The story of the very first law school in America, and its influence beyond its own lifetime

Aaron Burr had a habit of being first. He was the first Vice President to Thomas Jefferson and the first American Vice President to fight a duel. He fought and killed his law partner Alexander Hamilton, another leading politician of the day, before going on to complete his term as Vice President. Burr was also the first former Vice President to be charged with treason in connection with a possible war on Spain. He was acquitted after trial.

And he was the first student at the first law school in the USA.

Where was that school? Was it in a large city like New York, Washington or Boston? No. You would have found it in a beautiful rural setting in Connecticut – in Litchfield, a small town of fewer than 8,000 people set among hills and scenery reminiscent of Scotland at its best.

The school was founded by Burr’s brother-in-law Tapping Reeve, a lawyer who became a judge in the Connecticut Supreme Court. His own legal schooling was in a law office under apprenticeship - the only method available at that time - and he soon realised the need for a more structured approach to training.

In 1775, the Litchfield Law School was born. At first, Tapping Reeve gave lessons in his own home until the numbers attending were so great that he had to build a separate building to accommodate them. The school grew quickly and acquired a high reputation.

Students came from all over the then USA. Many went on to have distinguished careers. The list of distinguished students includes two Vice Presidents, 130 congressmen, six cabinet members, 14 governors, three justices of the United States Supreme Court and 13 chief justices of state supreme courts. Some held state and local political office, while others were involved in the development of new law schools.

Among the students were:

  • John Calhoun, who entered Congress in the House of Representatives. In 1824, he was appointed Vice President to President Adams. Four years later, Calhoun commenced his second term as Vice President, this time to Andrew Jackson.
  • William Crosby Dawson, who practised law in his home state of Georgia before being elected to the State House of Representatives. He also served terms in both Houses of Congress. He was known for his ability to settle cases out of court and, because of his elegant manners, was called "the first gentleman of Georgia". Dawson County in Georgia was named in his honour.
  • Edward King, who went on to be one of the founders of the Cincinnati Law School, now part of the University of Cincinnati. The college was founded in 1833, the same year that the Litchfield Law School closed.
  • Stephen Row Bradley, who was admitted to the bar in 1779 when he settled in Vermont and became active in the organisation of the state. He was one of its first senators to Congress, being elected as a Democrat for many years and was president pro tem of the Senate during portions of the 7th and 10th Congresses.
  • Oliver Wolcott Jr, who was United States Secretary of the Treasury in the administrations of George Washington and John Adams from 1795 to 1800. He resigned in 1800 due to unpopularity, and a vicious campaign against him in the Press in which, among other things, he was falsely accused of setting fire to the State Department building. Wolcott was elected Governor of Connecticut in 1817, serving 10 years in the post. As Governor, he presided over a convention that created a new state constitution in 1818.

Tapping Reeve combined the operation of the Law School with his own law practice and his position as a judge in the Connecticut Supreme Court. As at that time there was limited availability of legal textbooks, he developed a course of formal lectures on both the principles and the practice of law and as preparation for the bar exam. He instructed his students to take detailed notes which they should have bound thereafter. These would serve as the main portion of their libraries in years to come.

Initially, Tapping Reeve lectured on his own, but as his workload increased he took on a partner, James Gould, who worked with him in both the law practice and the school.

The time came when due to age and infirmity neither Tapping Reeve nor James Gould were able to carry on the operation of the school. It closed in 1833, 10 years after Tapping Reeve’s death. Numbers of students had been declining due to the creation of law schools in locations more accessible to most students.

Litchfield was also well known for its Female Academy. Tapping Reeve advised on the creation of the academy which flourished during the same period as the law school was in existence. Claims that the law school and the Female Academy worked with no interaction between the two sets of students are without foundation. A number of legal partnerships were created between students in the two establishments, although knowledge of law did not normally play a part in the decision making process!

Is there something that we in Scotland in 2008 can take away from our knowledge of the Litchfield Law School? Christopher Collier, Professor of History Emeritus, University of Connecticut, sums up Tapping Reeves’ influence as follows:

“Hundreds of Reeve-trained young men swarmed across the country during the early years of the 19th century. And they entered politics by the scores. By the mid-1830s, according to one calculation, although Connecticut’s population was a bit over 2% of the nation’s total, about 15% of the representatives in Congress had been born in Connecticut. A highly disproportionate number of them served as legislators, magistrates, and governors. Thus the nation’s first law school became the incubator of the bench and bar of one state after another, dominating America’s jurisprudence for two generations.”

We too have a proud tradition in Scotland of lawyers going out and playing key parts in almost every area of public life, not only in Scotland but throughout the world. What the example of Tapping Reeve teaches us is that, important though the task of the academic is, even the most humble lawyer in private practice has a part to perform in teaching the lawyers of tomorrow, some of whom may become leaders of our society.

The Author
Ian Davidson practised as a solicitor in Montrose for 35 years before moving to Connecticut, USA
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