William Wirt and Adoption

between 1810 and 1834



Wirt was born to a married couple in Maryland, but his father died when he was two and his mother when he was eight, and he became the ward of his uncle Jasper.

He studied law and soon became a popular lawyer in the circle of Thomas Jefferson, on whose recommendation he was appointed Clerk of the Virginia House of Delegates. He was the prosecuting attorney in the 1807 treason trial of Aaron Burr and was counsel in a number of other landmark trials and served as US attorney general from 1817 to 1829, longer than any other person. In 1832 he ran for president on the Anti-Masonic Party ticket, but lost overwhelmingly to Andrew Jackson.

He was a renowned if excessively flowery orator and also wrote sketches in the style of Joseph Addison and the first full-length biography of Patrick Henry (it is thought that Wirt was himself responsible for fabricating the famously spurious quote "Give me liberty or give me death"). His life inspired several sentimental novels of the time.

Although he spoke against slavery he was himself an owner of slaves. He also attempted to form a sugar cane colony (Wirtland) in Florida, using German immigrants as an alternative to slaves.


Microsoft Encarta 98 Encyclopedia, 1993-97 Glassner, Gregory. Adopted Son. (Chapel Hill: Professional Press, 1997) Dictionary of American biography Robert, Joseph C. "The Many-Sided Attorney General," Supreme Court Historical Society Yearbook (1960). Also available at: