Katharine Moffatt Whipple

Wife of Declaration Signer William Whipple

Katharine Moffat was born in 1734 in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, the daughter of John Moffat, who came to America as a ship captain engaged in the timber trade. About 1724, John Moffat had married a young woman of means named Katharine Cutt, and through trade and land speculation, they became one of New Hampshire’s wealthiest couples. Of their five children, four survived – three daughters and one son.

William Whipple was born January 14, 1730, in Kittery, Maine, son of Captain William and Mary Cutt Whipple. His mother was the daughter of Robert Cutts, a wealthy and distinguished ship-builder, who established himself at Kittery, and at his death left her a handsome fortune. Young Whipple was educated at a common school until he went to sea as a cabin boy in his fourteenth year.

William Whipple’s great-grandfather Robert Cutt settled in the Portsmouth area prior to 1649 and established the Kittery shipyard. His great grand-uncle John Cutt was New Hampshire’s first President and his great-great-grandfather Richard Cutt was a member of the British Parliament from Essex in the 1650s. He was born in the Cutt mansion, built about 1660 on the east bank of the Piscataqua River a few rods from the water and about a mile from the river’s mouth.

By the age of twenty-one, Whipple commanded a ship of his own. For several years, he devoted himself to the merchant marine business, plying the Atlantic carrying wood to the West Indies, rum to Africa, and slaves back to Portsmouth. Whipple was very successful, and he acquired a considerable fortune.

At age 29, he gave up the seafaring life, sold his boat, and moved to Portsmouth, New Hampshire. There, in partnership with his brother Joseph, Whipple established himself as a merchant, and that venture was also prosperous. As a merchant, he became a victim of the British trade restrictions of the 1760s, and an early adherent to the Patriot cause in Portsmouth.

In 1763, Katharine Moffatt’s only brother, Samuel, married and moved into the mansion John Moffatt built for his son. At first, Samuel and his young wife Sarah Catherine did well. The floor plan of their home gave it an impressive entrance, one well suited to lavish entertaining. They traveled through town in a four-wheeled carriage, and their friends and Samuel’s business associates were from the first families of the colony.

Unfortunately, Samuel Moffatt’s business affairs did not go well. He undertook several shipping ventures, including an ill-fated voyage to Africa to obtain slaves, with his brother-in-law Peter Livius. When most of the enslaved cargo of the ship Triton died during the passage to the West Indies, Livius declared that his share of the cost of the voyage was a loan, rather than an investment, and sued Samuel for his losses. It was this lawsuit that finally caused Samuel’s financial ruin. Samuel fled the colony aboard the ship Diana, in the company of his cousin William Whipple, to the Dutch-held island of St. Eustatius, where Samuel was able to escape his creditors and work to rebuild his fortune.

In a bold move designed to thwart Livius’ efforts, John Moffatt sued Samuel for the amount he had advanced to his son to establish his mercantile business. John had never transferred the deed to the house to Samuel, so it was Samuel’s moveable goods that were sold at auction to satisfy his debt to his father.

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Hannah Floyd

Wife of Declaration Signer William Floyd

Image: William Floyd House
Mastic Beach, Long Island
Now part of Fire Island National Park

Hannah Jones was born in February 1739, the daughter of William Jones of Southampton, Long Island, Island, New York. William Floyd was born on December 17, 1734, the son of Nicoll and Tabitha Floyd, on their prosperous plantation at Mastic, Long Island, New York. His father, a rich and respectable landholder of Welsh ancestry, kept the children busy with chores. As a result, William’s education consisted only of informal instruction at home.

In 1754, William’s father and mother died within 2 months of each other, and he inherited the Floyd estate on Long Island, along with the responsibility of caring for his brothers and sisters. The property was highly productive, with grains, forage, vegetables; and well stocked with cattle and fruit trees. Fronting on the Atlantic Ocean, the property also had a shipping dock used for trade, and access to fishing, oysters, and a variety of seafood. His accounts tell us that he dealt widely with carpenters, brick masons, farriers, butchers, and a variety of tradespeople.

William Floyd married Hannah Jones on August 20, 1760. Little is known of the young woman beyond the fact that she was a well-brought-up girl, who helped care for William’s family and assisted in managing the plantation. By 1767, they had three children: one son and two daughters. Nicoll Floyd, the oldest of the children, married Phebe Gelston of New York. Mary Floyd married Colonel Benjamin Tallmadge of Litchfield, Connecticut, and Catharine married Dr. Samuel Clarkson of Philadelphia.

