Litchfield Law School and the Revolutionary Elite

Tapping Reeve, Litchfield Historical SocietyJoel Barlow and Noah Webster graduated from Yale together in 1778 with little sense of what they might do next. Their experience will be familiar to graduates of our own day, except, of course that it was in the middle of a Revolutionary War. “We are not the first men in the world to have broke loose from college without fortune to puff us into public notice,” Barlow wrote to Webster. But if ever virtue and merit were to be rewarded, he went on, “it is in America.”[1] Both men would have their faith in America sorely tested over the following decades, as they struggled to gain entry into established social elites that were themselves experiencing tension and transformation.

Barlow’s course took him from an army chaplaincy to a printing business before his more famous diplomatic career. Webster chose a slightly more well-trodden path. He set himself to school teaching in order to raise money for a legal education. It was just the ladder John Adams had set out on a quarter-century before. For both men, teaching was a necessary sacrifice of dignity by which to attain the goal of a legal career. “The school is indeed a school of affliction,” Adams had written: “a large number of little runtlings, just capable of lisping A.B.C. and troubling the Master.”[2] But there wasn’t much choice for a young man with a college education and little else.

It took Webster two years of teaching to save up enough to start his legal training in the offices of Jedediah Strong and Tapping Reeve (pictured) in Litchfield, Connecticut. Strong and Reeve were already attracting students from across the state to work with him. Legal training was completely unlike college. Rather than learning from professors and taking test after test, students were supposed to imbibe their master’s expertise through a sort of short-term apprenticeship. Where Webster trained could not yet be called Litchfield Law School, but in four more years it would be.[3] Already, the number of students Reeve and Strong attracted was out of the ordinary. That’s where Webster’s problems started.

There was only one test trainee lawyers had to take: the bar exam. In the spring of 1781, Webster sat the local Litchfield exam along with nearly twenty others. They were all failed, every one.[4] It’s not the kind of thing the people in charge could have acknowledged, but what seems clear is that this incident was less about how good the twenty students were than about protecting the stability and viability of the legal profession. The more people admitted to the bar, the tougher it would be to find work as a lawyer, and the more downward pressure competition would put on legal fees. Again, the situation is familiar. The interests of law schools and their graduates don’t always tally with those of the legal profession—it turns out they never have.

Webster didn’t give up, though. He went straight back home to Hartford and passed the bar exam there instead. But for all his efforts, it was no good. Webster never did find steady work as a lawyer. Soon enough, he was back in the schoolhouse. Only his successful textbook business saved him from an eternity of lisping runts. He always thought of himself as an outsider, excluded by an outmoded establishment. And he was right. A fellow Yale graduate of ’78, Oliver Wolcott Jr., passed the bar in Litchfield just months before Webster’s failed attempt, and he began a flourishing legal career that took him all the way to John Adams’ cabinet. But then, he was the son of a Congressman, and Webster was not.

The American Revolution didn’t get rid of establishments, or privileges, or even the benefits of birthright. Noah Webster wouldn’t have wanted it that way.[5] He was no egalitarian revolutionary. He just wanted to be on the inside for a change.

_______________________

[1] Joel Barlow to Noah Webster, January 30, 1779, qtd. in Peter H. Hill, Joel Barlow: American Diplomat and Nation Builder (Washington D.C.: Potomac Books, 2012), 1.

[2] John Adams to Richard Cranch, September 2, 1755, in The Adams Papers Digital Edition, ed. C. James Taylor (University of Virginia Press, Rotunqw, 2008).

[3] The occasion for this post is the launch of a new digital source collection, Litchfield Law School Sources, by the Documents Collection Center at Yale. The students’ notebooks collected here are from after Webster’s time, mainly from the early nineteenth century, but the earlier ones document the development of Tapping Reeve’s curriculum and the transformation of the law office into what is recognizably a law school during the 1790s.

[4] David Micklethwait, Noah Webster and the American Dictionary (Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland & Co, 2000), 20.

[5] For some reflections on Webster’s difficult character and the problem of historical sympathy, see Jill Lepore, “Historians Who Love Too Much: Reflections on Microhistory and Biography,” Journal of American History 88, no.1 (2001): 129-144.q

One comment on “Litchfield Law School and the Revolutionary Elite

  1. We’re so thrilled to see some attention payed to the Litchfield Law School! We do not claim Webster as a student of Reeve. What we have found indicated he studied law prior to arriving in town, and that he worked in the office of Jedediah Strong (another interesting character- http://www.litchfieldhistoricalsociety.org/ledger/students/6516). If you found any primary source documentation of his having attended Reeve’s school, please share. We’d love to claim him!

    For information about the engraving of Tapping Reeve (from a portrait of George Catlin- who did attend the Law School) see http://www.litchfieldhistoricalsociety.org/blog/?p=557.

    Finally, we have undertaken a massive effort to provide access to information about the Law School and Female Academy students. It’s an online database called The Ledger. http://www.litchfieldhistoricalsociety.org/ledger/. It contains an historical overview of each school and provides users the ability to search or browse for students, documents, and artifacts within our collection and others. With thousands of entries, we are still adding and editing, so if any of you come across additional sources (material culture or archival) please do not hesitate to contact us.

    Linda Hocking
    Curator of Library & Archives
    Litchfield Historical Society

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