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