November 8, 1772 – Birthdate of William Wirt, Influential U.S. Attorney General

William Wirt was born on this day in history in Bladensburg, Maryland. He later moved to Virginia and was admitted to the Virginia bar in 1792.

In 1807, President Thomas Jefferson asked him to be the prosecutor in Aaron Burr’s trial for treason. His principal speech was four hours in length, and garnered him a great deal of praise.

In 1816 he was appointed U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia, and in 1817 President James Monroe named him the ninth Attorney General of the United States, a position he held for 12 years, through the administration of John Quincy Adams, until 1829. He has the record for the longest tenure in history of any U.S. attorney general.

William Wirt, 9th United States Attorney General in office November 13, 1817 – March 4, 1829

William Wirt, 9th United States Attorney General in office
November 13, 1817 – March 4, 1829

In March 1831, Wirt appeared before the Supreme Court on behalf of the Cherokee Nation, in the case known as Cherokee Nation v. Georgia (30 U.S. 1). The state of Georgia had been doing everything it could to get the Cherokees to leave, short of causing them to die (that would come later in the decade). The Cherokees wanted to plead their cause with the Supreme Court, but needed to come up with a way to get there, since no one thought Georgians would allow a test case through the state courts. Wirt came up with the idea of claiming that the Cherokees were a foreign nation, which would qualify for the Court’s original jurisdiction.

In a brief Wirt filed with the Court, he argued that Georgia’s laws regarding the Cherokees were “repugnant to the constitution, laws, and treaties of the United States.” “This ancient people,” he contended – “a nation far more ancient than ourselves . . . present themselves to you as a separate, sovereign state. They complain that a state of this union has invaded their rights of person and of property, by a species of legislative warfare, in violation of the treaties, the constitution, and the laws of the United States.”

While Justice John Marshall openly expressed sympathy for the Cherokee’s plight, he ruled against them, refuting the idea that the Cherokees constituted a foreign nation. But Wirt went back to Marshall in 1832 to argue Worcester v. Georgia (31 U.S. 515), also a case questioning the constitutionality of the laws of Georgia, but with a much more acceptable underlying premise. This time Wirt won his case, but the Cherokees lost the war, when both Georgia and the United States refused to support the decision.

Wirt went on to run for President in 1832, a nominee of the Anti-Masonic party. In the subsequent election, Wirt carried Vermont with seven electoral votes, becoming the first candidate of an organized third party to carry a state.

Wirt practiced law until his death in 1834.

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