Tapping Reeve, Coverture, and America's First Legal Treatise
13 Pages Posted: 18 Jan 2011 Last revised: 7 Sep 2011
Date Written: January 18, 2011
In his 1816 treatise, The Law of Baron and Wife, Tapping Reeve of Litchfield Law School fame, rejected the Blackstone/Coke maxim that a husband and wife were one person in law. This paper explains how Reeve used his book, his students, and his role as a judge to work against the principle of marital unity, for instance, causing his students to pass a statute in empowering married women to make wills. Reeve’s behavior was typical of ‘Fading Federalists,’ who losing their power in the political realm, turned to law book writing and law teaching in order to continue to press their influence. Reeve’s reasons for rejecting the one-person-in-law maxim are connected to his religion, his own marriage, and conditions that were unique to Connecticut during this period. This localism is ironic as Reeve maintained that his account was a description of English law and not anything specific to Connecticut. It is this pretense to the non-local, not avoided by his rival Zephaniah Swift, that made Reeve fit to be honored in later line-ups like Roscoe Pound’s celebration of the American ‘taught law’ textbook tradition. However, it is important to see that Reeve invoked English law as a way to challenge and contradict it, creating in effect a version of English law for America that no English lawyer would agree with. The strategy in the book was to invoke the authority of the common law while simultaneously challenging and re-creating it. What this paper shows is that the version of American common law the treatise put forward was tied very much to local conditions despite what it formally claimed and disclaimed.
Keywords: Legal History, Married Women's Property Rights, Coverture, Marital Unity, Legal Treatise, Tapping Reeve, Litchfield Law School, Zephaniah Swift
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