Litchfield History

While many other colonial and early republican towns played important roles in shaping the early American world, few places reveal such complete integration of so many of the period’s institutions as Litchfield. The town’s influence lasted well into the 19th century as reform movements fostered by the town gained followers and as young people who were educated or reared in the community matured into social, religious, and political leaders. The convergence of the forces of politics, reform, education, and religion in this early American community permits insight into the complexities of both regional and national stories.

Despite its inland location in the hills of northwest Connecticut, several days distant from the nation’s major commercial and political centers, during its period of greatest prominence Litchfield was a regional heart of culture, education, and Federalist politics. Founded in the early 1720s by migrants from Hartford and Windsor, Litchfield was a frontier town. The first European residents struggled to seek their livelihood in an inhospitable climate and on hilly, stony fields. The town began its ascent in 1751, when it became the seat of the newly organized Litchfield County. The county court, in particular, turned the surrounding area into a thriving market and made Litchfield village the hub of local turnpikes.

As the imperial crisis unfolded, a large majority of the town’s residents joined the ranks of protest and rebellion. Patriot activity in the county, from outcries against the Stamp Act in 1765 to the 1774 resolutions of solidarity with beleaguered Boston, originated in Litchfield. Although they were located away from the fighting, the townspeople found ways to support the American cause. Its distance from the coast offered the town some protection from the British, yet Litchfield’s network of roads connected it with both New England and New York. Townspeople stored military supplies for the American army, housed senior prisoners of war, and melted and molded the New York City statue of King George III into bullets for the American army. Local revolutionaries included Oliver Wolcott, signer of the Declaration of Independence and Major Moses Seymour, in whose home prisoner David Matthews was confined.

In the aftermath of independence, the community embraced the strife of party politics and the bustle of the market economy. By the 1780s the town emerged as the unofficial capital of western New England. Litchfield supported one of the earliest newspapers in the state, as well as an active lending library and a club that sponsored speeches and debates on political, philosophical, and literary subjects. A tax-roster from the 1780s showed a population of growing occupational diversity, including attorneys, physicians, merchants, tailors, a goldsmith, joiners, blacksmiths, and no fewer than eighteen tavern keepers.

In American education, Litchfield was in the vanguard. Out of his home on South Street, Tapping Reeve developed the first curriculum for teaching common law and opened the first law school in the United States. Legal historian John Langbein has stated that, “the origins of American common law can be better traced through [the students’] law school notebooks than any other source.” The Litchfield Law School launched the town into regional and national eminence, and its closing in 1833 signaled the community’s transition to lesser political and cultural prominence.

In the years after they finished their studies and well after the law school’s closing, Litchfield students formed a network of leadership and influence that encompassed public service, business, and many other areas of American life. Ultimately, the small law school would boast of having educated two vice-presidents of the United States, Aaron Burr and John C. Calhoun, as well as fourteen governors, fourteen members of the federal cabinet, twenty-eight U.S. Senators, 100 members of the House of Representatives, three members of the U.S. Supreme Court, and many other state and local public officials. Some of the young men who attended the school, such as educator Horace Mann and artist George Catlin, went on to distinguished careers in fields other than the law. Reeve’s students played influential roles in every major political and social battle of the antebellum years and often found themselves on opposing sides. For example, when Roger Sherman Baldwin represented the Africans in the “Amistad” case, he argued against fellow former Litchfield students William Holabird and William Elsworth.

Tapping Reeve’s success with the law school prompted many others to open proprietary law schools and, eventually, universities to offer professional legal training. Reeve’s students often became his competitors. More than twenty alumni of the school started or were early professors of new law schools. For example, Edward King, fourth son of notable politician and diplomat Rufus King, took his legal education and family connections west to found the Cincinnati Law School. Women, as well as men, discovered unique educational opportunities in the town. In 1792 Sarah Pierce founded one of the pioneer institutions of female education in America. Through her innovative curriculum that combined academic, practical, and ornamental courses, Pierce and her fellow teachers expanded the world of the more than 3,000 girls who attended the school over its forty-one year history. By the time of its closing, the Litchfield Female Academy had attracted students from fifteen states and territories, as well as Canada, and the West Indies. Sarah Pierce encouraged her students to become involved in benevolent and charitable societies. Academy students raised money for the training of ministers and organized to support local missionary, bible, and tract societies. Many of the academy alumnae carried on these activities in later life, becoming leaders and ardent members of maternal societies, moral reform movements, and temperance organizations. While most of the students went on to private lives devoted to their families, many others, such as Catharine Beecher, chose to teach or establish their own schools.

Many townspeople played leading roles in another experiment in education when they helped found and sponsor one of the most progressive social experiments of the antebellum era. This venture, a Congregational school in neighboring Cornwall, trained Asians, Hawaiians, Africans, and Native Americans to become missionaries to the pupils’ home communities. Two American Indian members of the school community unwittingly tested racial boundaries in Jacksonian America when they married daughters of the town’s elite and took the young ladies to live in Cherokee country.

