Sometimes it’s really hard to know what to make of historic evidence. I recently retrieved a copy of Zephaniah Swift’s A System of the Laws of the State of Connecticut printed in 1795 for a researcher. Institutional records indicate the book belonged to Tapping Reeve. It was donated by the Woodruff family, and they had owned his home for a number of years. The front and back matter of the book show all kinds of doodles, indicating that it was Tapping Reeve’s book. A document titled “Rules of the Office” from the law school indicates that this book was on the list of “privileged” volumes, meaning that students were allowed to borrow them.
It seems a little strange that a student would write in a book that did not belong to him, but the above inscription appears in the center of the book. Tapping Reeve did have a student named James Cooley in 1799, and he was from East Granville, MA. You can learn more about him in The Ledger.
A number of other doodles seem inconsistent with what we know of Tapping Reeve.
According to the researcher who was looking at the volume, Swift visited Tallyrand in 1799, and this could be some commentary on that visit. That Reeve would draw such an unflattering image in a book he was lending seems unlikely, but it’s fun to consider the possibility. Two other writings seem very unlike him.
This page reads, “The great, The illustrious, the magnanimous, Tapping Reeve.”
And this, attributed to the author, reads, “To the illustrious, omnipotentis, and superabominable dignity of his classic and original excellency the Author Z. Swift.” Both Reeve and Swift were jurists and ardent federalists. Whether or not any animosity existed between them is unknown. What this book tells us for sure is that someone in 1799 had a sense of humor, even if they didn’t entirely explain the joke.