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Saturday, April 18, 2015

William Wirt, the best U.S. attorney general

     William Wirt served as attorney general of the United States longer and better than anyone, serving nearly 12 years under Presidents James Monroe and John Quincy Adams. Wirt turned a minor Cabinet appointment into an important one, establishing it as an independent and competent office. An eloquent and highly intelligent advocate, his best work came after nearly 12 years as attorney general, when he stood before the U.S. Supreme Court on behalf of the Cherokee Nation in Cherokee Nation v. Georgia in 1831, which he lost, and Worcester v. Georgia in 1832, in which he prevailed.
     The case he is probably most famous for is his prosecution of Aaron Burr for treason, 10 years before he became attorney general, which he lost.
     Born in Bladensburg, Maryland, on November 8, 1772, William Wirt became an orphan at 8. His Uncle Jasper Wirt raised him, but by age 15, with the boy's inheritance nearly exhausted, the nephew was on his own. Benjamin Edwards, a wealth merchant in Montgomery County, Maryland, hired young Wirt to tutor his son and two nephews, enhancing the offer by allowing Wirt uninhibited access to his library. Wirt must have been a good teacher for the son, Ninian Edwards, who became governor of Illinois.
     Wirt made good use of that library. Virginia admitted him to the Bar at age 20. People said he was vigorous, and a good person who carried himself well, however he was shy and initially timid in court with a rapid and indistinct manner of speaking. As an attorney, he had limited financial resources, which meant he had a meager legal library, which also was a hindrance to his career, which he began in Culpeper County, Virginia.
     His fortunes reversed when he courted and married Mildred, daughter of Dr. George Gilmer, in 1795. Wirt moved to Pen Park, near Charlottesville, Virginia. His new father-in-law introduced him to many eminent people, including Thomas Jefferson and James Monroe. This entrance into the bosom of Southern society was a mixed blessing that Wirt had to navigate carefully.  The acquaintanceship of two future presidents boosted his career, however the life of a country gentlemen posed a danger to the professional standing of Wirt, who became regarded among his legal brethren as a bon vivant, gay, and fascinating companion, and not as a competent lawyer.
     The ambitious attorney soon amended his ways, buckled down, and honed his legal skills. Undoubtedly, the political connections served him well later, but first he had to prove himself at the courthouse.
     His young wife, Mildred, died in 1799. Three years later, he married Elizabeth Washington Gamble, the daughter of Robert and Catherine Gamble of Richmond,  Virginia. They had six children, three of whom survived infancy.
     President Jefferson asked Wirt to prosecute Aaron Burr for treason in 1807. Burr had been Jefferson's vice president but the animosity was mutual for Burr had tried to steal the 1800 election from Jefferson in the Electoral College.
     The charges against Burr were flimsy. A group of men met at the estate of Harman Blennerhassett on an island in the Ohio River just south of Parkersburg, West Virginia, although neither the city nor the state existed then. The men intended to build an Anglo republic in Texas, which seems perfectly legitimate. But the Virginia militia cracked down on them and the federal government trumped-up charges against them. Blennerhassett had fled to America from Ireland with his wife. His reason for leaving was not known until decades after he died on February 2, 1831; his wife was his niece.
     At Burr's trial, Wirt delivered a beautiful opening speech which lasted four hours. Contemporaries characterized his introductory appeal as eloquent with polished wit, and logical reasoning, which greatly extended his fame. In one passage, he depicted in the glowing colors the home of Harman Blennerhassett, saying, "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."
     Just what this had to do with the criminal prosecution of a former vice president is lost to history two centuries later, but it does show that the initially lightweight in public speaking had quickly caught on. And he knew as every attorney soon learns, when you have the facts on your side, argue the facts. When you have the law on your side, argue the law. When you have neither, wax poetically about the colors of the house. Wirt lost. Nevertheless, they named the county next to the home county of Parkersburg Wirt for him; they named its county seat Elizabeth, in honor of his wife.
      Despite the outcome, the once social butterfly had developed into an excellent lawyer. When Monroe became president, he appointed Wirt his attorney general. Thus began Wirts run as the longest-serving attorney general, as Monroe kept him for both terms, and Monroe's successor, President John Quincy Adams did not replace him. In 1819, Wirt successfully argued before the U.S. Supreme Court that Congress indeed has the right to charter a national bank without interference from the state of Maryland, in McCulloch v. Maryland.
