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Times-Dispatch (Aug. 7, 1966)


WILLIAMSBURG-- Another Virginia-New England controversy over a historical priority erupted here last week.

The current argument, which may never reach the proportions of the Massachusetts-Virginia wrangle over the first Thanksgiving, involved rival claims to the oldest law school in the United States.

The rival claimants are the College of William and Mary and the Litchfield Law School of Litchfield, Conn.

The school of law here was originally established December 4, 1779, when the board of visitors adopted a resolution creating a professorship of law and police. George Wythe, in whose office Thomas Jefferson had studied, was elected the first law professor.

As the college contends, this 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 law school here became dormant when the law professor was granted an indefinite leave of absence following the Civil War. The school was revived in 1920.

The college here has always felt that its law school had a clear title to being the first in this country although it has acknowledged that the Litchfield school, which is not associated with any college or university, is the oldest independent or "proprietary" law school.

However, in June, the Department of the Interior officially recognized the Litchfield School as the nation's oldest law school and designated it a national landmark. The occasion was marked with appropriate ceremonies that included an address by the Chief Justice of the Connecticut Supreme Court.

Word of all this reached the campus here only during the past week. Tempers rose. Letters were sent to Washington. William F. Swindler, a legal historian and a member of the faculty at the Marshall-Wythe School of Law here, went to Washington to see 1st District Rep. Thomas N. Downing.

The Litchfield school, which was founded in 1784, five years after the professorship of law and police was established here, has a prior claim, an Interior Department spokesman said. Tapping Reeve, the Connecticut jurist who founded the Litchfield school, had begun teaching or "talking law" in his office in a methodical way sometime prior to the 1779 date.

Some officials here are concerned because the college was never given a chance to present its reasons for claiming to be the oldest law school, and, in fact, did not know that the Interior Department was even contemplating taking any steps toward recognizing the oldest school. Word of the Litchfield recognition came to the college last week through a June newspaper clipping from a Connecticut paper.

The college has asked Downing to suggest procedures it can take for rectifying the whole unhappy situation.


Legal Education, Law Schools, History