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William Wirt

Portrait of Wirt by Charles Balthazar Julien Févret de Saint-Mémin

In office
November 13, 1817 – March 4, 1829
President James Monroe
John Quincy Adams
Preceded by Richard Rush
Succeeded by John M. Berrien

Born November 8, 1772
Bladensburg, Maryland
Died February 18, 1834 (aged 61)
Washington, D.C.
Political party Democratic-Republican, Anti-Masonic
Profession Lawyer, Politician
Religion Presbyterian

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.



Born in Bladensburg, Maryland, to a Swiss father and a German mother, Wirt was privately educated, studied law and was admitted to the Virginia bar in 1792. He began practice at Culpeper Courthouse, Virginia.[1] After several years as a lawyer, he became clerk of the Virginia House of Delegates, then chancellor of the Eastern District of Virginia. In 1807, President Thomas Jefferson asked him to be the prosecutor in Aaron Burr's treason trial. President James Monroe named him the ninth Attorney General of the United States in 1817, 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.[1]

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 called, in Cherokee Nation v. Georgia, that the Cherokee Nation "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 null 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 jurisdication 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 was handed down by Chief Justice John Marshall on March 3, 1832 and decided 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."

After leaving Washington, D.C., he returned to Baltimore, Maryland, was an unsuccessful candidate for President in 1832 as the candidate of the Anti-Masonic party. This was perhaps ironic because he was, in fact, a former Freemason and, according to some sources, even gave a speech at the Anti-Masonic convention defending the organization although others said that he regretted having been a member. This event was the first national nominating convention ever held by a U.S. political party. He won Vermont, and thus was the first candidate of an organized third party to carry a state. Wirt practiced law until his death in 1834.

In 1816, Wirt wrote Life and Character of Patrick Henry, a biography of Patrick Henry which 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 and even contemporary Thomas Jefferson shelved his copy of the biography under fiction. He had the distinction of being regarded for many years as the chief man of letters in the South.[1]

Grave robbery

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 it, was indeed his and had it returned.[2]


Wirt County, West Virginia (formerly Virginia), is named in his honor.

Important Cases Argued



Further reading

  • Jabour, Anya. Marriage in the Early Republic: Elizabeth and William Wirt and the Companionate Ideal. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1998.

External links

Legal offices
Preceded by
Richard Rush
United States Attorney General
November 13, 1817 – March 4, 1829
Succeeded by
John M. Berrien
Party political offices
Preceded by
Anti-Masonic Party presidential candidate
1832 (lost)
Succeeded by


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