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On February 8 1693, King William III and Queen Mary II of England granted charter to Virginia to create a college (Servies 2). The college was named after the king and queen and from then on was known as the College of William and Mary. The school was paid for by a one cent tax on tobacco and through £1,985 given by the monarchy (Servies 2). In 1695 they began work on the first building of the College of William and Mary in what is present day Williamsburg, Virginia and the first president of the college was Reverend James Blair (Servies 2). On February 27, 1729 the college was completed and had one president and six full professors (Servies 5). With the completion of the campus, the College of William and Mary became one of the first schools built in the United States of America. During the 18th century, the College of William and Mary flourished and produced some of the greatest minds in United States history. However during the 19th century, the College of William and Mary saw a decline in attendance and was forced to close its doors during the Civil War. After the war the government gave the college reparations from the war and it was able to reopen and has stayed open since. During the school’s early period, a number of famous people were affiliated with the college but only a few had a major impact on it. In a short period of time, the College of William and Mary transformed from a grammar school into a university, and with that change, comes the development of the first law school in the United States of America.

Like many universities, the College of William and Mary was originally built to serve as a school to teach young people, and Native Americans, in the ways of Christianity. When the college was first thought of, the people of Virginia wanted the school to provide the state with a seminary to supply ministers for its churches, educate youth in good letters and manners, educate Indians of North America and train them in the Christian gospel (Hoeveler 85). When asking King William for money the people of Virginia stated, “to the end that the Church of Virginia maybe furnished with a seminary of ministers of the gospel, and that the Christian faith may be propagated amongst the Western Indians, to the glory of Almighty God (Adams 17),” clearly the goal of Virginians was to build a school for the sole purpose of creating ministers and educating children in the trivium, grammar, logic, and rhetoric. With regards to ministry, the school even went so far as to ban professors from marrying (Adams 20). As for education, the College of William and Mary had five departments, Divinity, Philosophy, Languages, Arts, and Sciences (Hoeveler 85), although, the grammar school was the corner-stone of the college (Adams 19), showing just how much the college leaned on the teachings of the trivium. The school also required that students were proficient in Greek and Latin upon admittance and during school, studied rhetoric, logic, and ethics (Hoeveler 90). It was not until 1758 that the College of William and Mary began to change for a short period of time from recitation to lecture. In 1758, Dr. William Small arrived at the college from Scotland and introduced the lecture system to the American college system (Hoeveler 96). The lecture system would become the standard system in college and is still used today. Sadly, Dr. Small did not stay long after being discouraged by the college’s adamant decision of trying to create more ministers instead of focusing on education (Hoeveler 98). Despite the college’s religious roots, many influential people attended the College of William and Mary.

On April 2, 1756, the College of William and Mary conferred upon Benjamin Franklin the first honorary degree in the college’s history (Servies 6). Benjamin Franklin is just one of many whom the college bestowed an honorary degree upon. In 1785 James Madison was awarded the degree of Doctor of Laws in absentia (Servies 8), and Woodrow Wilson earned the same degree in 1919 (Servies 15). James Monroe attended the college in 1774-1776 (Servies 7), and George Washington was named the first American chancellor of the college in 1788 (Servies 9). The only other president of the United States to become chancellor of the college was John Tyler in 1859 (Servies 13). These are just some of the major people that either attended or were somehow affiliated with the college. Other men attended the college and eventually took up political roles in Virginia. A small section includes Peyton Randolph, president of the continental Congress, John Tyler, the first governor of Virginia, Edmund Randolph, Attorney-General and Secretary of State, Beverly Randolph, governor of Virginia, John Mercer, governor of Maryland, James Innes, attorney-general of Virginia, John Blair, judge of the supreme court, and John Marshall chief justice of the supreme court (Adams 28). Also Benjamin Harrison, Carter Braxton, Thomas Nelson, and George Wythe were Virginia’s delegates and signed the Declaration of Independence (Adams 28). Of these men George Wythe would have one of the biggest impacts on the College of William and Mary.

Before the College of William and Mary developed a law school, George Wythe would teach individual students in law. The college followed a method of teaching known as recitation where a professor would sit with a student and have the student read Greek literature and develop a thought on it. Wythe was no exception to this style of teaching, one student, Littleton Waller Tazewell, remembered it as such,

“I attended him every morning very early, and always found him waiting for me in his study by sunrise. When I entered the room, he immediately took from his well-stored library some Greek book, to which any accidental circumstance first directed his attention. This was opened at random, and I was bid to recite the first passage that caught his eye. Although utterly unprepared for such a task, I was never permitted to have the assistance of a Lexicon or a grammar, but whenever I was at a loss, he gave me the meaning of the word or structure of the sentence which had puzzled me… Whenever in the course of our reading, any reference was made to the ancient manners, customs, laws, superstitions, or history of the Greeks, he asked me to explain the allusion and when I failed to do so satisfactorily (as was often the case) he immediately gave full clearer and complete acount of the subject to which reference was so made. Having done so, I was bidden to remind him of it the next day, in order that we might then learn from some better source, whether his explanation was correct or not; and the difficulties I met with on one day, generally produced the subject of the lesson for the next,” (Swindler 4).


