"Finding" the Litchfield Law School Notebooks

It seems that William Thomas Carroll’s student notes from the Litchfield Law School had been hiding in plain view at GW for years, perhaps ever since Mr. Carroll’s days as one of the first law professors at GW’s predecessor, Columbian College. From 1828 until 1933, they effectively remained invisible. Then, a keen mind made the connection that identified the 12 anonymous manuscript volumes as important artifacts of Litchfield, America’s earliest and most important proprietary school of law.

The unremarkable volumes had been stationed, uncataloged, on the open shelves in the law library under “C.” They had caught the attention of Helen Newman, GW’s law librarian (1927—41), in 1923 during her time working as a library assistant while she attended law school. She asked around, and no one seemed to know what the notebooks were, much less their significance. Ten years later, Ms. Newman began research for a paper on William Cranch, and found a reference to Mr. Cranch and William Carroll assisting in the establishment of the first law school in the city of Washington. The uncataloged “C” volumes sprang to mind. Further research verified that Mr. Carroll and Mr. Cranch were the first “GW” law professors, and Ms. Newman continued her sleuthing. She determined that she had stumbled upon 12 volumes of notes taken by William Thomas Carroll during his course of study at Litchfield Law School, and that he used at least some of these in 1826 as lecture notes during his brief tenure as professor of law at Columbian College. GW’s law library had in its collection an irreplaceable piece of historical legal Americana.

Founded by jurist Tapping Reeve in Connecticut in 1784, the Litchfield Law School operated until 1833. Before the law school was established, prospective lawyers learned by reading law with judges and practitioners. As Mr. Reeve’s reputation grew, and his expertise was sought increasingly by young hopefuls, he expanded the training customarily granted to law clerks, who normally would gain a familiarity with legal forms but little grasp of legal principles. Soon he was operating a “law school,” with an established curriculum and a series of lectures, set up in its own building. 

By the time it closed in 1833 due to competition from new law schools, Litchfield had graduated approximately 1,000 lawyers. Among these graduates were men who reached the highest levels of law and government in the United States: the vice presidency, the Supreme Court, cabinet membership, and Senate and congressional leadership. Litchfield changed the model of legal study by formalizing legal training; the measure of its success was determined not only by the accomplishments of its graduates but also in the flourishing of new university law schools. As observed in GW Law Professor Renée Lettow Lerner’s book History of the Common Law: The Development of Anglo-American Legal Institutions, “By establishing the market for systematic classroom instruction as the entryway to the legal profession, Litchfield originated the American law school.”

The Litchfield student notebooks document the evolving training process of the fledgling law school that transformed legal education. Being manuscripts, student notes from Litchfield are unique and treasured by the libraries fortunate to hold them. Notes from approximately 90 students survive, housed in academic law libraries, historical societies, and state repositories. Prominent Marylander William Thomas Carroll well fit the profile of a Litchfield graduate, and his notes, while significant in legal literature as a whole, are of special interest to GW. Mr. Carroll, as one of Columbian College’s two law professors, was a key figure in the establishment of the “Law Department” of Columbian College; following the college’s premature closing due to lack of funds, Mr. Carroll served as clerk of the U.S. Supreme Court until his death in 1863.

Two of Mr. Carroll’s notebooks are written in shorthand. Although examples of Litchfield notes in shorthand now are known to exist in other collections, they are extremely scarce; at the time librarian Helen Newman was investigating, the Carroll shorthand notebooks at GW were thought to be unique. Recently, Mr. Carroll’s name has come to light in another context. It was he who provided the Bible used to administer the oath of office to Abraham Lincoln in 1861, the same Bible used by Barack Obama for both of his swearings-in as president. That Bible resides at the Library of Congress.

Helen Newman’s classic piece of sleuthing rescued the Litchfield notebooks from their life of obscurity on the shelf marked “C.” Today, they form the cornerstone of the law library’s collection of historical legal Americana. 

— Jennie C. Meade, Director of Special Collections