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This article focuses on the movement to reform legal education in early national Virginia, offering a fresh perspective by examining the connection between legal education and society and culture. It challenges the notion that constitutional ideas were the primary driving force behind reforms and argues that social status and “manners” played a more significant role. Wealthy elites in Virginia associated manners with education, sending their sons to college to become gentlemen, as it secured their aspirations to gentility and their influence over society and politics. Reformers sought to capitalize on this connection by educating a generation of university-trained, genteel lawyers who could lead the state's legislature and its courts. In this sense, educational reform was genteel rather than democratic in its basic assumptions. The article examines the central figure of George Wythe and explores his influence on Virginia's leading men, including Thomas Jefferson and St. George Tucker. It delves into the student experience in Wythe's law office and at the College of William and Mary, the success of educational reforms in the central courts, and the effects on Virginia's constitutional development. The college-educated lawyers who came to dominate the legislature in the early nineteenth century used their training for politics. As these lawyers sought to strengthen the institutions their party controlled, they drove the development of constitutional doctrines like federalism and separation of powers.

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Law and History Review

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This article has been published in Law and History Review 10.1017/S0738248023000378. Copyright © The Author(s), 2023. Published by Cambridge University Press on behalf of the American Society for Legal History