The Chair of Law at William & Mary, created in 1779 by the Board of Visitors at the urging of Thomas Jefferson, was the first established in the United States. The first occupant of the Chair was George Wythe, in whose offices studied Thomas Jefferson, John Marshall, James Monroe and Henry Clay. Wythe, a leader in the struggle for independence, was a signer of the Declaration of Independence and a member of the Federal Constitutional Convention. He became a powerful force in the development of American legal education. During the decade of his professorship, he developed a comprehensive course of law study which emphasized the acquisition of practical skills in such areas as legislative drafting and oral advocacy.
Wythe's successor was one of his pre-Revolutionary students, St. George Tucker, who proved to be a pioneer in legal education. Tucker drafted a formal description of the requirements for a law degree at the College, which included an exacting schedule of qualifying examinations in history, government and related pre-law subjects. Tucker's course material was soon published as the first American edition of Blackstone's Commentaries on the Laws of England. This work was the earliest treatise on the common law adapted to the needs of the legal profession in the United States. For a generation, Tucker's volume was considered the leading authority on American law.
Tucker's successors as Professor of Law at William & Mary included the brothers William and Robert Nelson, James Semple and St. George Tucker's son, Nathaniel Beverley Tucker. The younger Tucker was the author of Principles of Pleading, which became a leading authority of its day. Beverley Tucker is perhaps best remembered as one of the ablest exponents of the states' rights school of Southern constitutional law.
The growth of the Law School at William & Mary was abruptly halted by the beginning of the Civil War. The commencement of military campaigns on the Virginia Peninsula compelled the College to close its doors. It would be another 60 years before the historical priority in law could be revived in a modern program that is now more than a half-century old.
Today, the College of William & Mary is a public university supported by the Commonwealth of Virginia and supervised by a Board of Visitors appointed by the Governor. It is nationally recognized for its rigorous curriculum and excellent faculty. The Law School attracts students from all regions of the nation. Its alumni practice law throughout the United States, in Canada and in several foreign countries.