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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
William Wirt (1772–1834)
Critical and Biographical Introduction
 
WILLIAM WIRT, LL. D., distinguished in his day as lawyer, statesman, and author, left speeches which are a part of American forensic eloquence. He wrote the best biography of Patrick Henry, and in his prosecution of Aaron Burr gave a noble example of old-fashioned classical oratory.  1
  Although his life and chief labor are associated with Virginia, Wirt was born at Bladensburg, Maryland, November 8th, 1772. He was of Swiss-German extraction. He was left an orphan at eight years of age, and was brought up by an uncle. His education was received at a local grammar-school; some tutoring in a private family followed, and then he studied law, and began its practice in 1792. Three years later he married and settled at Pen Park, near Charlottesville, Virginia, removing to Richmond in 1799. For three years he was clerk of the House of Delegates, and afterwards chancellor of the Eastern District of Virginia. He made his home in Norfolk in 1803. His popular ‘Letters of the British Spy’ appeared in the Virginia Argus during that year: they purported to be addressed to a British M. P. by a traveler of the same country, and contained interesting portraitures. In the Richmond Enquirer was first published the series of papers collected into book form under the title ‘The Rainbow.’  2
  Wirt returned to Richmond in 1806; and the next year took part in the prosecution of Aaron Burr for treason,—regarding his scheme for a Southwestern Empire,—being retained as assistant counsel to the Attorney-General, and making a very strong impression by his impassioned pleading. He was in the House of Delegates 1807–8, United States Attorney for the District of Virginia in 1816, and for three terms (1817–29) Attorney-General of the United States. His essays entitled ‘The Old Bachelor’ were printed in the Enquirer in 1812. Most of his essay-writing thus had newspaper birth. Wirt settled in Baltimore in 1830; and in 1832 he was the Anti-Masonic candidate for the Presidency. He died while actively engaged in his profession, at Washington, February 18th, 1834.  3
  Dr. Wirt’s life was one of varied usefulness and importance. He was a courtly Southern gentleman of the old school; and his writings have a pleasing flavor of good breeding and easy elegance, with something of the formality and sententiousness of his time. As an author he is lucid and polished, rising on occasion to real eloquence. His works make an impression of candor and integrity; qualities which seem to have been reflected in his character. A man of much local reputation and influence, his written words, both for thought and style, are worthy of an audience not confined to his locality and period.  4
 
 
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