As a wealthy landowner, Floyd acquired stature and influence in his community. His manor house was the meeting place of an extensive circle of connections and acquaintances, including many persons from distinguished families with excellent formal educations, and Floyd absorbed much knowledge through them.

Hannah Floyd was a public-spirited and patriotic woman, and upheld uncomplainingly the course her husband pursued. From the moment Floyd began to take part in public life, Hannah was left with the management of his affairs. He was town trustee (1769-71), and moved up in the ranks of the Suffolk County militia to the rank of colonel.

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Elizabeth Corbin Braxton

Wife of Declaration Signer Carter Braxton

Carter Braxton

Elizabeth Tayloe Corbin was born in 1747 at her family plantation, Middlesex, in King William County, Virginia. She was the eldest daughter of a British colonel who was the Receiver of Customs in Virginia for the King.

Carter Braxton was born on September 10, 1736, into a wealthy family at Newington, a tobacco plantation in King and Queen County, Virginia. He was the son of George Braxton, a wealthy planter and merchant. His mother was the daughter of Robert “King” Carter, a prominent landowner and politician, who was for some time a member and the president of the King’s Council.

Carter was liberally educated at the College of William and Mary and, while still in his teens, inherited the large family estate, consisting chiefly of land and slaves. His estate was increased greatly when he was married at age nineteen to the daughter of Christopher Robinson, a wealthy planter in Middlesex County; she died during childbirth two years later, leaving him two daughters. Soon thereafter he sailed to England, and stayed for more than two years.

Carter Braxton returned to America in 1760, and in 1761 he married Elizabeth Corbin. They lived in great splendor in richly furnished mansions on two of his plantations, and produced a total of sixteen children, though only ten children survived infancy.

In 1761, Carter Braxton was appointed to represent King William County in the Virginia House of Burgesses. In 1765, he supported Patrick Henry’s Stamp Act Resolutions; the imposition of import taxes was adversely affecting his own business interests.

In March 1773, when the House of Burgesses recommended the formation of a Committee of Correspondence to communicate with the other American colonies, Lord Dunmore, the last royal governor of the colony of Virginia, immediately dissolved the Virginia Assembly. Many of burgesses gathered a short distance away at the Raleigh Tavern, and continued discussing their problems with the new taxes and the lack of representation in England.

At this time, colonists in Massachusetts were also at sharp odds with the British, and punitive action had been taken. As a gesture of support, the reconvened House of Burgesses passed a resolution making June 1, 1774, a day of fasting and prayer in Virginia. In response, Dunmore again dissolved the Assembly.

Braxton immediately joined the Patriot’s Committee of Safety, and he was elected to the first Virginia Convention that met in Williamsburg after Lord Dunmore’s dissolution of the assembly. In March 1775, the delegates adopted measures for the defense of the country, agreed to break off commercial association with Britain, and encouraged domestic production of textiles, iron, and gunpowder.

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Laura Collins Wolcott

Wife of Declaration Signer Oliver Wolcott

Laura Collins Wolcott
Ralph Earl, Artist

Laura Collins was born on January 1, 1731, the daughter of Captain Daniel and Lois Cornwall Collins of Guilford, Connecticut. She was descended from the first settlers, and brought up in the manner of Connecticut girls of well-to-do families of that day.

The National Cyclopedia of American Biography says of her:

She was a woman of almost masculine strength of mind, energetic and thrifty; and while Governor Wolcott was away from home, attended to the management of their farm, educated their younger children, and made it possible for her husband to devote his energies to his country.

Oliver Wolcott was born on November 20, 1726, at South Windsor, Connecticut. He was the youngest son of Roger Wolcott, a Royal Governor of Connecticut from 1751 to 1754. Oliver graduated from Yale College in 1747 at the top of his class, and immediately began his military career. He was commissioned to raise a militia company to fight in the French and Indian War, and he served the King as captain in this unit on the northern frontier.

Back home, he studied medicine under his brother, Dr. Alexander Wolcott, but when he had just completed his studies, he was appointed sheriff of the newly-organized county of Litchfield, Connecticut, in 1751. This was the first of a long string of county and state offices: county sheriff (1751-71); member of the lower house (1764, 1767-68, and 1770) and upper house (1771-86) of the colonial and State legislatures; and probate (1772-81) and county (1774-78) judge. By 1774, he had risen to the rank of colonel in the militia.

