Composite Curriculum at Litchfield Law School based on lectures of Tapping Reeve, 1790-1798

            Although Tapping Reeve began training students for the law in 1774, (his first charge was his wife’s brother, Aaron Burr), no records of  Reeve’s method of legal instruction, lectures, or readings have survived from the time before 1790. From 1790 to 1798, when Reeve was solely responsible for teaching, notes or portions of notes kept by nine students in Reeve’s one room school house have been preserved at the library of the Litchfield Historical Society, the Connecticut Historical Society,  the Connecticut State Library, Yale Law Library, the John Hay Library of Brown University, and the New York State Library. Those nine students, with the date of their registration, are

             Eliphalet Dyer (1790)  2 volumes

             Samuel Andrew Law (1793) 1 folder

             Roger Minott Sherman (1794) 1 volume

             Asa Bacon (1794) 5 volumes

             Oliver Leicester Phelps (1794) 1 volume

             Robert Fairchild (1794) 1 volume

             George Larned (1795) 1 volume

             George Tod (1796) 3 volumes

             Thomas Scott Williams (1796) 1 folder

In addition, there is an anonymous notebook at Yale, dated to 1794.

            Careful reading of these notebooks reveals that students often recorded the date of individual lectures. Moreover, three students from 1794 attended class together for lectures on municipal law, which Reeve began on November 4, 1794, a Tuesday. Municipal law was always the primary title in the curriculum and is most frequently the first title to occur in any set of Litchfield lectures.  Reeve began his lectures on the different kinds of law and statutes by quoting William Blackstone’s  definition  of municipal law from the first volume of Commentaries on the Laws of England as “a rule of civil conduct prescribed by the supreme power in a state, commanding what is right and prohibiting what is wrong.”  Many students took down that opening sentence as long as Litchfield was in operation. In most notebooks, these students also numbered their lectures, either continuously throughout the notebook or starting with  lecture 1 at the beginning of a new title.

             Legal instruction was not limited to lectures, however. Many of these notebooks contain essays written by Reeve, then copied from his manuscripts by students directly into their own books. Several of Reeve’s essays eventually appeared in print, such as “On operation of the terms Heirs and Heirs of his body in a will & other instruments,” copied by Eliphalet Dyer, which was later published in both editions of Reeve’s treatise, The law of baron and femme, 1816 and 1846. The essay on descents, sometimes attributed to William Hillhouse (1728-1816) or considered anonymous, was copied by Thomas Scott Williams and Robert Fairchild. In his notebook, Fairchild clearly identified this as “An essay on Descents, by Tapping Reeve, Esquire,” before transcribing its 32 pages.  The printed edition of this essay (BEAL 4610) contains no date, no place of publication, and no printer, but Thomas Scott Williams has dated his own copy of descents December 4, 1797.  It is unlikely Williams would have troubled to make a copy if the essay was available in print.  A longer essay, on the courts of law and their jurisdiction in Connecticut, seems never to have been published, but versions of this essay continued to be copied by students into the early nineteenth century.

            Another distinctive feature of the early notebooks is a chart drawn to compare English statutes with laws of Connecticut on the titles of husband and wife, master and servant, parent and child, guardian and ward, bailment, and executors and administrators.  Such charts covered many pages, elaborating many points of comparison. Asa Bacon’s chart is the most extensive, running to 117 pages, with  54 comparisons under husband and wife, 64 comparisons for parent and child.  His chart is organized in two columns, one headed “English law” the other “Conn. law.” An example from his chart for parent and child reads: English law  1. Every child not born in wedlock or a competent time after is a bastard.  Conn. law  1.The same. Shorter charts are found in the notes of George Larned, Samuel Law and Eliphalet Dyer.

            To understand the organization of Reeve’s lectures and to apprehend their content, the next section follows the general order of Reeve’s titles and briefly describes the topic of each lecture. I have chosen the fullest treatment of each title from these notebooks as illustrative examples.

Whitney S. Bagnall                                                                                          September 30, 2013

Different kinds of law & statutes (Roger Minott Sherman, 1794) [5 lectures]

            Municipal law

            Law merchant

            Public & private statutes

            Remedial statutes

            Construction of penal statutes

Husband & Wife (Roger Minott Sherman, 1794) [9 lectures]

            Consequences of marriage in respect to husband’s right to wife’s estate

            Husband as tenant by curtesy

            Property of feme covert for her sole & separate use

            Wife’s power to bind herself by her own contracts

            Agreements between husband & wife

            Alienation by feme covert of her property

            When husband &wife must be joined in a suit as defendants

            Of celebration of marriage

            Of marriages void & voidable

Parent & Child, Guardian & Ward (Asa Bacon, 1794) [8 lectures]

            Definition of minors

            Contracts of infants

            Powers of infants

            Illegitimate children

            Child born after divorce a mensa et toro

            Widow with children remarries

            Parent’s power to correct the child

            Court of probate may appoint guardian

Master & servant      (Roger Minot Sherman, 1794) [4 lectures]

