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The Post (Sept. 18, 1966)


Always on the alert for new insults, the guardians of Virginia history have just crossed swords with the Yankees again and emerged victorious.

Virginians maintain a long list of the things they accomplished first but no one else ever seems to pay any attention. It's the old Jamestown-was-so-before-Plymouth-Rock story.

This time the argument was over who started the first law school. Virginia won with the help of, you'll pardon the expression, Harvard University.

It all started when an organization in Connecticut asked the National Park Service for a historical-site citation. The citation was to be placed in Litchfield at the spot where Judge Tapping Reeve used to teach would-be barristers back in the 1780s.

Unaware of the storm that soon would break, the NPS duly issued a citation in honor of "Tapping Reeve's law school, the first in the United States."

Virginia's Northern intelligence agents learned of the deed and quickly dispatched the news to the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg.

College officials issued a stern diplomatic protest, noting that William and Mary started teaching law in 1779. In that year George Wythe, who had been Thomas Jefferson's law teacher, was appointed professor of law at the College by then-Governor Jefferson.

Maybe Wythe didn't call his class a law school but it had all the earmarks of one, the College maintained. And it quoted Dean Erwin N. Griswold of Harvard Law School to the effect that William and Mary did so have the first law school. (Harvard got around to establishing one in 1817.)

So the Park Service capitulated and changed the Connecticut citation to read, "Tapping Reeve's proprietary law school, the first in the United States not associated with a college or university . . ."

William and Mary, in a low-key cry of victory, said in a press release that, "The Service said that all copies of the earlier statement have been destroyed and that the revised statement will be used in all future releases on the subject by the (Interior) Department."

And William and Mary Dean W. Melville Jones noted that the revised statement more accurately reflects the status of the Tapping Reeve school, "which was so influential in New England during the time it was in existence."


Legal Education, Law Schools, History