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  Portrait Gallery of former Connecticut Chief Justices

Tapping Reeve Tapping Reeve  <<  |  >>
 Chief Judge, Supreme Court of Errors, 1814-1815

  • Born: September 20, 1744, Southold, Long Island, New York.

  • Education: Graduated Princeton (the College of New Jersey) 1763; studied law under Judge Jesse Root in Hartford (1770-72) and was admitted to the Bar in 1772. He received honorary Doctor of Law (LL.D.) degrees from Middlebury College (VT) in 1808 and Princeton (the College of New Jersey) in 1813.

  • Occupations and Appointments: Chief Judge of the Supreme Court of Errors, 1814-1815; Judge, Superior Court of Connecticut, 1798-1814; founded the Litchfield Law School, the first of its kind in the United States in 1784; in December 1776 he was appointed by the Connecticut General Assembly to a committee to rouse the people to aid the desperate Continental Army by enlisting (Reeve was forced to stay home to take care of his invalid wife); began his law practice in Litchfield in 1772; in the autumn of 1766 he and Ebenezer Pemberton, Jr. opened a Grammar School in Elizabeth Town, N.J., the first of its kind, where Greek and Latin were taught along with subjects such as arithmetic, reading and history; private tutor, 1765-66.

  • Family ties: Son of the Reverend Abner Reeve of Southold, Long Island, later of Brattleboro, Vt. where he was Pastor of the First Church. Rev. Reeve lived to be 104 years old and preached his last sermon at age 102; husband of Sally Burr, daughter of Princeton’s second president, the Rev. Aaron Burr; brother-in-law of Aaron Burr, a Lieutenant Colonel in the Continental Army and the third Vice President of the United States, who is infamous as the duelist who killed Alexander Hamilton.

  • Died: December 13, 1823. He is buried in the East Burying Ground, Litchfield between his first wife, Sally Burr Reeve and his second wife, Betsey Thomson Reeve. The famous minister, the Rev. Dr. Lyman Beecher said of Reeve in his eulogy: I have never known a man who loved so many persons and was himself beloved by so many.

  • Items of Note

Items of Note:
  • In 1784 he founded one of the earliest law schools in the United States and most certainly the first where the study of law was all-encompassing including systematic instruction with carefully prepared lectures and moot courts for practical instruction. It has been called “the earliest, the largest, and by far the most influential” of early law schools. Prior to the opening of the Litchfield Law School, most students of the law received tutoring and apprenticeships from prominent lawyers of their day. Reeve was the only instructor until 1798 when he invited an associate, James Gould, to join him. The school trained some of the most eminent men of the early 19th Century including Aaron Burr, John C. Calhoun—both whom would become Vice Presidents of the United States—Horace Mann and Noah Webster. Among his other graduates were 101 United States congressmen, 28 United States Senators, six Cabinet members, three justices of the United States Supreme Court, 14 Governors and 13 Chief Justices of state Supreme Courts. In 1966, the Department of the Interior designated the school as the first law school in the United States. Reeve retired from active teaching at the school in 1820 when he was 76. Gould continued to lecture until 1833 when growing physical infirmity forced him to close the school. The Litchfield Law School is still standing. For more information please visit the Litchfield Historical Society’s website.

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In a lecture during the Bicentennial Celebration of the Settlement of Litchfield, Connecticut (August 1-4, 1920) former Governor and Chief Justice of Connecticut, Simeon E. Baldwin said of Litchfield and its Law School: …it is in the foundation and support of Private Schools that Litchfield has won her great distinction. There she seized the position of pioneer. To her ancient Law School, more than to any other single source, is due the form and symmetry and orderly development of American Law. The Litchfield Law School was one of the first fruits of the American Revolution. That cut us clear of English law, except so far as we might voluntarily adopt it.

  • Judge Reeve was among the first to champion an improvement in the legal rights of women. His treatise on domestic relations law: The Law of Baron and Femme; of Parent and Child; of Guardian and Ward; of Master and Servant; and of the Powers of Chancery. With An Essay on the Terms, Heir, Heirs, and Heirs of the Body, helped explain marriage in the late 18th and early 19th centuries in the U.S.
  • In 1783 Reeve joined Attorney Thomas Sedgwick of Sheffield, Massachusetts in the defense of Elizabeth Freeman (Mum Bett), a slave woman born in the United States who claimed her freedom from her former master under the declaration in the Constitution of her state that “All men were born free and equal.”  Reeve and Sedgwick obtained a favorable decision from the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts largely through Reeve’s brilliant appeal to the minds and hearts of those who heard him.

Of Reeve another Chief Justice of Connecticut, Samuel Church, would say on the occasion of Litchfield’s Centennial Celebration in 1851, He loved the law as a science, and studied it philosophically. He considered it as the practical application of religious principle to the business affairs of life. He wished to reduce it to a certain, symmetrical system of moral truth. He did not trust to the inspiration of genius for eminence, but to the results of profound and constant study.

  • Judge Reeve was one of the first and most active supporters of the Female Academy, established by Sally Pierce in 1792. In 1798 he was on a list of subscribers to a fund to erect the first building for the school. Of the Law School and the Female Academy Henry Ward Beecher would write: The Law School of Judge Reeves and Gould and the young ladies’ school of the Misses Pierce made it (Litchfield) an educational center scarcely second in the breadth of its influence to any in the land, and attracted a class of residents of high social position.

    Beecher later would add that these schools “were in their day two very memorable institutions, and though since supplied by others on a larger scale, there are few that will have performed so much, if we take into account the earliness of the times and the fact that they were pioneers and parents of those that have supplanted them.”

Physical Description: One of Judge Reeve’s law students described him as such: …a most venerable man in character and appearance—his thick gray hair parted and falling in profusion upon his shoulders, his voice only a loud whisper, but distinctly heard by his earnestly attentive pupils.

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