The Magazine

Founder's Killing

The strange death of a pioneering jurist.

Apr 13, 2009, Vol. 14, No. 29 • By NELSON D. LANKFORD
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Bruce Chadwick is a competent and experienced writer, with numerous historical accounts to his credit. It is unfortunate, then, that he stumbles occasionally in small matters. For example, he describes the Virginia capitol as a Greek temple built of white marble. It is, in fact, stuccoed brick, Jefferson's paean in humble masonry to the Roman temple in Nîmes.

Moreover, Chadwick's narrative sometimes awkwardly loops back on itself, the fault of oddly sequenced chapters on earlier periods in Wythe's and Jefferson's lives. And the author indulges in too many shorter digressions: lurid tales of arsenic poisonings, the spread of cholera, and the body snatchers who supplied corpses to medical schools. Diverting as these anecdotes may be, they militate against a taut unfolding of the main story. Chadwick also struggles with an apparent shortage of key primary sources. For example, we never hear directly from the defendant. Presumably nothing in his own words survives to give that vital dimension of the story its own voice.

After acquitting Sweeney of Wythe's murder, the court dropped the same charge concerning Brown and convicted Sweeney of forgery. It sentenced him to six months in jail and an hour in the public pillory. He still escaped punishment. The law, his attorneys discovered, left a loophole regarding bank forgery, a loophole that his case goaded the legislature to close. Sweeney himself soon disappeared, like thousands of other restless young men, into the wilds of the frontier West, and nothing more was heard of him.

Despite Chadwick's shortcomings as a narrator, he has rescued from obscurity a once-celebrated murder case involving a Founding Father in the tumultuous early years of the Republic--another world, now long past, foreign in so many ways to our sensibilities, yet peopled with familiar human appetites and frailties. The story calls to mind the words of the British historian George Macaulay Trevelyan: "The poetry of history," he mused, "lies in the quasi-miraculous fact that once, on this familiar spot of ground, walked other men and women, as actual as we are today, thinking their own thoughts, swayed by their own passions, but now all gone, one generation vanishing after another, gone as utterly as we ourselves shall shortly be gone like ghosts at cock-crow."

Nelson D. Lankford, editor of the Virginia Magazine of History and Biography, the quarterly journal of the Virginia Historical Society, is the author, most recently, of Cry Havoc! The Crooked Road to Civil War, 1861.