Reeve, Tapping

Reeve, Tapping 1763 (1744-1823) was the founder of one of America's earliest and most important law schools. A classmate of the eminent jurist, William Paterson, Reeve taught for a number of years after graduation before going to Connecticut to read law in the office of Judge Root in Hartford. In 1773, he married Sally Burr, the daughter of Princeton's second president, and moved to Litchfield. He began giving law instruction in his office -- his brother-in-law, Aaron Burr, Jr. 1772, was one of his first students -- and in 1784, to accommodate a growing number of students, built a cottage next to his house, which became known as the Litchfield Law School.

Although not the first institution for instruction in the law -- the first American chair of law was established at the College of William and Mary in 1779 -- Reeve's school represented a major advance in the development of legal education in this country.

Reeve operated the school single-handedly until 1798, when he was appointed to the Connecticut Supreme Court (of which he was later Chief Justice). He then invited James Gould, Yale 1791, who had just graduated from the school, to join him in its management. Reeve and Gould attracted students from almost every state in the Union, who came by horseback, steamboat, and stage to study law in their unheated, one-room school. Students received systematic instruction, with carefully prepared lectures and moot courts for practical instruction.

The school trained some of the most eminent men in public life in the early nineteenth century, including in addition to Aaron Burr, John C. Calhoun, Horace Mann, and Noah Webster. It numbered among its some 1,000 graduates sixteen United States senators, fifty congressmen, forty justices of higher state courts, two justices of the United States Supreme Court, ten governors, and five cabinet officers.

Tapping Reeve retired from active connection with the school in 1820 when he was seventy-six. Gould continued to lecture until 1833 when growing physical infirmity obliged him to close the school. Other law schools meantime had been founded at Harvard (1817), and Yale (1824).

Tapping Reeve's house and the law school are still standing in Litchfield.


From Alexander Leitch, A Princeton Companion, copyright Princeton University Press (1978).

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