Category Archives: Litchfield Law School

Blog posts that relate to the Litchfield Law School, America’s first law school, and the students who attended.

Junius Smith: Pioneer of the Steam Trade, Abolitionist, and Horticulturist

The Litchfield Law School founded by Tapping Reeve in Litchfield, Connecticut trained roughly 1,000 students from 1784 to 1833. The Law School, in conjunction with the Litchfield Female Academy founded by Sarah Pierce in 1792, produced many future leaders of young America. From United States senators and justices to vice presidents and governors, the Litchfield Law School helped to shape many remarkable Americans.

Junius Smith, who attended the Law School in 1802, fit the typical profile of most students at the Law School. With the steep cost of tuition, room, and board for both of the Litchfield schools, the students who attended these schools were disproportionately from wealthy families.2 Of those who attended Tapping Reeve’s Law School, a majority also attended colleges such as Yale first.3 Junius fit both of these criteria. He was the son of an American Revolutionary War veteran and successful merchant, Major General David and his wife Ruth Hitchcock Smith. Junius, like two of his siblings before him, attended Yale and graduated in 1802. After attending Yale, Junius went straight to law school in Litchfield and graduated sometime around 1804 when he moved to New Haven, Connecticut to open up a law practice.

As a college graduate and the son of a wealthy family, Junius fit the typical profile of a law student studying under Tapping Reeve. Like hundreds of students before and after him, he would also go on to lead a life that was far from typical. Like the innovative and forward-thinking law curriculum he received from Tapping Reeve and his associate James Gould, Junius soon developed his own progressive vision, not for the American legal system, however, but for the future of American commerce.

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All from one Letter


William Tracy Gould and Anne McKinne Gardiner Gould

It’s hard to convey to people exactly how connected the nation was in the late 18th and early 19th centuries.  No telephone, no Internet, no wi-fi. And yet, when we begin to do research on nearly any artifact or document with a relationship to one of the students, we inevitably find that they were acquainted or related with so many others. We recently purchased a letter on e-bay written by William Tracy Gould’s sister-in-law to his wife who was visiting Litchfield. As you may know, William Tracy Gould was the son of James Gould, who taught at the Litchfield Law School with Tapping Reeve. Following his studies, the younger Gould moved to Georgia where he opened a law school of his own. He married Anna Gardiner of Augusta, with whom he had three children.

I began research to locate life dates of the author, Elizabeth G. Rose, and from basic searches of a few genealogy sites, was able to determine that this was Anna Gardiner’s sister. Several sources indicated that Gould’s wife was a widow upon their marriage, but I believe they had confused her with another Anna McKinne, and that McKinne was his wife’s given middle name, as it was her mother’s maiden name. According to the genealogy sites I checked, the Anna McKinne who was a widow of Joseph McKinne did not have a sister named Elizabeth.

I would like to say that what happened next is unusual, but I fear it is not. I fell down the rabbit hole of the LLS social network. I happened upon an article about James Gardiner, who had the same parents listed as Elizabeth. I began to read it in the hopes of finding further genealogical information. What I found was far more interesting. James was the editor of a newspaper in Augusta. In 1861, he wrote a series of editorials endorsing Eugenius Aristides Nisbet (LLS 1823) for the governorship of Georgia. He went on to publish a literary journal, and one of its contributors was Augustus Baldwin Longstreet (LLS 1813). He later endorsed Horace Greeley in his bid for the Presidency. Greeley’s wife had  attended the Female Academy in 1827.

As if that isn’t enough to convince you it’s a small world, it turns out that Elizabeth’s husband, Arthur Gordon Rose, had been married previously to Elizabeth Wigg Barnwell whose brother, William Wigg Barnwell attended the Litchfield Law School in 1817. Having found the information I was seeking, I stopped, though I’m sure this is only a snippet of who was on their list of friends. Now to update all of those Ledger pages!

Additional Information:

In addition to the Ledger pages linked to above, these are resources that helped me in my research:

Find-A-Grave: Arthur Gordon Rose

Yale Obituary Record

Biographies of Richmond County, GA

Augusta’s Other Voice: James Gardner and the Constitutionalist
Russell K. Brown
The Georgia Historical Quarterly
Vol. 85, No. 4 (WINTER 2001), pp. 592-607

George Catlin’s Tapping Reeve

Engraving of Tapping Reeve from the portrait by George Catlin. Litchfield Historical Society.

