Tapping the Scales of Justice - A Dose of Connecticut Legal History

Tapping Reeve and the Litchfield Law School

The Litchfield Law School, the first of its kind in the United States, was founded by Tapping Reeve in 1784. The custom for students of law in the 18th century was to be tutored privately or serve under apprenticeships. Tapping ReeveTapping Reeve, after being admitted to the bar, began teaching individuals in his living room. His first student was his brother-in-law, Aaron Burr. Eventually, Reeve constructed a school building next to his home to accommodate growing enrollment. He operated the school by himself until 1798, when he was appointed as a Superior Court judge. He then invited a partner, James Gould, to join him at the school. Together, they developed an eighteen month course of lectures based on a system of legal principles and different subject areas of legal practice. Reeve also established student moot courts. More than 1,100 students attended the school from every region of the new United States of America before the school closed in 1833.

Distinguished alumni of the school included two Vice Presidents of the United States (Aaron Burr and John C. Calhoun), as well as twenty-eight Senators, one hundred one Congressmen, six Cabinet Ministers, fourteen Governors, and three Justices of the United States Supreme Court. Thirteen graduates served as state Supreme Court Chief Justices. In 1966, the Department of the Interior designated the school as the first law school in the United States. A compilation of the names of Litchfield Law School Students who attended the school is available on the web site of the Litchfield Historical Society. The Tapping Reeve House and Litchfield Law School still stand and are operated by the Litchfield Historical Society. Visitors may tour the site in Litchfield, Connecticut, from mid-April through November. Admission is free.

In 1814, Tapping Reeve was elevated to Chief Judge of the Connecticut Supreme Court of Errors. Many of his decisions can be reviewed in early Connecticut Reports volumes. He frequently wrote decisions as if he were lecturing a classroom of his students, asking rhetorical questions and then answering them. He also often reached back to English law for authority or for an analogy when writing opinions. Here is what he had to say in a case involving trespass:

"suppose that the lord of a manor should sell a highway through his manor... no deed to any person of the land covered by the highway being executed... what would pass to the public by the sale... Nothing but a right of passage for the king and his subjects; and all the rest would remain the property of the lord of the manor as long as the highway continued to be a highway..." [See page 105 of 1 Conn. 103 (1814)]

For further reading on Tapping Reeve and the Litchfield Law School:
2 Conn. Bar J. 72, 19 Conn. Bar J. 245, and 40 Conn. Bar J. 440

Librarians at the Yale Law School Lillian Goldman Law Library have completed a digitization of 143 notebooks kept by students of the Litchfield Law School. The Litchfield Law School Notebooks and the Litchfield Law School Sources are available online to the public through the open access portal eYLS and the Yale Law School Legal Scholarship Repository.

Doses of Connecticut Legal History