      Wirt also kept a private practice. In 1824, he argued in the prevailing side in a dispute between two former business partners in Gibbons v. Ogden before the Supreme Court. At issue was whether Congress had the power over navigable waters. Again he prevailed, as he represented Thomas Gibbons. Wirt's co-counsel was Daniel Webster, one of the finest speakers of his time.
     Andrew Jackson's presidency eventually brought hard times for the nation due to his demagoguery, but it immediately ended Wirt's attorney generalship on March 4, 1829, the day Jackson became president. Wirt continued serving the nation in private practice as he challenged President Jackson and his Democratic Congress.
     Chief John Ross and a delegation of Cherokee Indians, at the urging of Webster, selected Wirt to defend Cherokee rights before the U.S. Supreme Court in Cherokee Nation v. Georgia. The Cherokee had sided with the British in the Revolutionary War, and they owned valuable land that white people wanted. President Jefferson was the first to propose seizing their land, marching the Cherokee people to the Mississippi, and making them live west of that great river.
     Under Jackson, the removal of the Cherokee, Muscogee or Creek, Seminole, Chickasaw, and Choctaw nations became a priority. In 1830, his second year in office, the Indian Removal Act of 1830 called for forcing these five tribes to relocate to Oklahoma, then known as the Indian territory. This act broke previous treaties with each tribe. That each tribe was located in the Deep South, and Southerners wanted their lands so the Southerners could have slaves plant cotton. That the Choctaw had fought alongside Jackson in the Battle of New Orleans, which made him a national hero, tells the reader all he needs to know about the character of our eighth president.
     In 1831, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the Cherokee could not sue Georgia. But in writing that decision, Chief Justice John Marshall telegraphed that the court would hear the case if someone else challenged Georgia. The Cherokee found that someone in Samuel Worcester, a Christian missionary who was born on January 19, 1798, in Worcester, Massachusetts, a seventh generation pastor going back to when the family resided in England. He truly believed in the Bible and in the rights of the Cherokee. He defied the Georgia law that required any non-Cherokee living on Cherokee land be licensed by the state.
     Which led to the Worcester v. Georgia case. This time, Wirt prevailed.
     However the case had no impact on the fate of the Indians. Oh, the court ruled that the Cherokee were a sovereign people to some extent, but the removal of Indians from what became the Confederate States continued as President Jackson and his successor, President Van Buren, marched the Indians away in the Trail of Tears, a march as cruel as the Japanese Bataan Death March a century later. The U.S. government marched the Choctaw out of Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, and Louisiana in 1831; the Seminoles from Florida in 1832; the Muscogee or Creek from Alabama, Georgia, and Florida in 1834; the Chickasaw from Mississippi, Alabama, and Tennessee in 1837; and the Cherokee from Georgia, Tennessee, North Carolina and South Carolina.
     This is another side of the evil of slavery that goes largely unacknowledged today. The government removed the Indians to allow white plantation owners to send in black slaves to till the soil and turn forests into cotton fields
     However, that is not the fault of William Wirt. He did his best in a time when white people consider people of other races chattel in America. He was a fine attorney general because he represented the people first, the politicians last.
     In 1832, the Anti-Masonic Party nominated him for president, which was odd as he was a Freemason and had no problem with the organization. Nevertheless, he carried Vermont, receiving 7 votes in the Electoral College. His running mate was Amos Ellmaker, an original incorporator of the Pennsylvania Railroad.
     Two years later, Wirt died at age 62. Nearly two centuries later, the rest of the country may have forgotten him, but not the 5,845 West Virginians who call Wirt County home, including the 823 residents of Elizabeth.


  1. Interesting biography, Don.

    I've always heard that at least one other reason the Cherokee---whose chief's son attended Harvard---were removed from its land was because there was rumored gold, and lots of it, in them thar hills of the Cherokee nation in East TN and north GA.

    1. There was gold in North Georgia around Dahlonega and there was a gold rush in 1828. The dome of the Georgia capital building in Atlanta is covered with a thin gold plate made up of gold mined in the North Georgia mountains. Yeah. I was surprised to learn of that when I moved to Georgia. People still pan for gold and take a small amount out of the mountain streams.

      He was a fine attorney general because he represented the people first, the politicians last.

      Wish we had an attorney general like that nowadays. Holder does represent his people which only make up about 12% of the population. We have a racist president and a racist attorney general.