Tapping Reeve

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Tapping Reeve
Tapping Reeve.JPG
Judge Tapping Reeve
Born October 1, 1744
Brookhaven, Province of New York
Died December 13, 1823(1823-12-13) (aged 79)
Litchfield, Connecticut, U.S.
Nationality British American
Alma mater College of New Jersey (1763)
Occupation Lawyer
Known for Connecticut superior court judge 1798–1814, law educator
Spouse(s) Sarah "Sally" Burr
(m. 1771; her death 1797)

Elizabeth "Betsy" Thompson
(m. 1799; his death 1823)
Children Aaron Burr Reeve
Parent(s) Abner Reeve
Deborah Tapping
Relatives Aaron Burr (brother-in-law)
Aaron Burr, Sr. (father-in-law)

Tapping Reeve (October 1, 1744 – December 13, 1823) was an American lawyer and law educator. In 1784 he opened the Litchfield Law School, one of the earliest law schools in the United States, in Litchfield, Connecticut.[1][2]

Tapping Reeve was born in Brookhaven, New York, on Long Island, to Reverend Abner Reeve. He graduated with his Bachelor's degree in 1763 from the College of New Jersey in Princeton, New Jersey. While earning his Masters there (completed 1766) he also served as a headmaster of the grammar school associated with the college in nearby Elizabeth, New Jersey. It was here that he tutored the two children of Rev. Aaron Burr, who was the college president: future Vice President of the U.S. Aaron Burr, Jr. and Sarah, known as Sally. Reeve married Sarah on June 4, 1771 when she was 17 years old. Sarah was often in ill health, but on October 3, 1780 she gave birth to their only child, Aaron Burr Reeve. Aaron Burr Reeve went on to graduate from Yale and became a lawyer in Troy, New York. Tapping and Sarah were married until her death on March 30, 1797. He married again in 1799, but had no other children. Tapping Reeve died on December 13, 1823 in Litchfield, Connecticut. He was 79 years old.

Reeve tutored at the college from 1767 to 1770. In 1771 he began to study law with Judge Root, of Hartford, Connecticut. In 1772 he moved to Litchfield, situated on the crossroads of important inland trade routes, to open a new law practice. In 1773, he built a six-room, two-story house.

Reeve, while a fervent supporter of the patriot cause, did not enter active service early in the Revolutionary War. His wife's poor health held him at home. However, in December 1776, the Connecticut Assembly called upon him to travel the state to drum up volunteers for the Continental Army. He then accepted a commission as an officer and accompanied his recruits as far as New York before returning to his ailing wife.

In 1781 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 listened to discussions related to the Sheffield Resolves and a reading of the 1780 Massachusetts Constitution, the latter containing the phrase "all men are born free and equal" and had asked Sedgwick to take her case in a local court. Reeve and Sedgwick successfully secured her freedom on constitutional grounds. This case, (Brom & Bett v. Ashley) set a precedent that led to the abolition of slavery in Massachusetts.

Litchfield Law School from a 1906 postcard

Reeve took his brother-in-law, Aaron Burr, Jr. as a law student. In the beginning, Aaron Burr lived upstairs and took instruction in the downstairs parlor, adjacent to the gathering room where Reeve held mock court. Also on the first floor was Reeve's private law office. Due in part to notoriety gained from the Elizabeth Freeman case, Reeve's student enrollment began to grow. In 1784, he added a second building (known as the Samuel Seymour House) to house and instruct his students.

Among his students was John C. Calhoun who, like Aaron Burr, became Vice President of the United States.

In 1798, Reeve became a Judge of Connecticut's Superior Court. He then hired James Gould, a former student, to assist in running the school. Together, they built up the most prominent law school of its time.

Reeve is also noted for bringing Rev. Lyman Beecher, a noted adversary of Unitarianism, to serve as a minister in Litchfield in 1810.

In 1814, Reeve was appointed Chief Justice of Supreme Court of Connecticut. At this time, Gould took over the school. Reeve maintained contact with the school until 1820, three years before his death. The school continued to operate until 1833.

Reeve's Law of Baron and Femme, first published in 1816 was the pre-eminent American treatise on family law for much of the 19th century. It underwent revisions and re-publication in 1846, 1867, and 1888.