Laura Collins married Oliver Wolcott on January 21, 1755, of Guilford, Connecticut. Oliver brought his new bride to his home in the old town of Litchfield. Five children were born to Laura Wolcott and her husband, three sons and two daughters; one son died in infancy; the other children were as follows: Oliver, born 1760; Laura, born 1761; Mary Ann, born 1765; and Frederick, born 1767.

The Wolcotts enjoyed a loving marriage for almost forty years, despite the fact that Oliver spent many of those years away from home, helping to give birth to a new nation. During many of these years, almost the entire burden of directing his domestic affairs rested on his wife’s shoulders. During his long absences, Laura Wolcott cared for and educated their four children, and by her prudence and frugality provided the necessities of life for her family.

Laura Wolcott’s patriotism was as strong as that of her husband. And while Oliver Wolcott gave freely of his money for the support of the Continental Army, Laura furnished blankets, stockings, and supplies from their farm for the army, almost continuously. She made her home a place of comfort and tranquility, which was always open to anyone serving the patriotic cause, even during the war.

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Elizabeth Lynch

Founding Father Thomas Lynch Jr.

Wife of Declaration Signer Thomas Lynch Jr.

Elizabeth Shubrick was born on February 5, 1749, in South Carolina. She would become the childhood sweetheart of Thomas Lynch, Jr., who was born on August 5, 1749, at Hopsewee Plantation on the North Santee River, Prince George’s Parish, Winyah, South Carolina. Jonack Lynch, the great-grandfather of Lynch, Jr., emigrated from Ireland and worked a small farm in the low country along the Atlantic coast, but had only modest financial success. At his death, he left his son Thomas his property and a little money, which was used to buy land and cultivate rice, which was to bring him a fortune.

Hopsewee Plantation was built by the Lynch family between 1733 and 1740, and was chosen for the family home of Thomas Lynch, Sr. Hopsewee overlooks the Santee River and the rice fields, which were its source of income until the Civil War. Thomas Lynch Sr. was married to Elizabeth Allston of Brookgreen Plantation, and they had two daughters Sabina (1747) and Esther (1748) and one son, Thomas Lynch, Jr. After Elizabeth Allston died, Lynch Sr. married Hannah Motte, and they had a daughter, Elizabeth in 1755.

Thomas Lynch, Sr. was a distinguished public servant and one of the most important Santee River planters. In 1751, he was the delegate elected to the Commons House of Assembly from Prince George, Winyah Parish, where he served with the exception of one term until his death.

Thomas Lynch, Jr. attended the Indigo Society School at nearby Georgetown, South Carolina. His father then sent him to England to take advantage of the educational opportunities in that country. The younger Lynch attended Eton College, earned a degree at Cambridge University, and studied law in London. He observed the hoity-toity attitude of the British statesmen toward the colonies, and longed to be back in his native land.

In 1772, after an absence of eight or nine years, young Mr. Lynch returned to South Carolina an eminently accomplished man. Although he was qualified to practice law, he persuaded his father to allow him to become a planter.

Elizabeth married Thomas Lynch on May 14, 1772, and settled at Peach Tree Plantation about four miles south of Hopsewee, a gift from his father, who by this time had become a fervent revolutionary. Lynch Jr. devoted himself to cultivating the plantation and took part in the public discussions of colonial grievances.

Thomas Lynch Sr. served on the Stamp Act Congress, and in 1774 was elected to the First Continental Congress in Philadelphia. He was highly esteemed by the founding fathers, and in October, 1775, he was appointed with Benjamin Franklin and Colonel Benjamin Harrison as advisors to General George Washington.

As the son of a wealthy and influential father, Lynch Jr. was soon called upon to serve in many important civil offices. He was elected to the First Provincial Congress from his parish in 1774 and reelected in 1775. In February 1776, he was chosen to serve on the Committee of 11, who would prepare a constitution for South Carolina, and served on the first state General Assembly.

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Mary Bartlett

Wife of Declaration Signer Dr. Josiah Bartlett

Mary Bartlett was born in 1730 in the town of Newton, New Hampshire, one of ten children. Her father, Joseph Bartlett, had been made captive by the French and Indians in 1707, and carried to Canada and held there for four years. Mary Bartlett grew into a lady of excellent character.

 Josiah Bartlett was born in on November 21, 1729, to shoemaker Stephen and Hannah (Webster) Bartlett in Amesbury, Massachusetts. He was their fifth child and fourth son. He attended the common schools, but with uncommon success. By the age of sixteen, he had built a foundation in Latin and learned some Greek. In 1745, Josiah began to study medicine, working in the office of Dr. James Ordway of Amesbury, and used the libraries of Dr. Ordway and neighboring towns to supplement his medical knowledge.

