Appletons' Cyclopædia of American Biography/Wirt, William
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|Edition of 1889. Written by William Mathews. See also William Wirt (Attorney General) on Wikipedia, and our Appletons' Cyclopædia of American Biography disclaimer.|
WIRT, William, lawyer, b. in Bladensburg, Md., 8 Nov., 1772; d. in Washington, D. C., 18 Feb., 1834. His father was a Swiss, his mother a German. Both parents having died before he was eight years old, Jasper Wirt, his uncle, became his guardian. Between his seventh and his eleventh year the boy was sent to several classical schools, and finally to one kept by the Rev. James Hunt, in Montgomery county, where, under an accomplished and sympathetic teacher, he received during four years the chief part of his education. For two years he boarded with Mr. Hunt, in whose library he spent much of his time, reading with a keen and indiscriminate appetite. In his fifteenth year the school was disbanded, and his patrimony nearly exhausted. Among his fellow-pupils was Ninian Edwards (afterward governor of Illinois), whose father, Benjamin Edwards (afterward member of congress from Maryland), discovering, as he thought, in young Wirt signs of more than ordinary natural ability, invited him to reside in his family as tutor to Ninian and two nephews, and offered him also the use of his library for the prosecution of his own studies, an invitation which was joyfully accepted. Under Mr. Edwards's roof Wirt stayed twenty months, spending his time in teaching, in classical and historical studies, in writing, and in preparation for the bar, which he had chosen as his future profession. With the advantages of a vigorous constitution and a good person and carriage, but with the drawbacks of a meagre legal equipment, a constitutional shyness and timidity, and an over-rapid, brusque, and indistinct utterance, he began his legal career at Culpeper Court-House, Va. In 1795 he married Mildred, daughter of Dr. George Gilmer, and removed to Pen Park, the seat of that gentleman, near Charlottesville. This change introduced him to the acquaintance of many persons of eminence, including Thomas Jefferson and James Monroe. The boundless hospitality of the country gentlemen and the convivial habits of the members of the bar at that time had for a season a dangerous fascination for Wirt, who was regarded by his legal brethren rather as a bon vivant and gay, fascinating companion, than as an ambitious lawyer. Fortunately he saw his peril, and with quick resolve forsook the seductive path he was treading. In 1799 his wife died, and he removed to Richmond, where he became clerk of the house of delegates. Three years later, at the early age of thirty, he was elected chancellor of the eastern district of Virginia, which office he resigned after performing its duties for six months. In the winter of 1803-'4 Wirt removed to Norfolk, but in 1806, wishing for a wider field of practice, returned to Richmond, where he speedily took rank with the leaders of the bar. In 1807 he was retained to aid the U. S. attorney in the prosecution of Aaron Burr for treason. His principal speech, occupying four hours, and which was characterized by eloquent appeal, polished wit, and logical reasoning, greatly extended his fame. The passage in which he depicted in glowing colors the home of Harman Blennerhassett, and “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,” was for many years a favorite piece for academic declamation; and the fact that, though worn to shreds by continual repetition, it still has power to charm the reader, is proof of its real though somewhat florid beauty. In 1808 Wirt was elected to the Virginia house of delegates, the only time he consented to serve the state as a legislator. In 1816 he was appointed a district attorney, and in 1817 he became attorney-general, of the United States. He soon afterward removed to Washington. After twelve years, during which he was often pitted with signal honor against the most eminent counsel in the land, he resigned his office and removed to Baltimore. In 1832 Wirt accepted a nomination by the anti-Masons as their candidate for the presidency of the United States, and in the election that followed he received the seven electoral votes of Vermont, and a popular vote of 33,108. He died at Washington of erysipelas, after an illness of two days, caused by a severe cold.