            Several kinds of servants: slaves, apprentices, menial servants, day laborers, agents

            Apprentices must be bound by deed (common law)

            Master’s liability for contracts of his servant

            Master’s power to correct his servant

Estates of deceased persons (Robert Fairchild, 1794) [15 lectures]

            Principles of English law re: real & personal estates of deceased persons

            Equitable assets


            Executor’s duties

            Court of  Chancery’s jurisdiction

            Statute of  Distributions of Charles II

            Advancement of children by their father

            Administrator’s duties

            Property vests with administrator

            Statute of mortmain

            Nuncupative wills

            Devises of real estate for payment of debts

            Law of Connecticut regarding executors & administrators

Innkeepers, Bailments (Asa Bacon, 1794) [4 lectures]

            Innkeeper’s duties

            Bailor, bailee, common carrier

            Common bailee


Contracts (Oliver Leicester Phelps, 1794-5) [19 lectures]

            Definition of contracts


            Express contracts

            Neglect in the drawer

            Fraud in contracts

            Concealment of facts

            Impossiblity of performance

            Illegal contracts


            Relief against usurious contracts

            Unlawful contracts

            Executed and executory contracts

            Contracts treated as a mortgage

            Consideration of contracts

            Parole contracts

Evidence (Robert Fairchild, 1794) [9 lectures]

            Testimony to be admitted or rejected

            Testimony of a person assaulted

            Judgments of courts

            Recorded deeds

            Interested persons

            Exclusion of husband and wife as witnesses against each other

            Release of interested persons

            Children as witnesses

            General character of a person

Real Property (Robert Fairchild, 1794.) [7 lectures]

            Definition of real property

            Estates in fee simple

            Passing a fee by devise

            Qualities of an estate tail

            Estates in dower under English law

            Estates of  freehold and inheritance

            Law of New York regarding fee simple

Mortgages (Robert Fairchild, 1794) [10 lectures]

            Definition of mortgage

            Conditions to a mortgage

            Selling real property at public vendue to pay taxes

            Equity of redemption

            Lands descending to the heir

            Decree of foreclosure

            Liens upon the land

            Several mortgagees and ejectment

            Death of purchaser of an equity of redemption

            Dower of equity of redemption

Injuries to real property & their remedies (George Larned, 1795) [8 lectures]

            Trespass, lowest and most common injury

            Trespass upon the crop in emblements

            Trespass ab initio by an officer

            Trespass in statute and common law


            Power of Chancery to restrain waste

            Ejectment; nuisance

            Action of ejectment in Connecticut

Lex Mercatoria or Law Merchant (Robert Fairchild, 1794) [9 lectures]

            Definition of law merchant

            Bills of exchange & promissory notes


            Negotiability of bills of exchange

            Notice for endorsor

            Remedies of the parties

            Policies of insurance

            Double insurance


Pleas & pleading (Asa Bacon, 1794) [9 lectures]

            Jurisdiction of court

            Arrest of judgment

            Death of plaintiff or defendant




            Granting of new trial

            Scire facias

            Writ of prohibition

Personal Actions  (Robert Fairchild, 1794) [11 lectures]


            Special damage stated in declaration

            Pleadings in an action on slander

            Malicious suit


            Declaration in trover


            Trespass vi et armis

            Case of Wilkes; doctrine of search warrants

            Pleading the general issue


Essays written by Tapping Reeve and copied into student notebooks

            On Contracts

                        Eliphalet Dyer 1792 (14 pages)

                        George Larned 1795 (21 pages)

            On Courts of law  & their jurisdiction in Connecticut

                        Eliphalet Dyer 1790 (28 pages)

                        Robert Fairchild 1794 (28 pages)

                        George Larned 1795 (10 pages)

                        Oliver Leicester Phelps 1794-5 (32 pages)

                        Anonymous, Yale B  L71 1794 (42 pages)

            On Descents

                        Robert Fairchild 1794 (32 pages)

                        Thomas Scott Williams  1796 (32 pages)

            On Bills of exchange

                        Robert Fairchild 1794 (8 pages)

            On the liability of infants for their contracts

                        Eliphalet Dyer 1790 (9 pages)

                        Robert Fairchild 1794 (14 pages)

                        Asa Bacon 1794, (10 pages)

            Can a feme covert by the laws of Connecticut devise her real estate

                        Eliphalet Dyer 1791 (18 pages)

            On operation of the terms Heirs and Heirs of his body in a will & other instruments

                        Eliphalet Dyer 1792 (31 pages)

            On Settlements

                        Thomas Scott Williams 1798 (7 pages)


            Comparative view of the differences between the laws of England and those of Connecticut respecting husband & wife, master & servant, parent & child, guardian & ward, bailment, executors & administrators

            These comparisons are found in the notes of Eliphalet Dyer,  Asa Bacon, George Larned, Samuel Andrew Law.