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June 2016 Brief: Volume 23, Number 18

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Wythe’s Wisdom


by Jerry Hopkins, Ph.D.



In Colonial Williamsburg, there is an important house that people still tour with interest. The Wythe House was the home of an important individual who had a profound influence on the creation of our enduring system of government growing Wythe Houseout of the United States Constitution, a “social compact” as John Locke would term it. In early Williamsburg, George Wythe was a lawyer, a judge, and a teacher. Listed among his signal achievements and important contributions to our history would be signing the Declaration of Independence and the work that he contributed to the drafting of the United States Constitution. He also taught and was a close friend of Thomas Jefferson.


Wythe contributed to the American government some important principles and provisions — a perspective on law, liberty, and the separation of powers. He firmly believed that people needed freedom with limits, not unrestricted license. He argued for a government of law, not anarchy. His belief was that the new nation should build her laws on the solid foundation of the English Bill of Rights and the Magna Carta. Wythe insisted that government also needed to be limited, and those limits needed to be clearly spelled out in writing. Today, many years after Wythe’s death, the limits he championed remain in the checks and balances system between the branches of the federal government — the Legislature, the Executive, and the Judiciary. He believed that such an arrangement would prevent any one branch from becoming too powerful, thereby preventing abuse of government power.

Through the years, we have experienced a fluctuation of power between the branches with the need for one or more to be challenged and changed. During the Johnson presidency, for example, there emerged the idea of an “imperial presidency” where the President should not be questioned or challenged. In that same fashion, we are witnessing a similar kind of mentality with our current leadership, mostly based on the idea of race and economics, making it difficult to hold our leader accountable. I do not think that the demeaning and disgusting response of our current leadership to the Tea Party Movement is appropriate or gracious. The movement opposing what our President is attempting to do is not racist or unreasonable. In contrast, the leadership that has brought us to the brink of financial collapse and unmanageable debt should be held accountable, and someone must reverse the stubborn drive to financial ruin. Hence the value of each individual’s response and the determination to vote and graciously express one’s opinion and principles.


We must also remember the importance of the process established by our Constitution, respect the “slowness” of the process, and not surrender to the “rush to judgment” mentality. We should be respectful and respond civilly. What we must recognize is that government is not the solution to what faces us. Government does not have a good record managing the economy, education, or many other things it has undertaken in violation of Section Eight of Article One.


This is the point that I would like you to remember in conclusion to this emphasis on the United States Constitution. George Wythe certainly isn’t as famous as his good friend and star pupil, Thomas Jefferson, who wasn’t even at the 1787 Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia. However, Wythe’s contributions to the formation of our nation and this importantGeorge Wythe document were invaluable. We should never underestimate the value and significance of one individual acting on principle in behalf of a good cause. A group of individuals working together through the art of creative compromise brought forth this enduring document that still holds our nation together. It was a creative solution to the divisiveness and selfishness of individuals and individual states in 18th century America. It is still important for us to consider the role of the individual in relation to this important document, our United States Constitution.


This leads me to ask all of us in conclusion: What have you done to preserve our freedom today? What do you intend to do in the future? Of course, we believe that the President, the Representatives, the Senators, and the Judges corporately and individually know, respect, and obey the Constitution. But it is even more important that “we the people” know what the Constitution says and what it means. It is important that we seek to live by its laws and limits and preserve and protect its liberties and rules. One person can make a tremendous difference.


Dr. Jerry Hopkins is a history professor at East Texas Baptist University and a freelance columnist living in Marshall, TX. Contact him at


Permission to reprint or copy in whole or part is granted, provided a version of this credit line is used:"Reprinted by permission from INSTITUTE BRIEF, a publication of Public Interest Institute." The views expressed in this publication are those of the author and not necessarily those of Public Interest Institute. They are brought to you in the interest of a better-informed citizenry.




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