Skip to main content

MSS 79-10

Letter from John Wickham to William Wirt


01-04-1809 [Single]
1 letters

Scope & Contents

In this letter by John Wickham to William Wirt dated January 4, 1809, Wickham lists reasons for the excessive crowding on the docket of the Virginia Court of Appeals and offers solutions to the problem.

Collection Description

    Biographical / Historical

    John Wickham was born in the colony of New York in the village of Cutchogue on June 6, 1763. Wickham was the oldest son of John Wickham Sr. and his first wife Hannah Fanning, who died in 1778. His father, who married twice more and died in 1808, was a minister in the Anglican Church and a fierce Loyalist at the time of the American Revolution. John came from an extended family of Loyalists, with his uncles Edmund Fanning and Parker Wickham being two of the most noted Loyalists from the Long Island area. Yet he also had a New England first cousin, Nathaniel Fanning, who became a Revolutionary War hero for his pivotal role in a key American victory, the defeat and capture of the HMS Serapis by the USS Bonhomme Richard.

    During the American Revolution, John was traveling by foot from New York to Charleston, South Carolina to meet up with his uncle Edmund, who was then a commander of British troops there. Edmund, who took a special interest in developing John's career, had promised to send him on to England to be further educated, but while traveling through Virginia, Wickham was captured and put on trial as a spy, but acquitted.

    John was sequestered in Williamsburg for the rest of the war and studied law at William and Mary where he became a close friend of John Marshall, later fourth Chieft Justice of the U.S.. In 1785, he began to practice law in Williamsburg and then moved to Richmond in 1790 after it was named the new state capital. He quickly built a successful practice by helping British merchants collect debts owed by Americans who had become financially strapped by the war effort.

    On December 24, 1791, he married in Brunswick his first cousin, sixteen-year-old Mary Smith Fanning, who was the only child of William Fanning and Mary Gray. Before her death in 1799, Mary bore John two sons who would go on to marry two sisters from the wealthy Carter family.

    John was remarried in March of the next year to Elizabeth Seldon McClurg, daughter of Richmond's mayor and soon-to-be mother of seventeen more of his children (thirteen of Elizabeth's children lived to adulthood). One of his grandsons from his first marriage, Willams Carter Wickham, would become a prominent Confederate general, while a granddaughter from his second marriage, Charlotte Wickham, would marry Rooney Lee, the second son of General Robert E. Lee. Other notable kin included his nephew William Wickham, a political leader residing in John's hometown of Cutchogue on Long Island.

    After his second marriage, John became known as a staunch Federalist in the same spirit as his father-in-law, Dr. James McClurg (1746-1823), a member of the convention which framed the Constitution of the United States in 1787.

    In 1807, Wickham was lead counsel for Aaron Burr in his trial for treason. Although Thomas Jefferson took an active role in trying to have his former Vice President executed, Burr was found innocent. John was assisted in the case by two of the most eminent attorneys of his day: Edmund Randolph and Luther Martin. The trial was presided over by John's close associate, John Marshall, who besides serving as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court was also a circuit court judge in Richmond. The prosecutor for the case, William Wirt, who later became a presidential candidate, noted that John was "distinguished by a quickness of look, a sprightly step,... and a wit, whose vivid and brilliant coruscations can gild and decorate the darkest subject." An outfoxed Jefferson, who personally knew John, had a dimmer view, claiming that Burr had escaped execution due to "tricks of the judges" and that the case showed that there was an "error in our Constitution, which makes any branch independent of the nation."

    John amassed his considerable fortune from a variety of sources. He came from a prosperous family that looked after him and made sure that he got a great education. Records from the time show that he was the second most active lawyer in all of Virginia, indicating a tremendous work ethic On January 22, 1839, John died in Richmond, followed by his wife's death on August 10, 1853, and both were buried in Richmond's Shockoe Hill Cemetery. Wickham's numerous descendants continued to be active in Virginia affairs.

    Site contributors, "John Wickham (1763-1839),", (accessed December 1, 2015)

itemLetter from John Wickham to William Wirt, January 4, 1809