Bartlett gained recognition locally by successfully treating diphtheria patients with a new procedure, Peruvian bark (quinine), and by the application of cooling liquids to temper fever. He became renowned for relying on observation and experimentation in the diagnosis and treatment of his patients.

In 1750, before turning twenty-one, Josiah moved ten miles north to Kingston, New Hampshire, and began his medical practice. By hard work, determination, and luck became a man of property and influence. Kingston at that time was a frontier settlement of only a few hundred families. If a man could stitch wounds, set bones, and treat fevers, he was welcome, even without formal educational credentials. As the only doctor in this part of the county, Josiah’s practice prospered, and he purchased land and added a farm to his credit.

On January 15, 1754, Mary married Dr. Josiah Bartlett, her first cousin. Mary was then twenty-four years old, an amiable girl, and well educated for the time. For the next ten years, Mary’s life was that of the wife of a popular and prosperous young country doctor. They would remain a devoted couple until her death in 1789. Dr. Bartlett had a large family, and built a large home in Kingston. He was democratic, kindly, and fast growing in the esteem of his fellow citizens.

Twelve children were born to Dr. and Mrs. Bartlett, of whom eight grew to maturity: Mary (1754), Lois (1756), Miriam (1758), Rhoda (1760), Hannah (who died as an infant in 1762), Levi (1763), Josiah (1765, died that same year), Josiah (1768), Ezra (1770), Sarah (1773), Hannah (1776, also died as an infant), and a child that was never registered. Three sons, Levi, Joseph, and Ezra, followed in their father’s footsteps and became eminent physicians, and all three of them took considerable interest in public affairs, and held positions of honor and responsibility.

The Bartlett Letters
Mary Bartlett left us a priceless heritage in letters that have been carefully preserved. Unusually well educated for the times, Mary wrote regularly to Dr. Bartlett while he was attending the Continental Congress in Philadelphia in 1775 and 1776. Her letters show that she not only wanted to keep her husband informed, she also wanted to ask his advice.

With Josiah gone, there was no medical help available for emergencies, and Mary expressed her worries about the children and about her own health. Her letters are full of accounts of the children’s ailments – Sally’s colic or worms, Ezra’s “canker and scarlet fever,” Rhoda’s fainting spells, Lois’s pain in head and sore throat. “Miriam,” she wrote on September 24th, “has been poorly,” probably because she took “a cold bath in the sea” – and added that dysentery was very prevalent.

Mary also reported on her own “sick headaches,” and on September 9, 1776, begged (concerning her pregnancy), “Pray do come home before cold weather. As you know, my circumstances will be difficult in the winter – if I am alive.” But letters often took more than four months to reach their destination.

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Elizabeth Wythe

George Wythe

Wife of Signer George Wythe

George Wythe (pronounced “with”) was born in 1726 on his family’s plantation on the Back River in Elizabeth City County, Virginia. George’s father died when George was three years old, but fortunately, his grandfather had given his mother an excellent education, and George received his early education from her. She instilled in her son a love of learning that served him all his life.

In his teens, Wythe entered the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg. He was poor, however, and his stay was necessarily brief. A family connection opened the door for him to study in the law office of Thomas Dewey, and at age twenty he was admitted to the bar.

Admitted to the Virginia bar in 1746, moved to Spotsylvania County, and worked with the prominent lawyer Zachary Lewis. In 1747, Wythe married Zachary’s daughter Ann. Wythe was admitted to the York County bar January 16, 1748. Ann Lewis Wythe died on August 8 the same year.

In 1755, George Wythe married Elizabeth Taliaferro (pronounced “Tolliver”). She was the daughter of respected planter and builder Richard Taliaferro, who built a dignified house on the Palace Green in Williamsburg – now called the George Wythe House. Taliaferro gave his daughter and her new husband life rights to the house, and they lived there for many years. Their only child died in infancy.

At Williamsburg, Wythe immersed himself in further study of the classics and the law and achieved accreditation by the colonial supreme court. In 1755, George’s brother died and he inherited the family plantation, but George continued to live at Williamsburg, where he had been elected to represent the town in the House of Burgesses the previous year. He served in the House of Burgesses from the mid-1750s until 1775, first as delegate and after 1769 as clerk.

