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Biography of Tapping Reeve

Name: Tapping Reeve
Bith Date: October, 1744
Death Date: December 13, 1823
Place of Birth: Long Island, New York, United States
Nationality: American
Gender: Male
Occupations: educator, law school founder
Tapping Reeve

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.

Further Reading

  • 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.

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