William Wirt

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William Wirt
William Wirt.JPG
Wirt, c. 1817

9th United States Attorney General
Term Start 1817
Term End 1829
Preceded by Richard Rush
Succeeded by John M. Berrien

Clerk of the House of Delegates
Term Start 1799
Term End 1802

Biographical Information

Date of birth November 8, 1772
Bladensburg, Maryland
Date of death February 18, 1834 (aged 61)
Washington, D.C.
Spouse Mildred Gilmer (Deceased 1799)
Elizabeth Washington Gamble
Residence Pen Park (1795 to 1799)
Alma mater Georgetown University
Profession Attorney

William Wirt (November 8, 1772 – February 18, 1834) was admitted to the bar in 1792, and began to practice law at Culpeper Courthouse (now Culpeper), Virginia, at the age of 20, residing near Charlottesville. He was Attorney General of the United States under James Monroe and the 1832 anti-Masonic candidate for president. He was involved with a number of important issues in the formation of the United States over the course of the early 19th century. Wirt came to know Thomas Jefferson personally after marrying the daughter of George Gilmer, TJ's close friend and family physician.

William Wirt and his sister Catherine were born in Bladensburg, Maryland, to Henrietta and Jacob Wirt. Both parents died before William was eight years old and Jasper Wirt, his uncle, became his guardian. His sister, Catherine Wirt and her husband, James Johnston, were parents of Sarah Elizabeth “Eliza” - first wife of Dabney Minor.

Marriage to Mildred Gilmer

In 1795, Wirt married Mildred Gilmer of “Pen Park,” the Gilmer family estate in Albemarle County. Dr. George Gilmer gave his son-in-law part of the "Pen Park" property which he named Rose Hill. The property is located on present day Westwood Road, near Rose Hill Drive within the limits the city limits. A farmhouse located on an elevated site in the Rose Hill neighborhood, was raised in 1933.

George Gilmer and Lucy Walker were the parents of nine identified children: James Gilmer, Mildred Gilmer, Peachy Ridgeway Gilmer, George Gilmer, Thomas Walker Gilmer, John Gilmer, Lucy Walker Gilmer, Francis Walker Gilmer, Harmer Gilmer. Dr George Gilmer died in 1795, when several of his children were still of young age. His wife, Lucy Walker Gilmer, lived on for thirty years at their Pen Park home. She died in 1825, and is buried with her husband at "Pen Park" - Pen Park-Gilmer Estate Cemetery on land now owned by the city of Charlottesville.

Not long after the marriage of his daughter Mildred, Dr. George Gilmer died and Wirt took on the role of correspondence for his mother-in-law, Lucy Walker Gilmer, which including a letter to Thomas Jefferson requesting the purchase of nails.[1] (Jefferson had set up a nail-making operation at Monticello in 1794 to generate additional income for the plantation.)

Wirt lived at Pen Park with his wife and maintained a law office at 611 E Main St. in Charlottesville. On September 17, 1799, in the fourth year of their marriage, Mildred Gilmer Wirt died, she was 27 years old. Soon after, the twenty seven-year-old attorney was elected clerk of the House of Delegates, and relocated to Richmond, where he practiced law and served as clerk of the House of Delegates from 1799 to 1802. His former law office in the Town of Charlottesville became know as the Nanny Cox Jackson Home--demolished in 1968--now site of City Hall.

Local connections

In 1807, Wirt unsuccessfully prosecuted Aaron Burr for treason. James Madison made Wirt a U.S. attorney before he served for one year as the U.S. Attorney General for James Monroe in 1817. Jefferson offered Wirt a professorship in law at the University of Virginia, but he turned it down. Wirt served as the party lawyer for the Democrat-Republicans and he gave the eulogy for Jefferson and John Adams (who died on the same day) in the House of Representatives on October 19, 1826. Wirt was involved in the deliberation of the Monroe Doctrine, his legal career included questions of what constituted treason, and how much authority lay in the federal government.

Brief Bio

William Wirt was born on November 8, 1772, in Bladensburg, Maryland. He attended Georgetown University, was admitted to the bar in 1792, and while practicing law in Culpeper, he became attached to a genial and cultivated social circle, which included the son of Thomas Jefferson’s close friend Dabney Carr.

Wirt served in the War of 1812, as a captain in the American armed forces.


Sedition trial of James Thomson Callender

In 1800, Wirt served as co-counsel for the defense in the sedition trial of James Thomson Callender, the first man brought to trial under the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798. Callender was accused of sedition (treason) for publishing an anti-government pamphlet. The Alien and Sedition Act had been passed during a time of political tension related to a possible war with France.

The Treason Trial of Aaron Burr

In 1807, President Thomas Jefferson asked him to be the prosecutor in Aaron Burr's trial for treason. Known for having an excellent courtroom presence, Wirt lead the prosecution team of George Hay and Gordon MacRae for the government at the widely publicized Aaron Burr Treason Trial of 1807 in Richmond, Virginia. Charge against Burr, former vice-president serving during President Thomas Jefferson's first term, was treason against the United States.

Attorney General of the United States

Monroe appointed Wirt attorney general of the United States. In office from 1817 to 1829, he is the longest serving Attorney General in history. [2] Wirt would serve as U.S. attorney general in the cabinets of Presidents James Monroe and John Quincy Adams (1817-1829). He wrote extensive legal opinions and authored Letters of a British Spy (1803), The Rainbow (1808) and The Old Bachelor (1812), and ran unsuccessfully as the anti-Masonic presidential candidate in the election of 1832.

A discourse on the lives and characters of Thomas Jefferson and John Adams

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 July 4th of the same year. 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".

Thomas Jefferson and John Adams had both also died on July 4, 1826 – the 50th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence. (On July 4, 1831, James Monroe, the fifth President, died at the age of 73 at his son-in-law’s home in New York City.)

Death, burial, grave robbery

On February 18, 1834, William Wirt died in Washington, D.C. and was buried in the Congressional Cemetery[3] in Washington, D.C.

In the early 2000s, after a series of mysterious phone calls to the cemetery, it was discovered that sometime in the 1970's someone had broken into the Wirt Tomb at Washington, D.C.'s Historic Congressional Cemetery and had stolen Wirt's skull. In 2005 investigators from the Smithsonian Institution were able to determine that the skull was indeed his and had it returned. [4]

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  1. https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Jefferson/01-29-02-0283 | To Thomas Jefferson from William Wirt, with Jefferson’s Notes, 4 May 1797
  2. https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Jefferson/01-29-02-0283
  3. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Congressional_Cemetery | Congressional Cemetery
  4. Carlson, Peter (October 20, 2005). "Tale From the Crypt". https://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2005/10/19/AR2005101902374_pf.html The Washington Post. Retrieved September 30, 2014.

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