A History of the Litchfield Law School
“The Litchfield Law School presents advantages enjoyed by few,
if any, institutions of the kind of our country. It has sent forth into the
world many gentlemen distinguished no less as Statesmen than Civilians.”
—The Litchfield Enquirer, November 11, 1830
Tapping Reeve (left) and
one of his more famous pupils,
Vice President John C. Calhoun
WITH ALMOST 1,000 students attending from every region of post-Revolutionary America, the Litchfield Law School launched the careers of many well-known Americans including two vice-presidents, 101 United States congressmen, twenty-eight United States senators, six cabinet members, three justices of the United States supreme court, fourteen governors and thirteen chief justices of state supreme courts. Many more graduates held state and local political office, while others became leaders of the nation's emerging corporate, mercantile, industrial and financial establishments. More than twenty alumni of the school were the founders or early professors of new law schools. The Litchfield Law School’s first and most notorious student was Aaron Burr, brother-in-law of the school’s founder, Tapping Reeve.
Clockwise from top left: Charles Perkins, Aaron Burr,
Wm. Wolcott Elsworth, the Reeve House
In 1773, the newly married Tapping Reeve and Sally Burr Reeve settled in Litchfield where Reeve promptly established a legal practice. The following year, Sally's brother Aaron Burr came to live with them and Reeve began to instruct him in the law. Several prominent residents of Litchfield also sent their sons to Reeve for legal training, establishing his reputation as a teacher and forming the nucleus of what was to become America's first formal school of law.
As the number of students increased, Reeve began to develop a series of formal lectures that prepared students to take the bar exam and practice law. In the years following the Revolution most lawyers taught through the apprenticeship system because there were no schools that offered law degrees. Reeve’s decision to pass on his legal knowledge through formal organized classes distinguished him from others who were training new lawyers. By 1784 the number of students enrolling outgrew the space in Reeve's parlor office, prompting Reeve to construct a one-room school building next to his house.
The Law School exterior and interior
Through his lectures, Tapping Reeve sought to train his students in legal principles and their application to any legal situation. Reeve and his eventual partner James Gould, developed a detailed eighteen month course of lectures, covering every aspect of legal practice. Students took copious lecture notes that they then carefully re-copied and had bound into leather volumes. These volumes provided the Litchfield Law School graduates with the basis of their office law libraries. The students then used their bound notes as reference manuals for the rest of their careers.
Alumni of the Litchfield Law School had a tremendous impact on the development of the new nation, shaping the creation of the American legal and judicial systems, and profoundly influencing subsequent developments in legal education. Reeve's emphasis on a system of legal principles rather than local laws and statutes, his use of legal cases in teaching, his establishment of student moot courts, and his division of lectures into subjects, all shaped legal education as we know it today. Be sure to visit The Ledger, an online database containing biographical information about students of the Law School and Female Academy, together with portraits, artwork, and documents from their lives.
Reeve's partner James Gould; lecture notes title page