In 1759, when Thomas Jefferson was a 16-year-old freshman at the College of William and Mary, he met George Wythe, then 35, a lawyer and member of the House of Burgesses representing the college. Jefferson’s father had died two years earlier, and Wythe and his wife, Elizabeth, who had no children of their own, took Jefferson in.

Wythe first exhibited revolutionary leanings in 1764, when Parliament hinted to the colonies that it might impose a stamp tax. By then an experienced legislator, he drafted for the House of Burgesses a formal statement to Parliament so harsh that his fellow delegates modified it. Wythe was one of the first to express the concept of a separation of the colonies from the British empire. Yet, despite Virginia’s deepening disputes with the Crown, Wythe maintained close friendships with governors Francis Fauquier and Norborne Berkeley, baron de Botetourt.

Wythe was appointed to William and Mary’s board in 1768, and was elected Williamsburg’s mayor on December 1 of that year. He was appointed clerk of the House of Burgesses July 16, 1767, and took the oath of office on March 31, 1768. He remained house clerk until 1775, when he was elected to the Second Continental Congress.

Wythe continued to accept law students as boarders in his home, and treated them like the sons he never had. In 1772, he took James Madison (cousin of later President James Madison) into his home. Another student was Bermuda-born St. George Tucker, who later became United States judge for the District of Virginia. Among Wythe’s other law pupils were John Marshall, perhaps the greatest chief justice of the United States.

But Wythe’s greatest pupil was Thomas Jefferson. The two men together read all sorts of material other than law; from English literary works, to political philosophy, to the ancient classics. Wythe also instilled in Jefferson a love for books. An avid collector, Wythe accumulated an excellent library. In later years, a friendly rivalry developed between Wythe and Jefferson, as each sought to develop the best private library in Virginia.

As the War for Independence drew near, the controversies with Great Britain helped to crystallize Wythe’s thoughts on liberty. Wythe’s emphasis on the importance of liberty under the law helped to check Jefferson’s fiery spirit. Wythe argued that due to the slowness of communications with England, the American legislatures should be allowed to make laws to meet local needs. The growth in power of the colonial assemblies was part of the whole process of the mid-1700s, which saw the lower houses grow in power, confidence, and ability to govern.

Wythe’s mature political philosophy was similar to that of John Adams and James Madison. Wythe believed in the necessity of a “mixed government,” in which several “factions” checked each other’s power and influence. Ultimately, this concept found its practical expression in the three branches of government and in the relationship between the states and the national government. In 1776, at Wythe’s prompting, John Adams wrote his Thoughts on Government, in which he put forth the concept of separation of powers.

When the war began, though 50 years old, Wythe volunteered for Virginia’s army, but was instead called to serve in the Continental Congress. In Philadelphia, Wythe emphasized that “we must declare ourselves a free people.” Following instructions from the Virginia Convention in Williamsburg, Richard Henry Lee, another member of the Virginia delegation, rose at the Second Continental Congress and moved for American independence.

Thomas Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence was approved July 4, but the document was not ready for signing until August 2, 1862. By that time, Wythe had been called back to Virginia to help set up the new Commonwealth. Yet, George Wythe’s signature appears first among the Virginia signatories on the Declaration. He was so highly respected by his fellow Virginians that the other delegates left a space above their names so that Wythe could sign it when he returned.

Declaration signature
George Wythe’s Signature
On the Declaration of Independence

In 1777, George Wythe returned to Virginia to revise the colonial laws and adapt them to her new status as a sovereign state. Unlike the revolutionaries in France and Russia, Wythe sought to build American laws on English precedents, confirming Edmund Burke’s observation that “the Americans are not only devoted to liberty, but to liberty according to English principles and ideas.” Wythe clearly saw the danger of disinheriting America from the Magna Charta, the English Bill of Rights, and England’s unique contribution to the progress of liberty.

George Wythe’s real love was teaching. In 1779, he accepted the appointment as professor of law and police in now-Governor Jefferson’s reorganization of the College of William and Mary. Wythe thus became the first professor of law in an American institution of higher learning. He held this position until 1790. In that position, he educated America’s earliest college-trained lawyers.

Patriot's home
George Wythe House
Elizabeth Taliaferro’s father gave his daughter and her new husband life rights to this house on Palace Green in Williamsburg, Virginia, and they lived there for many years. It also served as General George Washington’s headquarters just before the Siege of Yorktown.

Wythe’s chief aim as an educator was to train his students for leadership. In a letter to his friend John Adams in 1785, Wythe wrote that his purpose was to “form such characters as may be fit to succeed those which have been ornamental and useful in the national councils of America.” Mr. Wythe’s School – both in his study and in the Wren Building at the College of William and Mary – produced a generation of lawyers, judges, ministers, teachers, and statesmen who helped fill the need for leadership in the young nation.

