. During the Jefferson-Hamilton conflict, Randolph tried to remain unaligned. After retiring from politics in 1795, he resumed his law practice and was regarded as a leading figure in the legal community. During his retirement he wrote a history of Virginia. When Aaron Burr was tried for treason in 1807, Edmund Randolph acted as his senior counsel. In 1813, aged 60 and suffering from paralysis, Randolph died while visiting Nathaniel Burwell at Carter Hall. His body is buried in the graveyard of the nearby chapel.

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George Washington

Image: National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution

The eldest of six children from his father's second marriage, George Washington was born into thelanded gentry in 1732 at Wakefield Plantation, VA. Until reaching 16 years of age, he lived thereand at other plantations along the Potomac and Rappahannock Rivers, including the one that laterbecame known as Mount Vernon. His education was rudimentary, probably being obtained fromtutors but possibly also from private schools, and he learned surveying. After he lost his fatherwhen he was 11 years old, his half-brother Lawrence, who had served in the Royal Navy, acted ashis mentor. As a result, the youth acquired an interest in pursuing a naval career, but his motherdiscouraged him from doing so.

At the age of 16, in 1748, Washington joined a surveying party sent out to the Shenandoah Valleyby Lord Fairfax, a land baron. For the next few years, Washington conducted surveys in Virginiaand present West Virginia and gained a lifetime interest in the West. In 1751-52 he also accompanied Lawrence on a visit he made to Barbados, West Indies, for health reasons justbefore his death.

The next year, Washington began his military career when the royal governor appointed him to anadjutantship in the militia, as a major. That same year, as a gubernatorial emissary, accompaniedby a guide, he traveled to Fort Le Boeuf, PA, in the Ohio River Valley, and delivered to Frenchauthorities an ultimatum to cease fortification and settlement in English territory. During the trip,he tried to better British relations with various Indian tribes.

In 1754, winning the rank of lieutenant colonel and then colonel in the militia, Washington led aforce that sought to challenge French control of the Ohio River Valley, but met defeat at FortNecessity, PA - an event that helped trigger the French and Indian War (1754-63). Late in 1754,irked by the dilution of his rank because of the pending arrival of British regulars, he resigned hiscommission. That same year, he leased Mount Vernon, which he was to inherit in 1761.

In 1755 Washington reentered military service with the courtesy title of colonel, as an aide toGen. Edward Braddock, and barely escaped death when the French defeated the general's forcesin the Battle of the Monongahela, PA. As a reward for his bravery, Washington rewon hiscolonelcy and command of the Virginia militia forces, charged with defending the colony'sfrontier. Because of the shortage of men and equipment, he found the assignment challenging.Late in 1758 or early in 1759, disillusioned over governmental neglect of the militia and irritatedat not rising in rank, he resigned and headed back to Mount Vernon.

Washington then wed Martha Dandridge Custis, a wealthy widow and mother of two children.The marriage produced no offspring, but Washington reared those of his wife as his own. Duringthe period 1759-74, he managed his plantations and sat in the Virginia House of Burgesses. Hesupported the initial protests against British policies; took an active part in the nonimportationmovement in Virginia; and, in time, particularly because of his military experience, became a Whigleader.

By the 1770s, relations of the colony with the mother country had become strained. Measured inhis behavior but strongly sympathetic to the Whig position and resentful of British restrictions andcommercial exploitation, Washington represented Virginia at the First and Second ContinentalCongresses. In 1775, after the bloodshed at Lexington and Concord, Congress appointed him ascommander in chief of the Continental Army. Overcoming severe obstacles, especially in supply,he eventually fashioned a well-trained and disciplined fighting force.

The strategy Washington evolved consisted of continual harassment of British forces whileavoiding general actions. Although his troops yielded much ground and lost a number of battles,they persevered even during the dark winters at Valley Forge, PA, and Morristown, NJ. Finally,with the aid of the French fleet and army, he won a climactic victory at the Battle of Yorktown,VA, in 1781.

During the next 2 years, while still commanding the agitated Continental Army, which was underpaid and poorly supplied, Washington denounced proposals that the military take overthe government, including one that planned to appoint him as king, but supported army petitionsto the Continental Congress for proper compensation. Once the Treaty of Paris (1783) wassigned, he resigned his commission and returned once again to Mount Vernon. His wartimefinancial sacrifices and long absence, as well as generous loans to friends, had severely impairedhis extensive fortune, which consisted mainly of his plantations, slaves, and landholdings in theWest. At this point, however, he was to have little time to repair his finances, for his retirementwas brief.

Dissatisfied with national progress under the Articles of Confederation, Washington advocated astronger central government. He hosted the Mount Vernon Conference (1785) at his estate afterits initial meetings in Alexandria, though he apparently did not directly participate in thediscussions. Despite his sympathy with the goals of the Annapolis Convention (1786), he did notattend. But, the following year, encouraged by many of his friends, he presided over theConstitutional Convention, whose success was immeasurably influenced by his presence anddignity. Following ratification of the new instrument of government in 1788, the electoral collegeunanimously chose him as the first President.

The next year, after a triumphal journey from Mount Vernon to New York City, Washington tookthe oath of office at Federal Hall. During his two precedent-setting terms, he governed withdignity as well as restraint. He also provided the stability and authority the emergent nation sosorely needed, gave substance to the Constitution, and reconciled competing factions anddivergent policies within the government and his administration. Although not averse toexercising presidential power, he respected the role of Congress and did not infringe upon itsprerogatives. He also tried to maintain harmony between his Secretary of State Thomas Jeffersonand Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton, whose differences typified evolving partydivisions from which Washington kept aloof.

