Author, Lawyer, Attorney General and Presidential Candidate William Wirt was an important figure in American Politics, and an ironic choice for presidential candidate.
“Give me liberty, or give me death!”
This famous quote is most often attributed to the American patriot Patrick Henry. As the story goes, Henry ebulliently issued this proclamation in a speech given to the Virginia house of Burgesses on March 23rd, 1775 where he was attempting to obtain the power of Virginia’s militia in the forthcoming War for American Independence. Upon the end of the speech, so the story goes, the audience jumped to their feet with cries of “To arms!” It was an historic moment.
With that in mind, it will probably come as a surprise to most people that there is a possibility that this never happened.
The line was first attributed to Patrick Henry more than forty years after the fact (a major point to those who assume it to have been fabricated) in a book about Henry by a man who would that very year be named the United States Attorney General by President James Monroe. The book was called Life and Character of Patrick Henry (1817), and as far as biographies go, it was quite successful. Indeed, with such memorable lines as “Give me liberty or give me death!” it’s not very hard to see why.
The book was written by one William Wirt, and even apart from his association with Patrick Henry he was quite an interesting man.
William Wirt’s Law Career
Prior to being named Attorney General, William Wirt had been a lawyer. His most famous case being the treason trial of former Vice President Aaron Burr (which in itself is a fascinating story), which he lost, though not so much due to his own deficiency as a lawyer (his speech to the court lasted more than four hours) as to the brilliance of Chief Justice John Marshall of the Supreme Court, who in those days set important legal precedents on a near-daily basis.
As Attorney General, his most famous case before the Supreme Court came when he argued, in 1832, for the rights of the Cherokee nation in the state of Georgia, which was attempting to attain its own right to privacy within the state. In a landmark decision, Chief Justice Marshall gave Wirt the victory, stating that the citizens of Georgia have no right over the tribes living therein (though it’s actually a bit more complicated than that, if one cares to really look into this).
At the same time William Wirt was arguing for the rights of Native Americans before the Supreme Court, he was making an attempt at running for President of the United States.
Before the presidential election of 1832, a third party had begun to emerge from the mire of nineteenth century politics in an attempt to challenge the reigning Jeffersonian Republicans and the National Republican Party (which was soon to be replaced by the Whig Party). This was the American (better known as the “Anti-Masonic”) party – a party dedicated to the abolition of all sorts of secret societies which they perceived as being harmful to the world.
The Anti-Masons got together in Philadelphia during the period of September 11th – September 18th of 1830 in what would become the very first nominating convention held in America. During the convention, the 111 Anti-Masonic delegates (all from free states) decided to nominate William Wirt to be their presidential candidate, narrowly defeating John McLean for that honor.
Being a new political party and all, the Anti-Masons didn’t actually do very well in this election (which was won handily by Andrew Jackson), winning only one state – Vermont (the governor of Vermont at that time was William A. Palmer, an Anti-Mason).
Despite the lack of success, there is a particularly interesting element to this story:
William Wirt, the candidate for the Anti-Masonic Party was himself a Freemason. In fact, he gave a speech during his candidacy defending masonry. There have been many conclusions drawn from this fact, but perhaps the most striking is the possibility that the “Anti-Masons,” may not have been as zealous in this one issue as their name might imply.
Death and Legacy
Despite having won a single state in the election of 1832 (a surprisingly strong showing for a new third party), the Anti-Masonic party began a steady decline, despite having elected two governors from their party (besides Palmer in Vermont, Joseph Ritner was elected Governor of Pennsylvania in 1835).
When the party breathed its last in 1836, most of its members had joined either the National Republican Party or the Whig Party
William Wirt died only two years after his uneventful attempt at the Presidency, in 1834, of complications due to a severe cold. He was buried in Washington D.C.’s congressional cemetery where he lay in piece until a grave robber/historical memorabilia collector stole his skull in the 1970’s.
By 2005 the skull had finally been recovered and return to Wirt’s grave, where he is once again at rest, and whole.