William Wirt (Attorney General)
|9th United States Attorney General|
November 13, 1817 – March 4, 1829
John Quincy Adams
|Preceded by||Richard Rush|
|Succeeded by||John M. Berrien|
|Born||November 8, 1772
|Died||February 18, 1834
|Political party||Democratic-Republican, Anti-Masonic|
|Spouse(s)||Mildred Gilmer (d. 1799)
William Wirt (November 8, 1772 – February 18, 1834) was an American author and statesman who is credited with turning the position of United States Attorney General into one of influence. Wirt County, West Virginia is named in his honor.
He was born in Bladensburg, Maryland, to a Swiss father and a German mother. Both parents having died before he was eight years old, Jasper Wirt, his uncle, became his guardian. Between his seventh and his eleventh year the boy was sent to several classical schools, and finally to one kept by the Rev. James Hunt, in Montgomery County, where he received, during four years, the chief part of his education. For two years he boarded with Hunt, in whose library he spent much of his time, reading with a keen and indiscriminate appetite. In his fifteenth year the school was disbanded, and his patrimony nearly exhausted.
Among his fellow pupils had been Ninian Edwards (afterward governor of Illinois), whose father, Benjamin Edwards (afterward member of congress from Maryland), discovering, as he thought, in young Wirt signs of more than ordinary natural ability, invited him to reside in his family as tutor to Ninian and two nephews, and offered him also the use of his library for the prosecution of his own studies, which invitation was accepted. Under Edwards's roof Wirt stayed twenty months, spending his time in teaching, in classical and historical studies, in writing, and in preparation for the bar, which he had chosen as his future profession.
Wirt was admitted to the Virginia bar in 1792, and he began practice at Culpeper Courthouse. Wirt had the advantages of a vigorous constitution and a good carriage, but the drawbacks of meagre legal equipment, constitutional shyness, and brusque and indistinct speech. In 1795, he married Mildred, daughter of Dr. George Gilmer, and removed to Pen Park, the seat of that gentleman, near Charlottesville. This change introduced him to the acquaintance of many persons of eminence, including Thomas Jefferson and James Monroe. The boundless hospitality of the country gentlemen and the convivial habits of the members of the bar at that time had for a season a fascination for Wirt, who was regarded by his legal brethren rather as a bon vivant and gay, fascinating companion, than as an ambitious lawyer. Wirt quickly forsook this path.
In 1799 his wife died, and he moved to Richmond, where he became clerk of the Virginia House of Delegates, then chancellor of the Eastern District of Virginia, which office he resigned after performing its duties for six months. In 1802, he married Elizabeth Washington, the daughter of Col. Robert Gamble of Richmond. In the winter of 1803/04 Wirt moved to Norfolk, but in 1806, wishing for a wider field of practice, returned to Richmond.
In 1807, President Thomas Jefferson asked him to be the prosecutor in Aaron Burr's treason trial. His principal speech, occupying four hours, and which was characterized by eloquent appeal, polished wit, and logical reasoning, greatly extended his fame. The passage in which he depicted in glowing colors the home of Harman Blennerhassett, and “the wife of his bosom, whom he lately permitted not the winds of summer ‘to visit too roughly,’” as “shivering at midnight on the wintry banks of the Ohio, and mingling her tears with the torrents that froze as they fell,” was for many years a favorite piece for academic declamation.
In 1808, Wirt was elected to the Virginia House of Delegates, the only time he consented to serve the state as a legislator. In 1816 he was appointed a district attorney, and in 1817 President James Monroe named him the ninth Attorney General of the United States, a position he held for 12 years, through the administration of John Quincy Adams, until 1829. William Wirt has the record for the longest tenure in history of any U.S. attorney general. After his retirement he resided in Baltimore.
In June 1830, a delegation of Cherokee led by Chief John Ross selected Wirt on the urging of Senators Webster and Frelinghuysen to defend Cherokee rights before the U.S. Supreme Court. Wirt argued, in Cherokee Nation v. Georgia, that the Cherokee Nation was "a foreign nation in the sense of our constitution and law" and was thus not subject to Georgia's jurisdiction. Wirt asked the Supreme Court to annul and void all Georgia laws extended over Cherokee territory on the grounds that they violated the U.S. Constitution, United States-Cherokee treaties, and United States intercourse laws.
Although the Court determined that it did not have original jurisdiction in this case, the Court held open the possibility that it yet might rule in favor of the Cherokee. Wirt therefore waited for a test case to again resolve the constitutionality of the laws of Georgia. The opportunity came on March 1, 1831, when Georgia passed a law aimed at evicting missionaries, who were perceived as encouraging the Cherokee resistance to removal, from Cherokee lands. The American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions, an interdenominational missionary organization hired Wirt to challenge the new law. The decision in Worcester v. Georgia, handed down by Chief Justice John Marshall on March 3, 1832, held that the Cherokee Nation was "a distinct community, occupying its own territory, with boundaries accurately described, in which the laws of Georgia can have no force, and which the citizens of Georgia have no right to enter but with the assent of the Cherokees themselves or in conformity with treaties and with the acts of Congress."
During the 1820s, Wirt was a member of the prestigious society, Columbian Institute for the Promotion of Arts and Sciences, who counted among their members former presidents Andrew Jackson and John Quincy Adams and many prominent men of the day, including well-known representatives of the military, government service, medical and other professions.
