On April 29, 1962 John F. Kennedy was introducing Nobel Prize winners. He stated the following, “I want to tell you how welcome you are to the White House. I think this is the most extraordinary collection of talent, of human knowledge, that has ever been gathered together at the White House, with the possible exception of when Thomas Jefferson dined alone.”
“Someone once said,” the president continued, “that Thomas Jefferson was a gentleman of 32 who could calculate an eclipse, survey an estate, tie an artery, plan an edifice, try a cause, break a horse, and dance the minuet. Whatever he may have lacked, if he could have had his former colleague, Mr. Franklin, here we all would have been impressed.”
These founding fathers were remarkable men. Their characters, and the actions they took to lay down the principles of sound government, have withstood the tests of time and continue to do so.
Our Country’s Key Mentor
I would like to share with you a bit about someone you may not know, someone who helped Thomas Jefferson become that impressive man lauded by Kennedy above. His name was George Wythe, and he was an essential mentor in the life of Thomas Jefferson. Wythe was an extraordinary man: the first law professor in America, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, and delegate to the Constitutional Convention. He was mentor to many others including John Marshall, James Monroe, Henry Clay and “enough other Founding Fathers to populate a small standing army,” as Professor Forrest McDonald put it.
Biographer Robert Peterson summarized some of Wythe’s major achievements:
“Often working behind the scenes in the classroom or his chambers, Wythe helped lay the foundation for the limited, Constitutional government that brought forth America’s free enterprise system…..Teaching both by example, and precept, Wythe might be called ‘America’s Teacher of Liberty.’ At the same time, his contribution to the legal profession as America’s first professor of law earns him the title of ‘The Father of American Jurisprudence.’
“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…. useful in the national councils of America’….Mr. Wythe’s school….produced a generation of lawyers, judges, ministers, teachers and Statesmen who helped fill the need for leadership in the young nation.”Robert Peterson, George Wythe of Williamsburg – Foundation for Economic Education
He taught two United States Presidents, two Supreme Court Justices and over thirty Governors, Senators, Congressmen, Ambassadors and Judges. His methods were simple: read the classics, orally discuss what they had learned, write about it and how it applied to their times.
He mentored his pupils about their readings and required both deep insight and clarity from them in their answers. Research, writing, thinking and public speaking skills were practiced, mentored, and mastered. Another biographer described him as, “One of the most learned legal characters of the present age….He is remarkable for his exemplary life and universally esteemed for his good principle. No man, it is said, understands the history of government better than Mr. Wythe…”
Jefferson and Wythe
Jefferson, as an orphan, needed such a mentor and referred to Wythe as his amici omnium horarum, or his friend of all hours. That speaks volumes, to have a friend for all hours or times. Jefferson lost his father early in life and George Wythe became, as he said, his “faithful and beloved mentor in youth and most affectionate friend through life.” He went on to say how Wythe mentored him while in Congress and also to others who served on the High Court of Chancery. “His pure integrity, judgment of reasoning powers, gave him great weight,” Jefferson professed.
“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, without the avarice of the Roman, for a more disinterested person never lived. Temperance and regularity in all his habits gave him general good health, and his unaffected modesty and suavity of manner endeared him to every one. He was of easy elocution, his language chaste, methodical in the arrangement of his matter, learned and logical in the use of it, and of great urbanity in debate, not quick of apprehension, but with a little time profound in penetration; and sound in conclusion. In his philosophy he was firm, and neither troubling, nor perhaps trusting any one with his religious creed, he left to the world the conclusion that that religion must be good which could produce a life of such exemplary virtue.”Thomas Jefferson, Thomas Jefferson: Notes for the Biography of George Wythe., ca …
It is easier to now see how Jefferson and his colleagues used the power of rhetoric, persuasion, and the pen to change the world! These were not ideas sprung fully-formed in the moments our country’s Forefathers gathered. The intricate ideas of life, liberty, property, happiness, and equality had been discussed extensively prior, in classrooms and in simulations under the tutelage of George Wythe, perhaps one of the finest, if not greatest, mentors of that time.
The power of a mentor and friend for all hours is life, and dare I say even history, changing.