Litchfield Law School

views updated May 29 2018


The first law school in America, founded by Tapping Reeve (b. October 1744, in Southhold, Long Island, New York; d. December 13, 1823, in Litchfield, Connecticut) in 1784 in Litchfield, Connecticut. It continued operation until 1833.

In 1778, Tapping Reeve, a young attorney recently admitted to the bar, settled in Litchfield to practice law. Born in Southhold, Long Island, New York, in 1744, the son of Reverend Abner Reeve, a Presbyterian minister, he graduated from Princeton College in 1763 and immediately taught at a grammar school affiliated with the college. He spent seven years in that position and as a tutor in the college itself. He then moved to Connecticut to study law, entering the office of Judge Elihu Root, who was at that time a practicing attorney in Hartford, and, subsequently, a judge of the Supreme Court. From Hartford, he arrived in Litchfield, after marrying Sally Burr, daughter of President Aaron Burr of Princeton and sister of aaron burr, the later vice president.

Until the Revolutionary War ended, there was very little civil business transacted in Litchfield County, and Reeve provided legal instruction in anticipation of the conclusion of the war and the resumption of ordinary business matters. This employment augmented his legal knowledge and proficiency and enabled him to commence in 1784 a systematic course of instruction in the law, including regular classes.

The Litchfield Law School officially opened its doors to students in 1784 and continued in successful operation with annual graduating classes until 1833. Its catalog contained the names of 1,500 young men who prepared for the bar after 1798. Most graduates were admitted to the practice of law in the court at Litchfield. The roster of students prior to that date is inaccurate, but it is certain that there were at least 210. More than two-thirds of the students were from states other than Connecticut, with the original thirteen colonies amply represented. A lesser number of students came from states recently admitted to the Union. The greatest number who entered in any one year was 54 in 1813, when the law school apparently reached its zenith.

Prominent statesmen and politicians, such as Aaron Burr and john c. calhoun, studied law at Litchfield. Two of its graduates, henry baldwin and levi woodbury, became Supreme Court justices. In addition, fifteen U.S. senators, fifty members of Congress, five cabinet members, ten governors, forty-four judges of state and lower federal courts, and seven foreign ministers graduated from the school. Georgia had the greatest number of distinguished graduates.

The term of instruction at Litchfield was completed in fourteen months, including two vacations (spring and fall) of four weeks each. No students could be admitted for a period shorter than three months. In 1828, tuition was $100 for the first year and $60 for the second year.

The curriculum covered the entire body of the law. Tapping Reeve's lectures referred to the law in general, with respect to the sources from which it is derived, such as customs or statutes, and analyzed the rules for the application and interpretation of each. Courses in real estate, rights of persons, rights of things, contracts, torts, evidence, pleading, crimes, and equity then followed. Each of these general subjects was treated under various subsidiary topics, in order to enhance the student's comprehension of the subject matter and its relation to the actual practice of law. Reeve administered the school alone until 1798, when, after his election to the Supreme Court, he invited James Gould to become his associate. They jointly operated the school until 1820, when Judge Reeve withdrew. Gould continued the classes until 1833, with the assistance of Jabez W. Huntington during the final year.

The Litchfield Law School afforded an intensive legal education because there were not as many different highly developed areas of law as there are today. In 1784, there were no printed reports of decisions of any court in the United States. The English reports contained nearly the entire body of the law. During the tenure of the law school, the common-law system of pleading became so encumbered by nuances and fictions that it fell into disfavor. The renowned Rules of Hilary Term were adopted in 1834 to rectify this situation. This development proved to be the forerunner of modern legal theories, such as the merger of law and equity and the desirability of short and plain statements of claims and defenses.

further readings

Siegel, Andrew M. 1998. "'To Learn and Make Respectable Hereafter': The Litchfield Law School in Cultural Context." New York University Law Review 73 (December): 1978–2028.

Litchfield Law School

views updated May 08 2018


LITCHFIELD LAW SCHOOL was established in 1784 in Litchfield, Conn., by Tapping Reeve, who was its only teacher until 1798. In that year he was succeeded by James Gould, who developed an institution that in the early years of the nineteenth century gave legal training to hundreds of young men from almost every state in the Union and numbered among its graduates some of the most prominent men in the public life of the next generation, including Henry Clay. Before it closed its doors in 1833, the Litchfield school had sent out more than a thousand graduates.


McKenna, Marian C. Tapping Reeve and the Litchfield Law School. New York: Oceana, 1986.

Francis R.Aumann/a. r.

See alsoLaw Schools .