Reeve, Tapping (1744-1823)
Tapping Reeve (1744-1823)
Lawyer and educator
Background. Tapping Reeve was born in Brookhaven on Long Island, New York, in October 11744. The son of a Presbyterian minister, Reeve graduated from the College of New Jersey (now Princeton University) in 1763. After teaching school a few years, he moved to Connecticut to study law under Judge Jesse Root. Admitted to the bar in 1772, Reeve began practicing law in Litchfield.
Public Servant. As a young lawyer in Connecticut, Tapping Reeve took a keen interest in public affairs. By December 1776 he was a committed patriot and was appointed by the Connecticut Assembly to rouse support for the Revolution through the state. Reeve accepted an officer’s commission in the Continental Army but never saw battle. He served in both the legislature and the governor’s council and in 1788 was nominated the state’s attorney. A fervent Federalist in the 1790s, he wrote several newspaper articles supporting the Washington and Adams administrations. Reeve remained such a vocal partisan that a federal grand jury indicted him in April 1806 for libeling President Thomas Jefferson (the indictment was dismissed).
Litchfield Law School. Tapping Reeve’s lasting contribution to the American legal system was the school of law he founded in Litchfield. Reeve had tutored several young apprentices in his law practice and began to reconsider apprenticeship as a way to study law. He favored a more structured approach, combining organized lectures and moot courts for practical experience. In 1784 he built a small schoolhouse next to his home. It cost a student about $350 a year to attend the law school—$100 for tuition and $250 for board and expenses. Fourteen months of training was generally required before graduation. Reeve’s students were required to attend lectures on the law, undertake a carefully prescribed reading and writing program, and participate in the moot courts.
Illustrious Alumni. The Litchfield Law School’s reputation grew, and its influence was extraordinary. During its existence from 1784 to 1833, two graduates would go on to serve as vice president (Aaron Burr and John Calhoun); three would serve on the U.S. Supreme Court; and six would become cabinet members. Other illustrious alumni included 28 U.S. Senators, 101 members of the House of Representatives, 14 governors, and 16 state chief justices. For the first fourteen years, during which the school prepared two hundred students for careers in the law, Reeve taught alone. In 1798 he selected a former student, James Gould, to join him. Gould refined the school’s curriculum in the nineteenth century. When the school closed its doors in 1833, some 1, 016 law students had been graduated.
Community Leader. Reeve’s work at his law school did not put an end to his participation in civic affairs. In 1798 he was named a judge of the Connecticut Superior Court, and in 1814 he became chief justice of the Court of Errors. He retired two years later and devoted his time to writing legal tracts related to family law. He led the state’s temperance movement and helped form a society for the suppression of vice and immorality. Married twice (once to Aaron Burr’s sister Sally), Reeve’s only child, Aaron Burr Reeve, died in 1809. Reeve died in Litchfield on 13 December 1823.
Stanley Elkins and Eric McKitrick, The Age of Federalism (New York & Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993);
Lawrence M. Friedman, A History of American Law (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1985).
Tapping Reeve (1744-1823), an American jurist and founder of the Litchfield Law School, helped bring order to the law through systematic and integrated instruction.
Tapping Reeve, the son of a Presbyterian minister, was born in Brookhaven, Long Island, in October 1744. He entered the College of New Jersey (now Princeton) at 15 and graduated first in his class in 1763. In 1771 Reeve left his post as tutor at Princeton to read law in the traditional way in a judge's office in Hartford, Conn. In a year he was admitted to the bar, and he moved to the remote village of Litchfield, Conn., to begin his practice.
As his reputation grew, young prospective lawyers began to seek Reeve out to supervise their legal preparation. But he soon went beyond the usual procedures (which gave the clerks little or no overview in their reading and only a perfunctory knowledge of established legal forms) to introduce them to the substantive principles and concepts of law. In the absence of accessible textbooks and reports, he inaugurated in 1782 a series of formal and connected lectures which embraced the whole field of jurisprudence. Two years later, with students overflowing home and office, he erected a small frame building near his home and assembled his law library there. In this school he met his classes of from 10 to 20 men. On Saturdays the students were examined on the week's lectures, and Monday evenings were reserved for moot court sessions.
For 14 years Reeve conducted the school alone, but when, in 1798, he was appointed a judge of the superior court, James Gould began to share the teaching duties. The notes from their lectures, as the school catalog noted in 1828, "constitute books of reference, the great advantage of which must be apparent to every one of the slightest acquaintance with the … Law."
Before the school closed in 1833 because of increased competition from New York, New Haven, and Boston, Reeve and Gould graduated more than 1,000 lawyers. The roster of names reads like a "Who's Who in Nineteenth-century America," including 2 U.S. vice presidents, 3 Supreme Court justices, 6 Cabinet members, and 116 congressmen.
After 16 years on the state supreme court Reeve was elevated in 1814 to chief justice. He retired the next year, at the age of 70. He published The Law of Baron and Femme (1816), a legal analysis of domestic relations that went into four editions. Financially straitened and flagging with age, he withdrew from his school partnership in September 1820 and died in Litchfield on Dec. 13, 1823.
Samuel H. Fisher, The Litchfield Law School, 1775-1833 (1933), contains a good description of the activities and alumni of Reeve's school and a sympathetic characterization of its teachers. □