Later in life
After leaving Washington, D.C., he returned to Baltimore, Maryland. He became a candidate for President in 1832, nominated by the Anti-Masonic party, which held the first national nominating convention by any U.S. political party. The Anti-Masonic Party's choice of Wirt was perhaps ironic because he was, in fact, a former Freemason; Wirt had taken the first two degrees of Freemasonry in Jerusalem Lodge #54 Richmond Virginia. Although some sources assert that he regretting having been a member, Wirt wrote a letter to the convention stating that he found Freemasonry unobjectionable, and that in his experience many Masons were "intelligent men of high and honourable character" who would never choose Freemasonry above "their duties to their God and country". In the election, Wirt won Vermont, and thus became the first candidate of an organized third party to carry a state.
Wirt practiced law until his death in 1834.
Wirt's earliest work was Letters of the British Spy, which he first contributed to the Richmond Argus in 1803, and which won immediate popularity. The letters are chiefly studies of eloquence and eloquent men, are written in a vivid and luxuriant style, and may be regarded, in spite of the exceptional excellence of “The Blind Preacher,” as rather a prophecy of literary skill than its fulfilment. They were soon afterward issued in book form (Richmond, 1803; 10th ed., with a biographical sketch of the author by Peter H. Cruse, New York, 1832).
In 1808 Wirt wrote for the Richmond Enquirer essays entitled The Rainbow, and in 1810, with Dabney Carr, George Tucker, and others, a series of didactic and ethical essays, entitled The Old Bachelor, which, collected, passed through several editions (2 vols., 1812). These papers treat of female education, Virginian manners, the fine arts, and especially oratory. An essay from this collection, “Eloquence of the Pulpit,” a vigorous and passionate protest against coldness in this genre, has been singled out for praise.
In October 1826, Wirt delivered before the citizens of Washington a discourse on the lives and characters of the ex-presidents John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, who had died on 4 July of the same year (Washington, 1826). The London Quarterly Review, in a paper on American oratory several years afterward, pronounced this discourse “the best which this remarkable coincidence has called forth.” In 1830 Wirt delivered an address to the literary societies of Rutgers College, which, after its publication by the students (New Brunswick, 1830), was republished in England, and translated into French and German.
His other publications are:
- The Two Principal Arguments in the Trial of Aaron Burr (Richmond, 1808)
- Sketches of the Life and Character of Patrick Henry (Philadelphia, 1817) This work has been severely criticised both for its hero worship and its style, the subject of the biography having been regarded by many as a creation of Wirt rather than Patrick Henry. The book contained the supposed text of some of Henry's speeches, many of which had never been published. Some historians have since speculated that some of Henry's phrases that have since become famous, such as "Give me Liberty, or give me Death!," were fabricated by Wirt for this book. Even Wirt's contemporary Thomas Jefferson shelved his copy of the biography under fiction.
- Address on the Triumph of Liberty in France (Baltimore, 1830)
- Letters by John Q. Adams and William Wirt to the Anti-Masonic Committee for York County (Boston, 1831)
Wirt had the distinction of being regarded for many years as the chief man of letters in the South.
In the early 2000s, after a series of mysterious phone calls to the cemetery, it was discovered that in the 1970s someone had broken into the Wirt Tomb at Washington, D.C.'s Congressional Cemetery and had stolen Wirt's skull. After the skull was recovered from the house of a historical memorabilia collector, it spent time in D.C. Council member Jim Graham's office while he tried to get it returned to its rightful crypt. Finally in 2005 investigators from the Smithsonian Institution were able to determine the skull, which had gold block letters saying "Hon. Wm. Wirt" painted on the tin box containing it, was indeed his and had it returned.
Important cases argued
- U.S. Department of Justice biography (in the public domain)
- Raphael, Ray. Founding Myths: Stories that Hide our Patriotic Past. New Press, 2004.
- Masonic info site mentioning Wirt's status as a Mason
- Life and Character of Patrick Henry by William Wirt
- Tale from the Crypt
- William Wirt at Find A Grave
- Wilson, James Grant; Fiske, John, eds. (1889). "Wirt, William". Appletons' Cyclopædia of American Biography. New York: D. Appleton
- Fulton, Maurice Garland (1917). Southern Life in Southern Literature. Kessinger Publishing. p. 1. ISBN 0-7661-4624-3.
- Rathbun, Richard. The Columbian institute for the promotion of arts and sciences: A Washington Society of 1816-1838.. Bulletin of the United States National Museum, October 18, 1917. Retrieved 2010-06-20.
- Thomas Spencer Harding (1971). College literary societies: their contribution to higher education in the United States, 1815-1876. Pageant Press International. p. 39. Retrieved 16 May 2012.
- Letter of William Wirt to the Anti-Masonic Party Convention, 9/28/1831, reprinted in Memoirs of the Life of William Wirt, Attorney-General of the United States, vol. 2, ed. John P. Kennedy (Blanchard & Lea, 1849), 355, quoted in Jesse Walker (2013). The United States of Paranoia: A Conspiracy Theory. Harper. ISBN 978-0-062-13555-1., page 371, footnote 49.
- Carlson, Peter. "Tale From the Crypt". The Washington Post.
- Jabour, Anya. Marriage in the Early Republic: Elizabeth and William Wirt and the Companionate Ideal. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1998.
|U.S. Attorney General
Served under: James Monroe, John Quincy Adams
November 13, 1817 – March 4, 1829
John M. Berrien
|Party political offices|
|Anti-Masonic Party presidential candidate