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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 215

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This is the grave of William Wirt.

Born in 1772 in Bladensburg, Maryland, Wirt didn’t receive as much formal education as he would have liked, with his parents dying when he was young and only receiving a relatively small inheritance. But he had skill and that was obvious so he had mentors ready to help. He became tutor for the children of Benjamin Edwards, who served in Congress for awhile and while spending a few years working for Edwards, Wirt received more education and prepared for the bar, which he was admitted to in Virginia in 1792. He was a friendly guy and became close to much of the Virginia elite, including Thomas Jefferson and James Monroe. He spent a bit of time in the Virginia House of Delegates. His real break came in 1807 when Jefferson asked Wirt to be the prosecuting attorney in Aaron Burr’s treason trial. He gave a long and witty speech that was reprinted around the nation, leading to a rapidly growing reputation. He went back to the House of Delegates in 1808 and remained there until 1816. While there, he worked hard to get Madison elected, writing semi-anonymous letters attacking John Randolph of Roanoke and others in Virginia who were in the opposition to Jefferson. Mostly, he lived in the life of a Virginia elite gentlemen–big home, big parties, expensive tastes, and the slaves to serve him. He also wrote a hack biography of his hero Patrick Henry that is known for massive inaccuracies.

He was briefly the U.S. Attorney for Virginia and then James Monroe named him Attorney General in 1817. He served nearly twelve years in that position, staying for the rest of Monroe’s term and all of John Quincy Adams’. That’s the longest anyone has been in the job. Probably his biggest impact was arguing for the government against Daniel Webster in Gibbons v. Ogden, the groundbreaking 1824 decision that the federal government’s right to regulate interstate trade included that of navigation, with the more important precedent being making it clear that federal law superseded that of the states. He argued many of the other critical cases before the Marshall Court as well. Wirt is often considered the first great Attorney General, however one wants to define that. In any case, the list of men who served before him are not exactly filled with the leading lights of the Early Republic.

After leaving office when Andrew Jackson became president, Wirt argued for the Cherokees in Cherokee Nation v. Georgia and then again in Worcester v. Georgia, the legendary case when John Marshall decided that the tribes were “domestic dependent nations” and could not be moved against their will, a decision that of course Jackson famously ignored.

After this, Wirt became embroiled in a very strange political moment. A former Freemason himself, in 1832 the Anti-Masonic Party named Wirt their presidential candidate. While he originally accepted it and noted that no one should hold their Masonry over their nation, he almost immediately regretted being involved, withdrew from any kind of campaigning, and hoping to lose. He actually had turned pretty hard against Masonry and said a lot of nasty things about it in private, but refused to allow any of those statements to be made public. He still won Vermont, which was the first time a third party candidate won a state. He died in 1834 in Washington after getting sick attending a Supreme Court session.

William Wirt is buried in Congressional Cemetery, Washington, D.C. Oddly, sometime in the 1970s, someone broke into Wirt’s tomb and stole his skull. I remain perplexed as to why someone would do this to William Wirt. Maybe a Mason? Anyway, in the 2000s, someone starting making weird phone calls to the cemetery office about it. This is the first anyone had heard of Wirt’s skull being missing, because why would someone steal Wirt’s skull? Anyway, it was found in a Washington memorabilia shop, which I assume did not specialize in Attorney General bones, and was reinterred in his grave.

If you would like to see this series visit more Attorney Generals, you can donate here to cover the expenses. I’m sure the bones of Felix Grundy or Caleb Cushing would love a visit from me. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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