The interesting part of this statement is the ending where Wythe would have his student search other texts for an explanation rather than just relying upon what he stated and built his lessons off of difficulties instead of a strict lesson plan. As seen, Wythe had a scholastic style of teaching, comparing written texts together, as well as comparing old law and new law and update the old law, “When Jefferson studied under Wythe, he had been made to read “old Coke” in his entirety and then bring it up to date with Matthew Bacon’s New Abridgement of the Law,” (Swindler 5). Still, Wythe’s study of law was different than what was commonly used at the time. Convinced that reading and not copying made youths into lawyers, Wythe still could promote the congruence of theory with practice since he himself practiced law (Hellenbrand 92), when someone wanted to become a lawyer they would apprentice under a barred lawyer and act as a clerk copying laws for lawyers, not practicing it. They did not really learn the meaning of law and this was something that Wythe attempted to change by developing a curriculum that studied law and its history, learning where it came from and how it was developed. This is most evidently seen in Wythe’s training of Thomas Jefferson.

Thomas Jefferson attended the College of William and Mary from 1760-1762 (Servies 6). While attending, Jefferson would meet and study under two influential men. The first being Dr. William Small. Small was important because he introduced the lecture system to Jefferson and acted like a father figure. The second man being George Wythe with whom Jefferson studied law. Jefferson himself stated this about the two men, “It was my great fortune, and what probably fixed the destinies of my life that Dr. William Small of Scotland was then professor of mathematics, a man profound in most of the useful branches of science, with a happy talent of communication, corrrect and gentlemanly manners, and an enlarged liberal mind…and from his conversation I got my first views of the expansion of science, and of the system of things which we are placed, (Adams 36).” Small would only be around for a short period of time, however his influence on Jefferson will be witnessed later in Jefferson’s career. Wythe, on the other hand, was a part of Jefferson’s college life and beyond. With Wythe, Jefferson would have a rigorous legal training as well as studies in history, ethics, science, manners and hygiene, and literature with emphasis on poetry and plays (Blackburn 44). Through these studies, Jefferson received a well rounded education and a greater understanding of law. Not only did Jefferson gain a good education in law, he also gained a life long friend, “Mr. Wythe continued to be my faithful and beloved mentor in youth, and my most affectionate friend through life. In 1767, he led me into the practice of law at the bar of the general court, at which I continued until the Revolution shut up the courts of justice,” (Adams 36) Jefferson clearly felt indebted to Wythe upon leaving the college and would soon repay him kindly.

After leaving the college, Jefferson soon attempted to change the school system in Virginia. When Jefferson was elected to the General Assembly of Virginia, he introduced three bills, the first being the establishment of elementary school for all children and colleges for a middle degree of instruction to students in easy circumstances, second, establishing a university in Virginia, and third to build a library (Adams 37). Although most of these failed to come into existence in the way Jefferson proposed, it did not deter him from his mission of advancing the American education system. In 1779, Jefferson was elected governor of Virginia and visitor of the College of William and Mary (Adams 38). While a visitor at the College of William and Mary, Jefferson made huge strides in the transformation of the college into a university. In his one year as a visitor at the college, Jefferson abolished the grammar school and the department of divinity and oriental languages, and created the professorship of law and police of which George Wythe became the first chair. Jefferson also created the professorship of anatomy, medicine, chemistry, and modern languages essentially creating the first distinctively modern currents of curriculum at the College of William and Mary (Adams 39). Jefferson would reform the methods of instruction and the corpus of knowledge that inculcated young men in the law. In sum, Jefferson shared with George Wythe a dislike for the apprenticeship system in which youths learned law by clerking for either attorneys or judges. This system enforced a worshipping of, “form or precedent rather than knowing…the application of those rules upon which…[these forms and precednets] are grounded,” (Hellenbrand 91). Thomas Jefferson took the teachings of William Small and George Wythe and changed the college education system of Virginia, and this would become the model for all other universities in the United States of America. Although, the changes Jefferson made really only had an impact on the law school at the College of William and Mary. George Wythe would change his teaching style because of the changes Jefferson made to the college.

