Litchfield After the Revolutionary War

Clockwise from top: A sign for B. Tallmadge's store;
West Street before the fire of 1886; pottery by Hervey Brooks;
a handbill for the Hartford and Litchfield Mail Stage c. 1880
THE FIFTY YEARS BETWEEN 1784 and 1834 were a time of growth and prosperity for the community. During these years Litchfield was an active, growing urban center, and by 1800 the town had become the fourth largest in the state. Local merchants Benjamin Tallmadge, Oliver Wolcott, Jr, Frederick Wolcott, and Julius Deming made fortunes in the China trade, importing and selling consumer goods from the Orient. Other small industries developed, and by 1810 the central village contained 125 houses, shops and public buildings. The town’s active artisan community included goldsmiths, carpenters, hatters, carriage makers, joiners, cabinet makers, saddle makers, blacksmiths, potters and other craftsmen; all located in the town’s center. Visitors to the community often remarked on its charms, as did Cyrus Alden in 1808, “I arrived at Litchfield about as the time the sun was setting. It is about 34 miles from Hartford. I think I never was in a more agreeable, pleasant country village in all my travels.”

In addition to becoming a commercial center, during these years Litchfield grew to be an important intellectual hub of Federalist New England. The community hired well-known Congregational minister Lyman Beecher to lead its religious life, and it became known for its educational institutions, including the country’s first law school. In 1784, a young lawyer named Tapping Reeve offered daily law lectures to students enrolled in his Litchfield Law School. While the study of law was open to men only, young women also had unusual education opportunities in Litchfield. In 1792 Sarah Pierce founded the Litchfield Female Academy, providing a rigorous academic education to young woman. Subjects more traditional in early women’s education, including painting, dancing, needlework and music, were taught as a means of reinforcing the academic lessons.

Clockwise from top: Actors portray students
at the Law School and the Female Academy;
the Litchfield Academy; view from Chestnut Hill; Tapping Reeve

The presence of the two schools ensured a stimulating intellectual environment in the town, along with an active social calendar. Author Harriet Beecher Stowe, who was born in the town during her father's 16 year ministry, described the town as a lively and stimulating rural village in her semi-autobiographical novel Poganuc People. Law student William Ennis described the social atmosphere to his friend Horace Mann in 1821, writing, “There are ladies in abundance who are monopolized by the students . . . In short no man can regret the fate which renders him an inhabitant of Litchfield.” Mann began his studies in Litchfield the next year.

Much of Litchfield’s prosperity during this era came from the town’s two schools. When both the Litchfield Female Academy and the Litchfield Law School closed in the 1830s, Litchfield entered a period of gradual decline.