Have you seen our very own Tapping Reeve popping up on Facebook a lot lately? I’m sure you’ve noticed him donning holiday outfits, dressing for the weather, and enjoying events around town. You may have even noticed that Mr. Reeve has started taking more frequent trips out of the state, which he has been kind enough to share with his friends through his travel photos.

One thing you may have also noticed through it all is that no matter what Tapping is up to he always has some very recognizable characteristics. It could be his iconic seated pose, with crossed legs and glasses in hand. Or it could be his shoulder length locks and high collar shirt.

But who is responsible for this recognizable image of Reeve? It is the only known image in existence of this noted American jurist and founder of the nation’s first law school. Without it we would not know today what this pioneering legal mind looked like. To the artist responsible for creating Reeve’s likeness we owe a debt of gratitude.

George Catlin is a name recognized by art historians, Native American scholars, and 19th-century history buffs alike. Remembered as the creator of a vast portfolio of artwork and writings documenting the lives, customs, and traditions of numerous Native American tribes, Catlin will go down in history as one of the great American artists who saw the importance of immortalizing the American frontier before it disappeared in the wake of industrialization and westward expansion.

“Ball-Play Dance.” by George Catlin. Litchfield Historical Society.

Before beginning work on his life’s masterpiece however, George Catlin was a young law school student at the Litchfield Law School in 1817. While attending lectures Catlin was known for having more of an interest in sketching his fellow students and local scenery than working on his studies. He eventually passed his bar examination in Pennsylvania two years later and began a legal career. It was a short-lived stint however, as his love for art, nature, and natural history won out.

In 1821 Catlin moved to Philadelphia to pursue a career in art. He exhibited as a portrait miniaturist from 1821 to 1823 at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, who accepted him as a member the following year. Following that honor he continued to work as a portrait artist in Pennsylvania before relocating his work to New York. Through the 1820s he produced numerous portrait miniatures as well as full-size portraits.

Watercolor on Ivory portrait miniature of Sarah Pierce. Attributed to George Catlin. Litchfield Historical Society.

Although Catlin left Litchfield after completing his legal studies, documentation exists in the Archives of American Art showing that Catlin was back in town in 1825—two years after Tapping Reeve’s death. In his subscription and expense notebook for 1825, Catlin writes:

“Having ascertained that my portrait of the Hon. Tapping Reeve is the only resemblance left of that memorable man, I have deemed it a duty to his friends and the public – and particularly to Gentleman of the Bar to propose the publication of it by Subscription

If published the plate will be executed in the most superb manner, and I hope that sufficient encouragement will be given in the way to authorize the execution of it.

The price of the prints will be one dollar each, to subscribers, payable on delivery. All other sale will be invariably at one dol. & fifty cents each.

Geo. Catlin

Litchfield 25th March 1825”

Following this entry is his subscription list containing twelve names, all but four from Litchfield. Among the subscribers were such notable legal and political names as Oliver Wolcott, Seth P. Beers, and Truman Smith, as well as Rev. Lyman Beecher.  While the subscription list is not dated, it can be inferred from its placement in the notebook that it was compiled in 1825 during Catlin’s time in Litchfield.

Was the portrait of Reeve that Catlin mentions completed during his time in law school, or was it a piece that Catlin returned to Litchfield to complete for his former teacher? No one knows. And the location of the original is not known either. These are mysteries that have yet to be uncovered. What is known is that this portrait was turned into an engraving as Catlin proposed. The publishing of the picture did not happen until four years later in 1829. Why there was such a long delay is not noted by Catlin in his papers.

Portrait prints such as the one of Reeve were very popular in the United States prior to the Civil War. A market existed for the likenesses of politicians, businessmen, writers, and entertainers in the American home. Capitalizing on this demand, Catlin had already published two portrait engravings in Philadelphia prior to the publication of his portrait of Reeve in 1829. Utilizing his previous experience in marketing such prints, Catlin sought to transform another of his portraits into a print for buyers who may want to memorialize the Honorable Tapping Reeve. Working with Peter Maverick, an engraver in New York, Catlin was able to accomplish this goal.

As far as we know, neither Catlin nor Maverick recorded how many prints of the engraving Maverick produced. Was it a small handful—just enough to fill the subscription order taken in 1825? Or was it a much larger amount? Either way, Catlin and Maverick’s partnership to produce the print has left history with the only known image of Tapping Reeve. Without their work we would have to rely solely on the written record to piece together what this pioneering legal mind looked like. And Mr. Reeve would have a much harder time getting dressed for the upcoming holidays!