As stated before, Thomas Jefferson changed the system, law was taught by recitation with the professor and student meeting one on one and reciting old law. With the creation of the department of law and police came a change to the educational system. George Wythe would create a lecture series on law and created the first moot court system in the United States, an idea he adopted from England, one hundred years before Harvard would establish theirs (Swindler 6). In a moot court, law students were able to practice arguing cases in front of a judge, Wythe, and gain experience that they did not receive under the old system of apprenticeship. In addition, there were sessions imitative of the legislature with Professor Wythe as speaker of theHouse, teaching parliamentary procedures in the simulated “real-life” atmosphere. Committees drew up bills and were then given “the greatest freedom” to debate and revise those bills (Blackburn 103). In essence, Wythe combined theory and practicum together, enriching the students mind with lectures and empowering them in public speaking by giving them a safe place to practice and learn the tricks of the trade. One famous student to attend Wythe’s classes was John Marshall, future supreme court chief justice of the United States of America.

John Marshall attended the College of William and Mary in Mary 1780 and stayed for one term, leaving in late July 1780. Although his time at the college was short, it had a tremendous impact on him. Of all the schools Marshall could have attended to study law, he chose the College of William and Mary for three reasons. The first being the religious affiliation of the school with the Episcopal Church, second being the short course Wythe offered since Marshall was still serving in the military, and finally the college was emerging as a credential legal school in Virginia and had the highest-ranking judicial body in the United States (Robarge 54). Under Wythe, Marshall underwent a grueling course that would eventually prepare him for the world of law. At the college Marshall had to combine the theory of law and practice through readings and lectures, and when not studying or in class Marshall was in moot court, with his peers, debating in front of Wythe (Robarge 55). Wythe’s lectures and moot court helped Marshall gain the experience necessary to jump right into law after his enlistment in the military ended. Wythe introduced Marshall to numerous texts about law, of which Wythe leaned most heavily on Blackstone, Bacon, Montesquieu, and Hume (Robarge 55). Of these works Marshall would draw on Bacon and Blackstone in his later court rulings (Robarge 57,58). Other things Marshall would learn from Wythe and use in his daily practice was learning how to speak and debate from the moot court system and construing statutes as narrowly as required to reach the appropriate resoulution of the case at hand (Robarge 56), or the idea that the law is to be followed as close to the lettering as possible. Another thing Marshall would learn from Wythe is to return to the truism that law’s predictability rests on statutes interpreted in accordance with accepted judicial doctrines (Robarge 56), the idea of relying on previous court rulings is still used in the legal system today. Marshall would also draw heavily from Montesquie and Hume’s political thought in keeping the judiciary branch independent from the other branches of government (Robarge 56). Marshall would always resemble Wythe in his reputation for brilliance and integrity (Blackburn 106). Wythe’s teachings and literature would mold John Marshall and prepared him for a career in law.

The switch from a grammar school to a university established a law school at the College of William and Mary and changed the curiculum. George Wythe would be the man directly affected by this change, as he was the law professor that taught Thomas Jefferson and was the law professor when Jefferson changed the education system at the College of William and Mary. Wythe would then adopt the moot court system from England, and train students through theory and practice, better preparing lawyers for practice in law. The use of moot courts is still used today in law schools around the United States. Wythe’s curiculum would be best demonstrated through John Marshall who would eventually become the supreme court chief justice in the United States. Sadly only the law school at the College of William and Mary would grab onto the new method of educating students, thus the college itself would eventually falter in the future. However, the new system would be a jumping off point for later universities and today we can see all the law schools that have been created based off of Jefferson’s and Wythe’s methodology. Jefferson changed the system, Wythe implemented it, and Marshall would be the benefactor, when all is said and done the College of William and Mary created a new law education system that still stands today.


  Creation of the First Law School in America


Page Author: Brian K. Davis

Saturday, 17-Mar-2012 1:48


Adams, Herbert B. Circulars of Information of the Bureau of Education. Washington D.C.: Washington: Government Printing, 1887. Print.

Blackburn, Joyce. George Wythe of Williamsburg. New York: Harper & Row, 1975. Print.

Hellenbrand, Harold. The Unfinished Revolution: Education and Politics in the Thought of Thomas Jefferson. Newark: University of Delaware, 1990. Print.

Hoeveler, J. David. Creating the American Mind: Intellect and Politics in the Colonial Colleges. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2002. Print.

Robarge, David Scott. A Chief Justice's Progress: John Marshall from Revolutionary Virginia to the Supreme Court. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 2000. Print.

Servies, James A. Vital Facts: A William and Mary Chronology, 1693-1963. Williamsburg: College Library, 1963. Print.

Swindler, William F. “William and Mary Marks Bicentennial of Its First Chair Of Law.” American Bar Association Journal/64.12 (1978): 1872. Academic Search Complete. Web. 4 Feb. 2012


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