Late in the 1780s, student William Munford preserved a glimpse of Wythe’s domestic establishment. “Old as he is,” Munford wrote, “his habit is, every morning, winter and summer, to rise before the sun, go to the well in the yard, draw several buckets of water, and fill the reservoir for his shower bath, and then, drawing the cord, let the water fall over him in a glorious shower. Many a time have I heard him catching his breath and almost shouting with the shock. When he entered the breakfast room his face would be in a glow, and all his nerves were fully braced.”

During the Revolution, Wythe’s wealth suffered greatly. His devotion to public service left him little opportunity to attend to his private affairs. Due to the dishonesty of his superintendent, most of his slaves were placed in the hands of the British. But by cost-cutting and careful management, Wythe was able to pay off his debts and preserve his financial independence by combining what was left of his estate with his salary as chancellor.

In 1787, Wythe was chosen to be part of the Virginia delegation to the Constitutional Convention, joining what Jefferson called an “assembly of demigods.” George Washington appointed Wythe along with Alexander Hamilton and Charles Pinckney to draw up rules and procedures for the Convention. Delegates from the American States met in Philadelphia and began framing the Constitution of the United States. George Wythe was among those illustrious patriots – yet he was in the convention for only ten days.

He was called home by what he said was “the only” cause that “could have moved” him, the illness of his beloved wife. Elizabeth fell sick early in the summer, and on June 4, Wythe left the convention and headed back to Williamsburg.

Despite his best efforts, Elizabeth Taliaferro Wythe died on August 14, 1787, “after a long and lingering sickness which she bore with the patience of a true Christian.” She was 47 years old, and had been his wife for more than 30 years.

His wife gone, and having no children, Wythe once again answered the call of duty and fought for the passage of the Federal Constitution at the Virginia State Convention. Wythe’s prestige and influence, as well as the votes of five of his former students, helped to overcome strong opposition from the Antifederalists, led by Patrick Henry. Later, Wythe helped to develop the Bill of Rights, basing his work on George Mason’s Virginia Declaration of Rights.

In a dispute with the administration, Wythe resigned from the college in 1789, and accepted an appointment as judge of Virginia’s Court of Chancery. In 1791, his chancery duties caused him to move to Richmond, the state capital, and he turned his home in Williamsburg over to the Taliaferro heirs. Wythe was reluctant to give up his teaching, however, and opened a private law school in Richmond. One of his last and most promising pupils was the future U.S. senator from Kentucky, Henry Clay. Wythe resigned as chancellor in 1792.

Wythe had grown to hate slavery, and after his wife died in 1787, he began to free his slaves and to provide for their support. In Richmond, Wythe lived with two of his former slaves: his cook Lydia Broadnax, 66, and a 16-year-old mulatto boy named Michael Brown. Wythe was convinced that blacks were as intelligent as whites and, given the same opportunities, would be just as successful.

Also living with him was his great-nephew George Wythe Sweeney, who was in line to inherit most of Wythe’s estate. The brash and irresponsible young man came and went as he pleased, and Wythe tried to exert a positive influence on him without much success. Sweeney was a regular at Richmond’s notorious gambling dens, and to pay his debts, he was not above selling books stolen from Judge Wythe’s library or forging his uncle’s name on checks. The judge finally threatened to cut his nephew out of his will if he didn’t change his ways.

On Sunday morning May 25, 1806, Wythe followed his usual routine at his home in Richmond’s fashionable Shockoe Hill neighborhood. He doused himself with a bucket of ice-cold water from the well in his backyard, then returned to his room to dress and read the newspapers until Lydia Broadnax brought him his breakfast of eggs, toast, sweetbread, and hot coffee.

Lydia carried the breakfast tray upstairs, and then returned to the kitchen to have a cup of coffee with Michael Brown. A few minutes later, she was stricken with horrific pains, and Brown collapsed on the table. Upstairs, Wythe finished his coffee and then vomited. When a doctor arrived to find all three in terrible agony, the judge raised himself up on the pillows of his bed and said in a hoarse whisper, “I am murdered.”

When Sweeney discovered that Wythe had willed part of the family property to Broadnax and Brown, Sweeney had poured arsenic into the coffee that Wythe, Brown, and Broadnax drank. Richmond’s three most renowned physicians, James McClurg, William Foushee and James McCaw, all showed up to tend to the members of the Wythe household.

