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Wirt, William

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Significance: As a well-known trial lawyer and U.S. attorney general, Wirt, a champion of strong federal authority, argued many precedent-setting cases before the Supreme Court.


Wirt was admitted to the Virginia state bar in 1792. His growing reputation as a trial lawyer in highprofile cases, such as Aaron Burr's treason trial, eventually led to his appointment as U.S. attorney general by President James Monroe. He held this important cabinet position for twelve years until the end of John Quincy Adams's administration. Influenced by Chief Justice John Marshall's nationalistic interpretation of the Constitution, Wirt firmly supported federal supremacy and regulatory measures to curb the states’ commercial and judicial activities. During his years as attorney general, he argued many famous cases before the Court under Marshall: McCulloch v. Maryland (1819), Dartmouth College v. Woodward (1819), Cohens v. Virginia (1821), Gibbons v. Ogden (1824), and Brown v. Maryland (1827). A staunch opponent of President Andrew Jackson, Wirt served as advocate for the Cherokee cause before the Court in the Cherokee Nation v. Georgia (1831) and Worcester v. Georgia (1832). Although Jackson ignored Marshall's 1832 ruling and removed the Cherokees from their homeland, these cases became precedents for defining tribal sovereignty and the relationship between tribal nations and the federal government.