Chapter 9. Life in the Federal Period: Litchfield

In order to get a better idea of life in the Federal Period, or at least a better idea of the lives of the affluent, this chapter tours Litchfield, Connecticut. This beautiful town with its wide open spaces, is an architectural feast. Many consider this one of the most unspoiled colonial/federal towns -- one of the richer ones, too, judging from its splendid appearance. Very few of its houses are open to visitors, unless you come on the annual open house of historic homes, usually the second Saturday in July (however, it is always best to check before traveling).

The first settlers of Litchfield came in 1720, but most of the houses date from around the beginning of the nineteenth century. Some very famous persons lived in Litchfield, most from the Revolutionary and Federal periods. Make your first stop the local Historical Society.

Litchfield Historical Society and Museum
Corner of East and South Streets, Litchfield, CT
(The History Museum and the Tapping Reeve House and Law School are open from mid-April through November. They take the time in the winter to change the exhibit in one of our galleries. The Ingraham Memorial Research Library is open all year, Tues-Friday and one Saturday per month 10-12 and 1-4 http://www.litchfieldhistoricalsociety.org.) 

The Society has many exhibits on local history that helps you orient the visitor. Here also are portraits of the town's historically important citizens--some of whose homes can be seen, at least from the outside.

Litchfield was home to one of the most distinguished families in Connecticut. The Wolcotts were to Connecticut what the Adams were to Massachusetts. Roger, Oliver, Sr., and Oliver, Jr. all served as Connecticut governors. A type of belief-it-or-not story involves Ursula Wolcott, sister to Oliver, Sr. She married Matthew Griswold who also became a Connecticut governor. Ursula's son, Roger Griswold, followed in his father's footsteps into the governorship. Thus, Ursula Wolcott Griswold had a father, husband, brother, nephew, and son, who all became governors of Connecticut.

Oliver Wolcott, Sr. House (private)
South Street, Litchfield, CT

This is the oldest house in the borough of Litchfield, dating from 1753. Oliver Wolcott, Sr. was the son of Roger Wolcott, governor of Connecticut from 1750-1754. In 1747 Oliver graduated from Yale and in 1751 moved to Litchfield, where his father owned property. Here he held the office of sheriff for twenty years. In 1755 he married Laura, daughter of Captain Daniel Collins of Guilford. In 1775 he was appointed commissary to supply stores and supplies to the troops. In October of that year he also became member of the Second Continental Congress and signed the Declaration of Independence. He later served as a general in the army.

Oliver Wolcott, Sr. was a staunch Federalist. In 1796, on the death of Governor Samuel Huntington, he succeeded to the governorship. He spent two uneventful years as governor, dying in office in 1797.

In this house Wolcott entertained Washington, Lafayette, and Alexander Hamilton. Behind the house the Wolcotts and their friends melted down the statue of King George III, which had stood in New York City's Bowling Green, to make bullets for the Revolutionary cause.

Oliver Wolcott, Jr. House (private)
South Street, Litchfield, CT

Born in Litchfield in 1760, Oliver Wolcott, Jr. owned this 1799 house. In the rear is the Oliver Wolcott Library. Oliver Wolcott, Jr. worked his way up the ladder of success starting first as auditor of the new federal Treasury and then as comptroller. He became Alexander Hamilton's assistant in the Treasury Department following Treasury assistant William Duer's involvement in a financial scandal that slowed the development of our first planned industrial city, Paterson, New Jersey. In 1795 Wolcott became Washington's Secretary of the Treasury when Alexander Hamilton resigned following the Whiskey Rebellion.

When John Adams became the second President of the United States, he unwisely continued Washington's cabinet--unwisely, because Timothy Pickering (Secretary of State), Oliver Wolcott, Jr. (Secretary of the Treasury) and James McHenry (Secretary of War) were all devoted to Alexander Hamilton. The Hamilton branch of the government was fiercely pro-England, while the Republicans were pro-France. These three cabinet members informed Hamilton of all the President's moves and followed Hamilton's advice in attempts to prevent Adams from making peace with France.

Adams finally fired Pickering and McHenry, but kept Wolcott. Wolcott, in turn, kept the Hamilton branch informed of all internal affairs. The final blow up between Hamilton and Adams, news of which Aaron Burr leaked to the press, wrecked the Federalist Party, and helped clear the way for Jefferson's presidential election of 1800. At the end of 1800 Wolcott resigned after the collapse of Hamilton's efforts to elect Thomas Pinckney over the head of Adams. His later career included service as governor of Connecticut from 1817 to 1826. He died in New York in 1833.

Ethan Allan Birthplace (private)
Old South Road, Litchfield, CT

Just south of the Oliver Wolcott, Jr. home is the 1737 birthplace of Ethan Allan of Fort Ticonderoga fame. The house dates from 1736.

Tapping Reeve House and Law School
South Street across from the Oliver Wolcott, Sr. House, Litchfield, CT (Open Thur-Mon 12-4, mid-May to mid-Oct)

Litchfield became a center of professional schools. One such was the first law school in the United States, established by Tapping Reeve. Reeve was born on Long Island in 1744. He graduated from Princeton in 1763, serving for seven years as a tutor at the Grammar School connected with the college. There he met the children of the college president, Aaron Burr, Sr.: Aaron, Burr, Jr. (later Vice President of the United States) and Sally Burr, who were his students. He moved to Connecticut and studied law under Judge Root of Hartford--being admitted to the bar in 1772. In the same year he married former student Sally Burr. He then moved to Litchfield and started a law practice.