-Jessica Jenkins, Curator of Collections

Love is in the Air

Betsey Huntington Wolcott

There are some fantastic love letters in the Society’s collection. Here are two excerpts to inspire you from Frederick Wolcott to his beloved Betsey Huntington on June 27, 1800.

If I were to write to you as often as I think of you, the perusal of my letter would afford you a constant employment.  If, however I could flatter myself that you would read them with as much pleasure as I write them, I am sure you would not be unwilling pretty frequently to hear from me.  My mind dwells with great pleasure on our acquaintance & friendship.  I love, without reserve, to write to you & to disclose my feelings; to tell you I am your friend, & that I will always remain so… I shall leave home the next monday on a journey of business, & shall be absent a fortnight or three weeks.  Betsey, how many times do you believe I shall think of you before I return?  May I not with more propriety say how much of my time shall I not think of you? Full transcript

He later wrote of their upcoming wedding:

I will only add that I have never thought Weddings were proper occasions for much parade.  In the one in which I expect to be interested I am willing however that the good Girl whom I love, and in whose judgment I have confidence, should be the sole directress of the ceremonies…. I am entirely happy in the choice I have made and, in my most sober hours, my judgment and feelings wholly approve of my determination (provided you will still yield your assent) to form with you a connection on which in an eminent degree will depend the colourings of my condition and prospects thro life. Full transcript

Their life together was cut short when Betsey died in 1812, shortly after the birth of their sixth child, Laura. Frederick went on to marry again,  but no letters of this kind to his second wife are known.

Maria Tallmadge Cushman

Love isn’t always a bed of roses. Upon breaking her engagement with Virgil Maxcy, young Maria Tallmadge received a letter from Tapping Reeve.

By this you will perceive that I am not unacquainted with events that have given you much uneasiness the occasion of my writing this is that I know on such occasion in such cases the mind is returning to the event and inquiring whether it can be justified my dear child your conscience if rightly informed must acquit you in of any guilt in dismissing Mr Maxcy for I have no doubt that you struggled with your reluctant affections to make them yield. This you found impossible ^ the consequence must have been if you had preserver^ed until you had given your hand you would have done it without giving your heart this would have ^ been a step that could not have been retraced and most probably would have been a source of grief not only to you & would have been injustice to him you must with an aching heart have lived a life of deception and after all your attempts to conceal from him the real feelings of your heart would have been made in vain…your knowledge of his strong attachment to you and your tenderness for him of nature and wish to render him happy might lead you into an error but never stained you with any fault of heart…

She presumably found love after all as she went on to marry John Paine Cushman. Poor Mr. Maxcy’s life did not end so well. He died during an explosion on the ship “Princeton” in 1844.

Click here to find a transcription of the entire letter to download.

Whose book?

Front Matter

Sometimes it’s really hard to know what to make of historic evidence. I recently retrieved a copy of Zephaniah Swift’s A System of the Laws of the State of Connecticut printed in 1795 for a researcher. Institutional records indicate the book belonged to Tapping Reeve. It was donated by the Woodruff family, and they had owned his home for a number of years. The front and back matter of the book show all kinds of doodles, indicating that it was Tapping Reeve’s book.  A document titled “Rules of the Office” from the law school indicates that this book was on the list of “privileged” volumes, meaning that students were allowed to borrow them.

James Cooley Granville 1799

It seems a little strange that a student would write in a book that did not belong to him, but the above inscription appears in the center of the book. Tapping Reeve did have a student named James Cooley in 1799, and he was from East Granville, MA.  You can learn more about him in The Ledger.

A number of other doodles seem inconsistent with what we know of Tapping Reeve.

Sketch of Tallyrand

According to the researcher who was looking at the volume, Swift visited Tallyrand in 1799, and this could be some commentary on that visit. That Reeve would draw such an unflattering image in a book he was lending seems unlikely, but it’s fun to consider the possibility. Two other writings seem very unlike him.

This page reads, “The great, The illustrious, the magnanimous, Tapping Reeve.”

And this, attributed to the author, reads, “To the illustrious, omnipotentis, and superabominable dignity of his classic and original excellency the Author Z. Swift.” Both Reeve and Swift were jurists and ardent federalists. Whether or not any animosity existed between them is unknown. What this book tells us for sure is that someone in 1799 had a sense of humor, even if they didn’t entirely explain the joke.