The most striking characteristic of Mr. Wirt was his devotion to his profession. From the beginning to the end of his legal career he kept before him a lofty ideal, which, except for a brief interval, he strained every nerve to attain. To this end all his studies, literary, historical, and scientific, as well as legal, were made to converge. In his early legal addresses he was tempted to aim less at argumentative strength than at the qualities that captivate the multitude. The reputation that he thus acquired for excelling in the ornate rather than in the severe qualities of oratory adhered to him long after it had ceased to be well founded. The consciousness of his early fault appears to have haunted him during a large part of his career, for we find him not only perpetually denouncing “the florid and Asiatic style of oratory” in his letters, and characterizing wit and fancy as “dangerous allies,” but laboring with indefatigable perseverance to attain a better reputation for himself. That he succeeded is well known. While he never ceased to relieve the stress and weariness of argument with playful sallies of humor, it was in logical power — the faculty of close, cogent reasoning — that he mainly excelled. His power of analysis was remarkable and his discrimination keen. He excelled in clearness of statement, in discernment of vital points, and in the vigorous presentation of principles. Bestowing great labor on his cases, he often anticipated and answered his opponent's arguments, and swept the whole field of discussion, so as to leave little for his associates to glean. In meeting the unforeseen points that come up suddenly for discussion, he was remarkably prompt and effective. His ablest arguments were those he delivered on the trial of Aaron Burr, in the case of McCulloch vs. the State of Maryland, in the Dartmouth college case (see Wheelock, John, and Webster, Daniel), in the great New York steamboat case of Gibbons vs. Ogden, in the Cherokee case, and especially in the defence of Judge Peck, impeached before the U. S. senate. Mr. Wirt was conspicuous for his personal beauty, both in youth and manhood. His manly, striking figure, intellectual face, clear, musical voice, and graceful gesture won the favor of his hearer in advance. In his public addresses he was usually calm, self-possessed, and deliberate. His memory was very retentive, and he excelled in felicity of quotation, sometimes retorting upon an adversary with telling effect a passage inaptly cited by him from an English or Latin poet. A pocket edition of Horace was often thumbed in his journeys; but Seneca was his favorite classic author. Wirt's conversation, enriched by multifarious reading, yet easy, playful, and sparkling with wit and humor, was full of interest and charm. Similar qualities pervade his letters. He was a member of the Presbyterian church, and in his last years took great interest in missionary societies, and was president of the Maryland Bible society.
Wirt's earliest work was the noted “Letters of the British Spy,” which he first contributed to the Richmond “Argus” in 1803, and which won immediate popularity. They are chiefly studies of eloquence and eloquent men, are written in a vivid and luxuriant style, and may be regarded, in spite of the exceptional excellence of “The Blind Preacher,” as rather a prophecy of literary skill than its fulfilment. They were soon afterward issued in book-form (Richmond, 1803; 10th ed., with a biographical sketch of the author by Peter H. Cruse, New York, 1832). In 1808 Wirt wrote for the Richmond “Enquirer” essays entitled “The Rainbow,” and in 1810, with Dabney Carr, George Tucker, and others, a series of didactic and ethical essays, entitled “The Old Bachelor,” which, collected, passed through several editions (2 vols., 1812). These papers were modelled after those of the “Spectator,” and treat of female education, Virginian manners, the fine arts, and especially oratory — a favorite theme of the author. The best of the essays, that on the “Eloquence of the Pulpit,” is a vigorous and passionate protest against the coldness that so often reigns there. In October, 1826, he delivered before the citizens of Washington a discourse on the lives and characters of the ex-presidents, Adams and Jefferson, who had died on 4 July of the same year (Washington, 1826), which the London “Quarterly Review,” in a paper on American oratory, several years afterward, pronounced “the best which this remarkable coincidence has called forth.” In 1830 Wirt delivered an address to the literary societies of Rutgers college, which, after its publication by the students (New Brunswick, 1830), was republished in England, and translated into French and German. His other publications are “The Two Principal Arguments in the Trial of Aaron Burr” (Richmond, 1808); “Sketches of the Life and Character of Patrick Henry,” which has been severely criticised both for its hero-worship and its style, the subject of the biography having been regarded by many as a creation of the rhetorician rather than an actual personage (Philadelphia, 1817); “Address on the Triumph of Liberty in France” (Baltimore, 1830); and “Letters by John Q. Adams and William Wirt to the Anti-Masonic Committee for York County” (Boston, 1831). Wirt's “Life” has been written by John Pendleton Kennedy (2 vols., Philadelphia, 1849). — His second wife, Elizabeth Washington, b. in Richmond, Va., 30 Jan., 1784; d. in Annapolis, Md., 24 Jan., 1857, was the daughter of Col. Robert Gamble, of Richmond, Va. She was carefully educated in her native city and in 1802 married Mr. Wirt. She published an illustrated quarto volume entitled “Flora's Dictionary,” which was the first book of its kind in this country, and is described as “at once a course of botany, a complete flower letter-writer, and a dictionary of quotations” (Baltimore, 1829).