Yet, usually leaning upon Hamilton for advice, Washington supported his plan for the assumptionof state debts, concurred in the constitutionality of the bill establishing the Bank of the UnitedStates, and favored enactment of tariffs by Congress to provide federal revenue and protectdomestic manufacturers.

Washington took various other steps to strengthen governmental authority, including suppressionof the Whisky Rebellion (1794). To unify the country, he toured the Northeast in 1789 and theSouth in 1791. During his tenure, the government moved from New York to Philadelphia in 1790,he superintended planning for relocation to the District of Columbia, and he laid the cornerstoneof the Capitol (1793).

In foreign affairs, despite opposition from the Senate, Washington exerted dominance. He fostered United States interests on the North American continent by treaties with Britain andSpain. Yet, until the nation was stronger, he insisted on the maintenance of neutrality. Forexample, when the French Revolution created war between France and Britain, he ignored theremonstrances of pro-French Jefferson and pro-English Hamilton.

Although many people encouraged Washington to seek a third term, he was weary of politics andrefused to do so. In his "Farewell Address" (1796), he urged his countrymen to forswear partyspirit and sectional differences and to avoid entanglement in the wars and domestic policies ofother nations.

Washington enjoyed only a few years of retirement at Mount Vernon. Even then, demonstrating his continued willingness to make sacrifices for his country in 1798 when thenation was on the verge of war with France he agreed to command the army, though his serviceswere not ultimately required. He died at the age of 67 in 1799. In his will, he emancipated hisslaves.

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George Wythe

Image: National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution

George Wythe, the second of Thomas and Margaret Wythe's three children, was born in 1726 onhis family's plantation on the Back River in Elizabeth City County, VA. Both parents died whenWythe was young, and he grew up under the guardianship of his older brother, Thomas. ThoughWythe was to become an eminent jurist and teacher, he received very little formal education. Helearned Latin and Greek from his well-educated mother, and he probably attended for a time agrammar school operated by the College of William and Mary.

Wythe's brother later sent him to Prince George County to read law under an uncle. In 1746, atage 20, he joined the bar, moved to Spotsylvania County, and became associated with a lawyerthere. In 1747 he married his partner's sister, Ann Lewis, but she died the next year. In 1754 Lt.Gov. Robert Dinwiddie appointed him as acting colonial attorney general, a position that he heldfor only a few months. The next year, Wythe's brother died and he inherited the family estate. Hechose, however, to live in Williamsburg in the house that his new father-in-law, an architect,designed and built for him and his wife, Elizabeth Taliaferro. They married in 1755, and their onlychild died in infancy.

At Williamsburg, Wythe immersed himself in further study of the classics and the law andachieved accreditation by the colonial supreme court. He served in the House of Burgesses fromthe mid-1750s until 1775, first as delegate and after 1769 as clerk. In 1768 he became mayor ofWilliamsburg, and the next year he sat on the board of visitors of the College of William andMary. During these years he also directed the legal studies of young scholars, notably ThomasJefferson. Wythe and Jefferson maintained a lifelong friendship, first as mentor and pupil and lateras political allies.

Wythe first exhibited revolutionary leanings in 1764 when Parliament hinted to the colonies that itmight impose a stamp tax. By then an experienced legislator, he drafted for the House ofBurgesses a remonstrance to Parliament so strident that his fellow delegates modified it beforeadoption. Wythe was one of the first to express the concept of separate nationhood for thecolonies within the British empire.

When war broke out, Wythe volunteered for the army but was sent to the Continental Congress. Although present from 1775 through 1776, Wythe exerted little influence and signedthe Declaration of Independence after the formal signing in August 1776. That same year, Wythe,Jefferson, and Edmund Pendleton undertook a 3-year project to revise Virginia's legal code. In1777 Wythe also presided as speaker of the Virginia House of Delegates.

An appointment as one of the three judges of the newly created Virginia high court of chanceryfollowed in 1778. For 28 years, during 13 of which he was the only chancellor, Wythe charted thecourse of Virginia jurisprudence. In addition, he was an ex officio member of the state superiorcourt.

Wythe's real love was teaching. In 1779 Jefferson and other officials of the College of William and Mary created the first chair of law in a U.S. institution of higher learning andappointed Wythe to fill it. In that position, he educated America's earliest college-trained lawyers,among them John Marshall and James Monroe. In 1787 he attended the ConstitutionalConvention but played an insignificant role. He left the proceedings early and did not sign theConstitution. The following year, however, he was one of the Federalist leaders at the Virginiaratifying convention. There he presided over the Committee of the Whole and offered theresolution for ratification.

In 1791, the year after Wythe resigned his professorship, his chancery duties caused him to moveto Richmond, the state capital. He was reluctant to give up his teaching, however, and opened aprivate law school. One of his last and most promising pupils was young Henry Clay.

In 1806, in his eightieth year, Wythe died at Richmond under mysterious circumstances, probablyof poison administered by his grandnephew and heir, George Wythe Sweeney. Reflecting alifelong aversion to slavery, Wythe emancipated his slaves in his will. His grave is in the yard ofSt. John's Episcopal Church in Richmond.

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