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The New Haven Register (Aug. 21, 1966)


The age-old controversy as to where the oldest law school in America is located -- in Williamsburg, Va., or Litchfield, Conn. -- has again come to the fore.

Historically-minded people in the Southern state are disturbed because the Department of the Interior a few weeks ago officially recognized the Litchfield School as the nation's oldest law school and designated it a national landmark.

A story appearing in The Richmond Times-Dispatch last week said the school of law at the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Va., was established December 4, 1779, when the board of visitors adopted a resolution creating a professorship of law and police. George Wythe, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, in whose office Thomas Jefferson had studied, was elected the first law professor.

The College of William and Mary contends, the law school was antedated only by the Vinerians Professorship at Oxford and perhaps by the chair of law at Trinity College, Dublin, and is thus one of the earliest in the English-speaking world as well as being the oldest in the United States.

The Virginia col[l]ege acknowledges the Litchfield school as the first in the country, but as "the oldest independent or 'proprietary' law school not associated with any college or university."

A large wooden signpost on the campus at William and Mary reads: "Marshall-Wythe School of Law, of the College of William and Mary. America's Oldest Law School, 1779."

Classes in Home

According to historical records in Litchfield, just before the Revolution, in 1773, Tapping Reeve, a former tutor at Princeton (then the College of New Jersey) settled in Litchfield to practice law.

The following year, Reeve took as a pupil, in his home, his brother-in-law, Aaron Burr. Others heard that Reeve was willing to teach law and soon he had a class, still in his home. By 1784, however, the group had grown so big that Reeve was forced to build another structure in the rear of his home. This, William and Mary claims is the date (1784) that the Litchfield school officially began, while their school had started in 1779.

The Litchfield school continued for over 50 years, until 1833, and during that time it graduated 1,024 barristers, many of its graduates attaining high places in law and governmental circles.

"Among its graduates," the records said, "are a Vice President, three justices of the Supreme Court, six members of the President's Cabinet, 28 senators and more than 100 members of the lower House of Congress."

Officials at the Virginia college said the college was never given a chance to present its reasons for claiming to be the oldest law school, nor did it know that the Interior Department was even contemplating taking steps toward recognizing the oldest school.

William F. Swindler, a legal historian and a member of the faculty at the Marshall-Wythe School of Law has gone to Washington to see Rep. Thomas N. Downing, to suggest procedures that can be taken to rectify the situation.

Capt. Herbert S. Jones (USN Ret.) curator and vice president of the Litchfield Historical Society, who had approached the Interior Department in the beginning, said he had corresponded with Dr. Swindler over a year and a half ago and had told him that unless the College of William and Mary had proof of its having been the first law school, he would apply to the federal government for recognition.

"William and Mary had plenty of time to dispute our claim," Capt. Jones said. "There was no sense in their waiting until after the plaque was given to Litchfield, to come out and holler.

"I hope," he added, "if the Department of the Interior is going to listen to Dr. Swindler's arguments it will invite me to sit in at the meeting."

The Litchfield Law School owned and maintained by the Litchfield Historical Society since 1930, is open daily, except Wednesdays, to visitors. Some 800 people visit it monthly. Mrs. Edward Shepard Drever, a native of Branford, is curator.


Legal Education, Law Schools, History