His home, now known as Tapping Reeve House and Law School, was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1965.[3]


  • The Law of Baron and Femme; of Parent and Child; of Guardian and Ward; of Master and Servant, etc. (New Haven, 1816; 2d ed., by Lucius E. Chittenden, Burlington, Vt., 1846; with appendix by J. W. Allen, 1857; 3d ed., by Amasa J. Parker and C. E. Baldwin, Albany, 1862)
  • Treatise on the Law of Descents in the Several United States of America (New York, 1825)


  1. ^ Patrice, Joe. "The Most Famous Law School You've Never Heard Of". Above the Law. Retrieved 8 February 2017. 
  2. ^ "Composite Curriculum at Litchfield Law School based on lectures of Tapping Reeve, 1790-1798 | Document Collection Center". documents.law.yale.edu. Yale Law School. Retrieved 8 February 2017. 
  3. ^ "Tapping Reeve House and Law School". National Historic Landmark summary listing. National Park Service. Retrieved 2007-10-06. 
  • Wikisource-logo.svg Wilson, James Grant; Fiske, John, eds. (1900). "Reeve, Tapping". Appletons' Cyclopædia of American Biography. New York: D. Appleton. 
  • Baker, Mark. Connecticut Families of the Revolution, American Forebears from Burr to Wolcott. Charleston, NC: The History Press, 2014.
  • Beecher, Lyman. A Sermon Preached at the Funeral of the Hon. Tapping Reeve: Late Chief Justice of the State of Connecticut, who Died December Thirteen, Eighteen Hundred and Twenty-Three, in the Eightieth Year of His Age, with Explanatory Notes. Litchfield, CT: S.S. Smith, 1827.
  • Blondel-Libardi, Catherine, “Rediscovering the Litchfield Law School Notebooks,” Connecticut History 46 (Spring 2007): 70–82.
  • Calder, Jacqueline. 1978. Life and Times of Tapping Reeve and his Law School. Typescript.
  • Collier, Christopher. “Tapping Reeve, The Connecticut Common Law, and America’s First Law School.” Connecticut Supreme Court History 1 (2006): 13–25.
  • Farnham, Thomas J. “Tapping Reeve and America’s First Law School.” New England Galaxy 17 (1975): 3–13.
  • Fisher, Samuel H. The Litchfield Law School: Address by Samuel Fisher. Litchfield, CT: Litchfield Enquirer Press, 1930.
  • Fisher, Samuel H. Litchfield Law School, 1774–1833: A Biographical Catalogue of Students. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1946.
  • Halow, D. Brooke. Litchfield’s Legacy in Law: A Study of the Litchfield Law School’s Influence on Legal Training in America, 1784–1833. American Studies 493, Yale University Law School, 1996.
  • Kilbourn, Dwight C. The Bench and Bar of Litchfield County, Connecticut, 1709–1909: Biographical Sketches of Members, History and Catalogue of the Litchfield Law School, Historical Notes. Litchfield, CT: Self Published, 1909.
  • Kronman, Anthony, ed. History of the Yale Law School. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2004.
  • Litchfield Historical Society. The Litchfield Law School, Litchfield, Connecticut: A Brief Historical Sketch. Litchfield, CT: Litchfield Historical Society, 1952.
  • Litchfield Historical Society. Presentation of the Reeve Law School building to the Litchfield Historical Society at Litchfield, Conn., August 22d, 1911. Litchfield, CT: Litchfield Enquirer Press, 1911.
  • Litchfield Historical Society. The Noblest Study: The Legacy of America’s First School of Law. Permanent Exhibition, Tapping Reeve House, Litchfield, CT.
  • Litchfield Law School. Catalogue: Reprint of 1900. Litchfield, CT: Litchfield Enquirer Press, 1900.
  • Litchfield Law School Students. Catalogue of the Litchfield Law School From 1798 to 1827 Inclusive. Litchfield, CT: S.S. Smith, 1828.
  • McKenna, Marian C. Tapping Reeve and the Litchfield Law School. New York: Oceana, 1986.
  • Sheppard, Steve, ed. The History of Legal Education in the United States. 2vols. Pasadena, CA: Salem Press, Inc., 1999.

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