The doctors were soon convinced that the symptoms exhibited by their three patients – sudden, severe stomach cramps, vomiting, diarrhea and acute pain – pointed to cholera. Cholera was often fatal within 48 hours, and as that deadline came and went, Broadnax began to recover, though the trauma she experienced permanently damaged her eyesight. Brown and Wythe remained in critical condition.

Wythe insisted that he and his housemates had been poisoned by his ne’er-do-well 18-year-old grandnephew. On June 1, Michael Brown died. Wythe lived on in agony for two weeks. Gravely ill and overwhelmed with grief, Wythe sent for his lawyer and wrote his nephew out of his will.

On June 2, Sweeney was arrested on forgery charges and incarcerated in the Henrico County jail. Wythe refused Sweeney’s request to post the $1000 bail.

George Wythe died from the poison Sweeney had given him on June 8, 1806, at the age of eighty, and Richmond prepared an elaborate funeral, the largest held in the state’s history to that time. Hundreds of somber official mourners – members of Congress, state legislators, judges and lawyers – crammed the statehouse on June 11 for the eulogy. Businesses in the city shut down for the day, and thousands of Virginians quietly lined Main Street as the funeral procession passed.

But one very important person was not in attendance: Because of slow mails, President Jefferson did not learn of his dear friend’s death until the day after the funeral. The president was also saddened by the death of Michael Brown, whom he had agreed to take in as a White House boarder if Wythe should die while the young man was still in his care.

Wythe was buried at St. John’s Episcopal Church in Richmond, where Patrick Henry made his “Liberty or Death” speech. Wythe bequeathed his treasured collection of books to President Jefferson, adding to the collection that would form the basis of the Library of Congress in 1815.

A grand jury indicted Sweeney for murder. Lydia Broadnax was thought to have been in the kitchen when the coffee was poisoned, but by Virginia law blacks could not testify against whites. Lydia was not allowed to tell the court that she saw Sweeney put something in the coffeepot the morning she and the others became ill.

That left the prosecution with a circumstantial case against Sweeney. After less than an hour’s deliberation, the jury returned a verdict of not guilty. However, disinherited and dishonored, Sweeney soon left Virginia and was never heard from again.

George Wythe was perhaps the quintessential Founding Father. He was Virginia’s foremost classical scholar, dean of its lawyers, a Williamsburg alderman and mayor, a member of the House of Burgesses, and house clerk. He was the colony’s attorney general, a delegate to the Continental Congress, speaker of the state assembly, the nation’s first college law professor, and Virginia’s chancellor.

Thomas Jefferson wrote:

No man ever left behind him a character more venerated than George Wythe. His virtue was of the purest tint; his integrity inflexible, and his justice exact; of warm patriotism, and, devoted as he was to liberty and the natural and equal rights of man, he might truly be called the Cato of his country.

I had reserved with fondness, for the day of my retirement, the hope of inducing [Wythe] to pass much of his time with me. It would have been a great pleasure to recollect with him first opinions on the new state of things which arose soon after my acquaintance with him; to pass in review the long period which has elapsed since that time.

Patriot's monument
George Wythe Monument
The namesakes of William and Mary’s affiliated law school, John Marshall and George Wythe (right), stand proudly in front of the law school, now ranked 30th in the US.

George Wythe
George Wythe 1726-1806
Wikipedia: George Wythe
America’s Founding Fathers
Remembering George Wythe
George Wythe of Williamsburg
Colonial Williamsburg: George Wythe
A Biography of George Wythe 1726-1806
Signer of the Declaration of Independence
The Mysterious Death of Judge George Wythe
The Classical Epitome of Colonial American Law

Mary Osborn Hall

Wife of Declaration of Independence Signer Lyman Hall

Dr. Lyman Hall

Mary Osborn was born on August 8, 1736, at Fairfield, Connecticut, the daughter of Samuel and Hannah Osborn. Lyman Hall, son of John Hall and Mary Street Hall, was born April 12, 1724, in Wallingford, Connecticut, to a well-connected family. Lyman’s paternal grandfather, the Honorable John Hall, was a member of the Governor’s Council and a Justice of Connecticut’s Supreme Court. His maternal grandfather was the Reverend Samuel Street, Wallingford’s first pastor.

