William Wirt is one of the deep cuts of American political history. He's the U.S. history equivalent of that EP by that obscure band you like that was released fifteen years ago, and only in Europe.
So why do we care besides the fact that we get an additional History Nerd merit badge every time we successfully insert his name into party conversation? (We're super-popular at parties, btw.)
Well, he was Attorney General when the Monroe Doctrine was written, and was part of the cabinet that deliberated and drafted the statement. As a special bonus, his legal career includes some pretty significant cases, and who doesn't enjoy a good court case?
Everyone, obviously, or Law & Order wouldn't have lasted so long and spawned so many spin-offs.
He was an author on the side, publishing at least three books of essays and a biography of Patrick Henry. His most famous publication is perhaps his third essay book, The Old Bachelor (1812). (Source)
Both of William's parents died before he was eight (sad face), so he was raised by relatives and tutors. His father had owned a tavern and some other property, so he was comfortable, but not a member of the wealthy elite. He grew up to be quite a large man (over six feet tall in the 18th century: big boy) and studied law privately until he passed the bar in 1792.
He bonded with Thomas Jefferson after marrying the daughter of George Gilmer, a close friend of TJ's. Wirt ended up serving as the party lawyer for the Democrat-Republicans for years, and he gave the eulogy for Jefferson and John Adams (who died on the same day) in the House of Representatives in 1826. (Source)
Wirt rose in the legal ranks over the 1790s. When his first wife died after only five years of marriage, he moved to Virginia to try and get away from his grief. He eventually became clerk for the Virginia House of Delegates in 1800, and then Chancellor for a new eastern district of Virginia in 1802. He only held that job for seven months, though, because he realized that such a prominent (yet low-paying) position wasn't what he wanted, and he'd rather just practice law. (Source)
Part of the reason that Wirt rose so high so quickly, despite an apparent lack of rigorous study and ambition, was his extremely pleasant personality. (Aww.) He got the chancellorship at twenty-nine, a very young age, basically because he was popular. See, being nice can get you places. If it worked for a lawyer at the turn of the 19th century, it can work for anyone. (Source)
Wirt tried his hand at politics, serving one winter term in the Virginia legislature in 1808 before saying, "Nope, I'm out," and returning to law.
In 1815, President Madison appointed him State Attorney General for Virginia, and basically Wirt was too polite and patriotic to say "No," even though he hadn't wanted the job and had actually recommended someone else. Similarly, in 1818 President Monroe appointed him Attorney General for the U.S., which was also a much more public position than he wanted, but which he accepted out of a feeling of duty and his long friendship with Monroe. (Source)
It sounds like Mr. Wirt had some problems with giving into peer pressure.
What's perhaps most interesting about William Wirt (although that's really up to you) are the cases he worked on. Given his prominence in the legal world, he ended up involved in some cases that tell us a lot about American history and culture at that time.
In 1800, during the first phase of his government career, Wirt was hired to defend Samuel 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 that had gone viral.
Wirt's team argued that the Alien and Sedition Act itself was unconstitutional, trying to get the jury to basically nullify the act as a part of the judgement. It didn't work and Wirt lost, but the judge was later convicted of misconduct and impeached because he was pretty biased and rude towards the defense team. (Source)
The Alien and Sedition Act had been passed during a time of political tension and paranoia about war with France, which clearly played out in the court as well.
Wirt later went on to unsuccessfully try Aaron Burr for treason in 1807, at the request of Thomas Jefferson. Remember, Aaron Burr, the guy who killed Alexander Hamilton in a duel? He also planned to take over Mexico. Apparently he had a habit of trying to rebel against the government and take over places. A number of southerners at the time had, shall we say, negative feelings towards Spain, mostly stemming from Spain's policies about the Mississippi River, so Burr actually had a potential audience for this scheme. (Source)
The Mexico plan finally got Burr arrested for treason, but the judge excluded most of the evidence for intent, so Wirt lost the prosecution. The trial did make him quite a popular guy though…and popularity is really what matters. (Source)
In 1824, while he was Attorney General, Wirt was on the prosecution team in what's known as the "Steamboat Case." Wirt argued that the legislation giving the state (New York) the right to grant a monopoly to a steamboat company was unconstitutional. The case went to the Supreme Court, and this time, Wirt won.
As a result, the Supreme Court declared that the federal government had the right and the higher authority to regulate interstate commerce. The decision started a general shift towards an expansion of federal authority, especially in economic matters. (Source)
The final big case in Wirt's career was a doozy. It's known as the Cherokee Indian case (1830), and Wirt fought on the side of the Cherokee nation against the state of Georgia. Federal legislation had granted the Cherokee (and other tribes) protected land that was not subject to U.S federal laws. Georgia decided they didn't like giving up some of their territory, and started passing a bunch of laws aimed at motivating the Cherokee to leave by taking away their rights. (Source)
Wirt, on behalf of the Cherokee (who, by the way, weren't allowed to testify because the defendants were white) took the case to the Supreme Court, arguing that he was upholding the will of the earlier Founding Fathers, who decreed that Native Americans should have protected land. The Supreme Court eventually decided it didn't have the authority to judge the case and dismissed it. (Source)
Soon after, another case (Worcester v. Georgia) brought the issue up in a different way, and the Supreme Court finally ruled that the Cherokee Nation was a separate entity not under Georgia's jurisdiction. It didn't really help though, because no one really cared about actually enforcing the ruling.
When Wirt finally left the Attorney General position, he somehow ended up as the presidential candidate for the Anti-Masonic Party in 1832. The man who really didn't like public office had a really hard time saying "No" when people offered him a public office.
You may be wondering about the whole "Anti-Masonic Party" thing. If you're a Dan Brown fan, you've heard of the Masons (a.k.a. Freemasons), although there are often, let's say, embellishments in novels about the group. (Source)
There's a long history of Americans being freaked out by the prospect of secret societies controlling the government and other things, and it reached a high point in the late 1820s. The Anti-Masonic Party was literally just a party that was attempting to clear government of Masonic influence. (Source)
Wirt only won Vermont. So his next venture, of course, was to open a retirement community in Florida for German immigrants. That's right, even in the 1830s people recognized Florida as the place to go when you're tired of shoveling snow every year. Somehow, the expensive experiment failed, when most of the 150 inhabitants bailed on their contracts. (Source)
William Wirt may not be a big name in the history books, but he was involved with a number of important issues in the formation of the United States over the course of the early 19th century. Besides being involved in the deliberation of the Monroe Doctrine, his legal career had him dealing with questions of what constituted treason, and how much authority lay in the federal government.
He may not have wanted public office, but he seemed to get a lot of people's respect when he had it. Plus, he gets bonus points for alliteration.