Tapping Reeve built his six-room Litchfield house in 1773 and settled in with his frail wife. In 1780 he added a downstairs wing for Sally, who found it difficult to climb stairs. Reeve decided to start a law school, and his first student was none other than his brother-in-law, Aaron Burr. The law school students lived in the Reeve house and received their morning lectures in the downstairs parlor. The other room on the first floor probably functioned as Reeve's private office for consultation with clients and for lecture preparations. The middle room is the Gathering Room where Reeve held mock court. Upstairs is the Burr room. Among the famous visitors to the house was Lafayette.

In 1783 Reeve cooperated with Thomas Sedgwick of Sheffield, Massachusetts, on the defense of Elizabeth Freeman (Mum Bett) who contented that she should be free on the basis of the claim that "All men were born free and equal." As the number of his students grew, Reeve in 1784 built a school house just to the south of his home. The school house has a standing desk lectern and a school desk and bench. Framed pictures of the students are here, including, George Catlin, Horace Mann (the famous educator), Aaron Burr, Jr., Oliver Wolcott, Jr., and Roger Sherman Baldwin.

Among his students was the South Carolinian John C. Calhoun, another Reeve graduate to be Vice President of the United States (this time under Andrew Jackson). Calhoun boarded next door at the Samuel Seymour House (built 1784).

In 1798 Reeve became a Judge of the Superior Court. To keep the law school going, Reeve brought onto the faculty one of his former students, James Gould. In 1810 Reeve was instrumental in bringing the Reverend Lyman Beecher, the great foe of Unitarianism, to minister in Litchfield. Gould became Reeve's associate in 1798, and took over the school in 1814. In 1820 Reeve had to give up his contact with the school, but the school itself continued until 1833.

Site of Lyman Beecher House
Northwest corner of Prospect and North Streets

Lyman Beecher studied at Yale where he came under the influence of the president of the college, Timothy Dwight. Dwight helped spread the Second Great Awakening by encouraging young men to start religious revivals in other parts of the country.

Lyman Beecher's first ministerial position was with the Presbyterian Church of East Hampton, Long Island. He married the granddaughter of General Andrew Ward in 1799. The East Hampton position paid very little so Beecher looked around for another post.

In 1810 Judge Tapping Reeve of Litchfield invited Beecher to deliver a sermon at the Litchfield Congregational Church. The town liked Beecher, and the Beechers made Litchfield their home from 1810 to 1826 when Lyman Beecher went to Boston to preach. In Litchfield Harriet Beecher (better known as Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of Uncle Tom's Cabin) and Henry Ward Beecher (the most famous preacher of his day) were born. (See the chapter on Harriet Beecher Stow for more information on the Beechers).

Benjamin Talmadge House (private)
North Street, Litchfield, CT

Benjamin Talmadge was born in 1754 in Brookhaven, New York. While a student at Yale he became friends with Nathan Hale. Before his graduation, in 1772 he became the new superintendent of the high school in Wethersfield upon the retirement of David Humphreys. Upon his graduation, he returned to teach school at Wethersfield.

In June 1776 he was commissioned a lieutenant and accompanied his regiment to the East River sector in New York. He took part in the battles of Long Island and White Plains. During the latter battle, he fell into the Bronx River, and the British nearly captured him. He became a captain in the Continental Light Dragoons (calvary) commanded by Elisha Sheldon. Washington used Talmadge's group as a way of gaining information about British troop movements. In addition, Talmadge saw action in the battles of Short Hills, Brandywine, Germantown, and Monmouth.

There being at this time no secret service, Talmadge, under the alias of John Bolton, designed a chain of secret correspondents for the relay of intelligence reports. Some of his accomplishments in this role were the use of invisible ink, developed by Sir James Jay, brother of John Jay; developing a secret code; and detection of a British information network in Westchester and Fairfield counties involving Benedict Arnold. Talmadge took control of the investigation of the British spy, Major John Andre, captured while attempting to deliver maps and documents of the West Point fortifications made by the traitor Benedict Arnold.

Talmadge also led 150 men from Fairfield, Connecticut across Long Island Sound in November 1779 to raid Fort St. George in Lloyd's Neck, Long Island. He then served as head of the Secret Service and as an officer in the Dragoons.

During the latter years of the war, Talmadge became involved in a business deal in Litchfield. In March 1784 he married Mary Floyd of New York, and they moved into the Thomas Sheldon House in Litchfield. In addition to running his company, he became a bank president and served in the House of Representatives (1800-1816). He died in Litchfield in 1835.

You may also want to view the house in the northern part of Litchfield located where North Street forks. This is the home of the great uncle of the famous painter of western Indians, George Catlin.

Other Sites

While in Litchfield, you are not far from the Housatonic River Valley. In the town of Kent visit the Sloane-Stanley Museum and Kent Furnace (located off Rt. 7; open Wed-Sun 10-4:30, mid-May to Oct 31). Eric Sloane is an artist and author with a special interest in early American tools. Just north of Kent is Kent Falls State Park where you can picnic and see the small waterfall.

 

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