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Tapping Reeve
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Tapping Reeve (1744-1823) of Litchfield

Tapping Reeve was an American lawyer, educator, and jurist. He is recognized as founding an important and influential—and perhaps the first in America—law school in Litchfield. Actually the Litchfield Law School was the second formal school offering training for the legal profession in the United Sates (after the William & Mary School of Law, which offered lectures on the law), but Reeve’s law school was unique in that it offered a comprehensive legal curriculum. Therefore, the Litchfield Law School is considered the first formal school of law in the United States offering a vocational curriculum for future attorneys.

Judge Tapping Reeve was born in Brookhaven, Long Island, in October, 1744. He was the son of the Reverend Abner Reeve, a minister on Long Island and afterwards in Vermont. He father lived to the age of 104 and preached his last sermon when he was 102. Tapping Reeve graduated from the College of New Jersey (now Princeton University) in 1763 and, while working on a master’s degree, taught school in a grammar school in Elizabeth, New Jersey (he was a tutor to Aaron and Sarah Burr, who were the orphan children of the Reverend Aaron Burr, Sr., the former president of the college). He also taught at the College of New Jersey from 1767 to 1770. He married Sarah Burr in 1771, when she was 17 years old. He moved to Hartford in 1771, and studied law with Judge Jesse Root. In 1772, he established his law practice in Litchfield. In 1774, Aaron Burr, Reeve’s brother-in-law, left his ministerial studies with the Reverend Joseph Bellamy and moved to Litchfield to study law with Attorney Reeve. A year later, Burr left to join the Continental Army on the outbreak of the Revolutionary War.

In 1781, Attorney Reeve worked with Theodore Sedgwick to represent Elizabeth Freeman (known as Bett), a slave in Sheffield, Massachusetts, in a legal bid for her freedom. Bett had heard a reading of the 1780 Massachusetts Constitution that contained the phrase “all men are born free and equal” and asked Sedgwick to take her case in a local court. The case (Brom & Bett v. Ashley) set a precedent on constitutional grounds. The precedent led to the abolition of slavery in Massachusetts.

 While practicing law, Attorney Reeve took students. At this time, his process followed the usual clerking or apprenticeship system of learning law. Sometimes, he would present talks on the principles of law. Due to the publicity from the Bett case, more students flocked to him as a teacher of law. In order to accommodate the increase in students, he constructed a small building on his property and developed a formal 14-month curriculum of legal studies. Thus, in 1784 he founded the law school in Litchfield.

The Litchfield Law School was never chartered by the state, remaining a proprietary effort, and never offered degrees as a credential. At the conclusion of their studies, many students took the Bar exam in Litchfield, even though they would be required to clerk in the office of a lawyer on returning to their homes and take the local Bar exam. Reeve provided letters of reference showing that the young men had “read law” at the school. He lectured on all aspects of legal practice including developing changes in the adaptation of British Common Law. His students followed the procedure of taking notes during the lectures, copying them carefully after checking citations, which were put in the margins. Many students bound their notes in leather volumes, which became reference works for them when they entered law practice.

Attorney Reeve was the only instructor at the school until 1798, when James Gould joined him. This school became the most prominent of its kind in the country. Students came from all over the United States. Between 1774 and 1833, 945 men attended the school according to available records. About 200 additional students are believed to have attended in the early years when no roll of students was kept. The Litchfield Law School’s greatest influence was in shaping future legal education in this country. Attorney Reeve taught the law as based upon general principles and methods, and upon a national level, not as they pertained to specific states. The school established the study of law as graduate education, distinct from an undergraduate curriculum.

The influence of Litchfield Law School students on American politics is not well known, but should be. Two students went on to become vice president (Aaron Burr and John C. Calhoun), three students served on the Supreme Court of the United States, six served as U.S. Cabinet members, 97 students (more than 10 percent) later served in the U.S. House of Representatives, and 28 were U.S. Senators. At the state level, 15 alumni were elected governors of states and territories, and 13 served as state supreme court chief justices.

Attorney Reeve served as superior court judge from 1798 to 1814. In 1814, he was named Chief Justice and retired in 1815 to publish The Law of Baron and Femme, a legal analysis of domestic relations that went into four editions and was the primary treatise on family law for the nineteenth century. Finally, in 1820, Judge Reeve retired as a teacher and Gould continued to operate the law school until 1833, when competition from other law schools, such as Harvard and Yale resulted in low admission to the Litchfield Law School.

Judge Reeve’s wife died in 1797. He married a second time in 1799. Judge Reeve died in Litchfield on December 13, 1823.

Tapping Reeve’s home, now known as Tapping Reeve House and Law School, was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1965. It is owned and operated by the Litchfield Historical Society.

The Tapping Reeve Education Award was established in 2012.