Politically, the town is fascinating. Robust partisanship characterized Litchfield during the years of the early republic. Questions that defined the nation during the period–such as whether there would be a party system and whether the nation would take the shape of a democracy or a republic–were argued not only in Philadelphia, New York and eventually Washington, D.C., but also in Litchfield. Residents of Litchfield served in national and state politics at a greater rate than their counterparts in similar towns, gaining an extraordinary number of high offices. In the 1780s, townspeople identified with the new nation and figured prominently in both the leadership and rank-and-file of the Federalist Party, reaching the pinnacle of their political and intellectual influence in the late 1790s. In fact, Litchfield of the early republic was the home of one U.S. Senator, four U.S. Congressmen, two state governors, and two chief justices of the Connecticut Supreme Court. In the era of Jeffersonian Republicanism, the town leaders directed the region’s Federalist resistance. Democrats indicted Litchfield Law School founder Tapping Reeve for libeling President Jefferson, and in 1806 local Federalists imprisoned an editor who dared to publish a Jeffersonian newspaper in town. Letters from the period discuss concerns over state and national politics as well as record local disagreements. “There is more virulence and party animosity here than you can imagine,” wrote one of the students at the Litchfield Law School in 1808. But when some in the region toyed with secession in late 1814, many of Litchfield’s Federalists united behind Frederick Wolcott, commander of the Connecticut volunteer regiment, to oppose New England sectionalism. After the War of 1812, as the contest between religious toleration and Congregationalist hegemony dominated the political landscape of Connecticut, the leaders of both movements, Oliver Wolcott, Jr. and Reverend Lyman Beecher, resided in the town.

Many of the religious and reform movements of the era first developed in Litchfield and its vicinity. In the second half of the eighteenth century the Reverend Joseph Bellamy of neighboring Bethlehem was one of the most influential religious forces in the region. Bellamy, who earned the pejorative title “Pope of Litchfield County,” was a central figure in the battles of the Great Awakening and its aftermath. In 1787 leading residents of Litchfield organized one of the country’s first temperance groups. The town’s religious revival in the first decade of the 19th century was an early manifestation of the Second Great Awakening. And the message spread through the students from the law school and female academy who returned to their homes following the completion of their education in Litchfield. Students, particularly from the Litchfield Female Academy, also circulated reform messages as they wrote home about their work in Litchfield voluntary organizations. The town gained yet another force for reform when Lyman Beecher came to the Congregational church in 1810. During his tenure in the town, he initiated his influential campaigns against drinking and slavery.

Litchfield residents played a disproportionately large role in bringing the industrial and financial revolutions to the region. The town’s elite sponsored the construction of small iron works, paper mills, textile plants, cheese factories, and a broadcloth woolen mill in neighboring towns. Residents and graduates of the town’s law school figured prominently in the directories of the ten banks chartered by Connecticut from 1798 to 1818. Account books, as well as furniture, musical instruments, and other manufactured products testify to the centrality of Litchfield to the proto-industrialization and the modernizing finances that ushered in capitalism in western New England.

Already in decline, Litchfield’s fortunes worsened in 1833, the year both the Litchfield Law School and the Litchfield Female Academy closed their doors. As the schools’ founders retired and other schools competed for students, the law school and female academy faced shrinking enrollments and loss of status. As fewer prominent families from around the country sent their children to study in the community, Litchfield experienced both a decline in social activity and a loss of prestige. Businesses also suffered setbacks as the industrial revolution gained speed in riverside communities, rendering the small scale manufacturing of Litchfield obsolete. The political scene had also quieted. After the Federalists, the driving political force in early national Litchfield fell into disarray and as the community’s most activist politicians aged, the town retreated from the heart of the political fray and its squabbles mirrored those of other small, rural New England towns.

Yet Litchfield continued to play a role in the nation as its influence lingered in its native children and those who had been educated in the community. For example three of Lyman Beecher’s children, novelist Harriet Beecher Stowe, educator and home economist Catharine Beecher, and minister Henry Ward Beecher immortalized the town of their youth in their writings and made clear that the small rural community was a defining influence on their lives. Georgian Eugenius Nisbet left Litchfield with more than a legal education. In later life he used his Litchfield experience in shaping his arguments for the South to secede from the Union when he served as Chairman of the committee to draft the Georgia ordinance of secession.

In spite of its unusual importance, no modern scholar has comprehensively investigated the history of Litchfield. Early research on the town and its inhabitants dates from the colonial revival, when the community’s residents collectively created and embraced a mythical vision of Litchfield’s past. Documents not held by the Society are scattered throughout the nation, and even abroad, because of the educational institutions and diverse activities of Litchfield and its residents. As early as 1951, in a letter to the Society, noted historian Carl Bridenbaugh bemoaned the absence of accessible information about the history of this pivotal town. Although recent books such as Joseph Wood’s The New England Village (1997), Cornelia Dayton’s Women before the Bar (1997), and Laurel Thatcher Ulrich’s Age of Homespun (2001) have all used Litchfield material, modern scholars have left many areas unexplored and many of the rich collections of this remarkable community and its immediate surroundings remain untapped. It is the Society’s hope that the Ledger will inspire and enable new scholarship focusing on Litchfield’s significance.