Lyman went to Yale College and studied theology, graduating in 1747 at the age of 23. He also studied theology with his uncle, the Reverend Samuel Hall in Cheshire, Connecticut. He was called to pastor in 1749 in Stratfield Parish, now Bridgeport, Connecticut. Certain parishioners opposed him, and he was dismissed in 1751 after allegations were made against his moral character. For the next two years he continued to preach, substituting in vacant pulpits, while he also began to study medicine and teach. He went back to Yale, this time to the medical school.

In 1752, Lyman married Abigail Burr of Fairfield, Connecticut, on May 20, 1752, but she died on July 8, 1753, at the age of 24. They had no children. Lyman graduated from Yale again in 1754; settled in his native town of Wallingford, and began his practice of medicine.

Lyman Hall married Mary Osborn of Fairfield, Connecticut, on July 29, 1757.

In 1757, the Halls migrated to South Carolina and established himself as a physician at Dorchester, a community settled by Congregationalist migrants from Dorchester, Massachusetts, who had arrived decades earlier. When these settlers moved south to Georgia’s coastal Midway District in St. John’s Parish, the Halls went with them. This area provided more land and a healthier climate – the inland plantations skirted malarial swamps.

In 1758, the colonists finished their emigration and founded the town of Sunbury, Georgia, which evolved into the thriving seaport-hub of the surrounding slave-based, rice-indigo economy. The town was laid out on high, beautiful land facing the Midway River. Dr. Hall bought two of the nicest lots and built a summer residence there, as did many other planters.

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Anne Ross

Wife of Declaration Signer George Ross

Portrait of Anne Ross
By Benjamin West
West’s Anne Lawler Ross depicts a seated woman outdoors, holding a book on her lap in her right hand and a flower in her left. Her costume includes a pear-shaped pearl, bow and lace at the bodice. Her almond-shaped eyes and simplified modeling are characteristic of West’s colonial portraits.

Anne Lawler, born July 10, 1731, was the only child of Mary Lawler, a widow in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, who owned considerable property. George Ross was born May 10, 1730, in Newcastle, Delaware, where his father was clergyman of the Episcopal Church. His father was also twice married and had eleven children, all of whom became prominent members of society.

George was well educated at home; then, at the age of eighteen, studied law at his older brother John’s law office in Philadelphia, the common practice in those days. George was admitted to the Pennsylvania bar, at the age of twenty, in 1750, and moved to Lancaster, Pennsylvania, where he set up a law practice. One of his first clients was Anne Lawler, a pretty young woman whom he fell in love with.

Anne Lawler married George Ross on August 14, 1751, and it was considered a highly advantageous union for both. Three children were born to George and Anne: George Jr., James, and Mary. George Jr., the eldest, was a staunch patriot during the Revolution and was for some time Vice-President of the Supreme Executive Council of Pennsylvania. In 1791, he was commissioned Register and Recorder by the Governor, an office he held for eighteen years.

Ross built up a successful law practice in Lancaster. Initially a Tory (supporter of the British), he served as Crown Prosecutor for twelve years. He was elected to the Provincial Legislature in 1768; he was reelected many times, serving in that body even after he was chosen to be a delegate to the Continental Congress. Only Benjamin Franklin received a larger vote than Ross in the balloting. In the Legislature, Ross’s sympathies began to change, and he became a strong supporter of the colonies in their disputes with Parliament, and often opposed the Royal Governor.

Anne Lawler Ross died May 30, 1773, and was buried at Saint James Church Cemetery in Lancaster, PA.

In 1774, a provincial convention to which Ross had been elected sent him to the Continental Congress, and He served as a delegate to the First and Second Continental Congresses until 1777. The next year, he also served on the Committee of Safety. In 1775, because of his membership in the Continental Congress, he was removed from the British controlled provincial legislature. In 1776, Ross assisted in negotiating a peace treaty with the Indians in northwestern Pennsylvania.

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Abigail Carey Ellery

Wife of Declaration Signer William Ellery

Abigail Carey was born in Bristol County, Rhode Island, on November 12, 1742, the daughter of Nathaniel and Elizabeth Wanton Carey. William Ellery was born in Newport, Rhode Island, to a wealthy mercantile family on December 22, 1727. His father, of the same name, was graduated at Harvard in 1722, became a successful merchant in Newport, and served successively as judge, senator, and lieutenant governor of the colony. Newport was then a unique community where despite many religious differences, there was a degree of tolerance.

The elder Ellery prepared young William for college, and he entered Harvard in 1743. He was not enthused about becoming a merchant like his father, and entertained thoughts of being a lawyer. Ellery graduated in the Harvard class of 1747, and returned home to Newport.

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