Online: Object of the Month
"Mr. Wythes books &c are packed up ..."
Assistant Reference Librarian
Images from the collections of the Massachusetts Historical Society. Not to be reproduced without permission.
In a 22 July 1806 letter to his cousin Thomas Jefferson, George Jefferson reports that the books from George Wythe's library have been prepared for shipment from Richmond to Monticello.
A Friend's Bequest
George Wythe (1726-1806) was among the most prominent Virginia jurists, educators, and statesmen of the eighteenth century. A longtime friend and mentor to Thomas Jefferson, Wythe revised his will in January 1806 to bequeath his library to Jefferson: "I give my books and small philosophical apparatus to Thomas Jefferson, president of the united states of America; a legacie considered abstractlie perhaps not deserving a place in his musaeum, but, estimated by my good will to him, the most valuable to him of any thing which i have power to bestow."
Wythe died on the morning of 8 June 1806, after more than a week of agonizing pain brought on by a dose of yellow arsenic administered by a murderous grand-nephew. His estate executor, William DuVal, informed President Jefferson of his friend's death and requested that he appoint an agent to receive the materials left to Jefferson in Wythe's will.
"...very careful packing"
Jefferson turned to his cousin George, who frequently carried out business and other transactions in Richmond on the president's behalf. On 22 June, the president instructed his cousin: "Mr. DuVal the executor of my deceased friend mr Wythe, informs me that he bequeathed to me his books, philosophical instruments & some other articles, which he is anxious should be immediately delivered, as the house was to be rented in a few days. I have taken the liberty to inform him that you will receive those articles, & that you will be so good as to relieve him from all trouble & expense of packing etc by hiring some person on my account to do this. The packages are to be forwarded to Monticello by careful boatmen. The Philosophical articles will probably require very careful packing."
In this letter, sent a month later on 22 July, George informs the president that his instructions have been carried out: "Mr. Wythes books &c are packed up. I suppose however that I need not be in a hurry to forward them, & shall therefore wait for an order from Mr. H.-- and particularly as great care will be required in their removal. an inventory of them you will find inclosed."
By the time Jefferson returned to Monticello from Washington in September, the books had arrived safely, and during his time at home the president made a list of the collection (the inventory George enclosed with the boxes has not survived), separating out the books he wished to keep for his own library and those he would give to members of his family and other acquaintances. This list, recently identified among the papers in the Coolidge Collection of Thomas Jefferson Manuscripts at the MHS, has greatly enhanced our knowledge of Wythe's bequest to Jefferson and the ultimate disposition of the books included in that gift. [Please see the online presentation of the inventory of books received by Jefferson from Wythe's estate.]
For Further Reading
For more on the murder of George Wythe and the subsequent murder trial of George Wythe Sweeney, see:
Julian P. Boyd, "The Murder of George Wythe," William and Mary Quarterly, 3d ser., 12 (1955): 514-42.
Edwin W. Hemphill, "Examinations of George Wythe Swinney for Forgery and Murder: A Documentary Essay," William and Mary Quarterly, 3d ser., 12 (1955): 543-74.
A more recent, popular treatment can be found in:
Bruce Chadwick, I Am Murdered: George Wythe, Thomas Jefferson, and the Killing That Shocked a New Nation. New York: John Wiley & Sons, 2009.