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News Leader (Aug. 27, 1966)


Special to The News Leader

WILLIAMSBURG -- A statement by a widely known New England law educator is being cited by the College of William and Mary as part of an effort to reassert its historical precedence in American legal education over a one-time Connecticut law school.

Dean Erwin N. Griswold of the Harvard Law School, in a book published in 1965, wrote that "there can be no doubt" that the law program at William and Mary started in 1779 "can fairly be called the first law school in America . . ."

Late in June, the National Park Service dedicated the site of the Litchfield Law School, in Litchfield, Conn., as the place where American formal legal education began.

In a citation presented as part of its National Survey of Historic Sites and Building, the Park Service said "Tapping Reeve's law school, the first in the United States, was founded in 1784 and remained in operation until 1833 . . . as early as 1782, Reeve had begun to present a formally developed law course in his home." It was when Reeve's home became overcrowded that he erected a small frame school next door. Both the house and school building are owned by the Litchfield Historical Society.

Word of the dedication reached William and Mary several weeks later and officials began an inquiry through Rep. Thomas N. Downing of Newport News to determine why the college's claim of priority in legal education had not been considered by park service historians. Downing asked that the statement presented to Litchfield be clarified for historical accuracy and that the Park Service consider the William and Mary contention.

The Park Service agreed to review materials submitted by William and Mary's Marshall-Wythe School of Law and raised the possibility of a meeting in Washington to examine documentary evidence. A meeting may be arranged for mid-September.

In the past few decades, college officials said, Litchfield Historical Society supporters have debated occasionally through the mails with William and Mary supporters over which law program was the first. In the early 1920s, the debate was the subject of a series of letters in the New York Times.

William and Mary officials say that the college has no doubt that Reeve's law school was the first "proprietary" school--one separate from any college or university.

But, they add, in 1779-- five years before the Litchfield school was begun-- the Board of visitors at William and Mary established a Professorship of Law and Police and named colonial attorney George Wythe as the first occupant of the chair. Wythe had been Thomas Jefferson's law tutor in 1763-1765; Jefferson in 1779 was Governor of Virginia and a member of the William and Mary board.


Legal Education, Law Schools, History