Kent, James (1763-1847)
James Kent (1763-1847)
Jurist and scholar
Training. James Kent’s early years illustrated the development of the elite bar in post-Revolutionary New York that also featured Alexander Hamilton, Aaron Burr, and Edward Livingston. Kent’s father, the son of a Presbyterian minister, was an attorney in Dutchess County, New York, where James was born in 1763. The future jurist entered Yale College in 1777 but did not graduate until 1781 because the Revolutionary War periodically interrupted his studies. During one suspension of classes he read William Blackstone’s Commentaries on the Laws of England (1765–1769); he later recalled that the classic work “inspired me, at the age of fifteen with awe, and I fondly determined to be a lawyer.” After preparing for three years in the Poughkeepsie office of Attorney General Egbert Benson, he was admitted to the New York bar in 1785 and joined a partnership with Gilbert Livingston. Eight years later he moved to New York City.
Federalist Politics. After observing the constitutional convention held in Poughkeepsie in 1788, Kent became an ardent admirer of Alexander Hamilton and John Jay. His subsequent support for the Federalist Party resulted in a brief career in the New York Assembly and a series of important political appointments. In 1793 he was named the first professor of law at Columbia College, a position that he held until 1798. In February 1796 he also assumed the financially rewarding position of master in the Court of Chancery, to which he added one year later an appointment as recorder of the City of New York. He resigned both offices in February 1798 upon his appointment to the New York Supreme Court. Six years later he became the chief judge, and in February 1814 he became chancellor of the state Chancery Court. He participated prominently in the New York constitutional convention of 1821 and vigorously opposed the elimination of property requirements for voters, a reform that Martin Van Buren would make the starting point for the organization of the Jacksonian party system.
Judge. Kent’s service on the bench contributed substantially to the expanded power and prestige of the American judiciary. Through a long-term collaboration with court reporter William Johnson, he systematized the publication of New York judicial decisions. In this form Kent’s opinions were read and followed by judges around the country. He exercised particular influence as chancellor of the state’s equity courts, later recalling that in deciding cases “I saw where justice lay and the moral sense decided the cause half the time, & I then set down to search the authorities until I had exhausted my books, & I might once & a while be embarrassed by a technical rule, but I most always found principles suited to my views of the case.” The jurisdiction of the equity court, which included such crucial economic duties as the supervision of mortgages and corporate charters, gave Kent an opportunity to shape many of the doctrines that had a direct impact on the lives of Americans.
Commentaries on American Law. Because the New York constitution of 1821 required judges to retire at the age of sixty, Kent stepped down from the bench in 1823. Upon moving back from Albany to New York City, he was reappointed to the law professorship at Columbia College that had remained vacant since his resignation a quarter-century earlier. Much like his previous experience of teaching, the lectures he delivered at the school from February 1824 to May 1825 and from October 1825 to April 1826 wearied him and attracted relatively few students. But on the suggestion of his son he undertook to expand the lectures for publication. He published his Commentaries on American Law in four volumes from 1826 to 1830. Dedicated to Johnson, the treatise marked the maturation of American law by presenting a survey worthy of comparison with Blackstone’s Commentaries. Every set of the first edition was sold by December 1830, and Kent saw five subsequent editions through the press before his death. The work remained in print for many years; young Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. prepared the twelfth edition in 1873.
Influence. Kent’s Commentaries divided the law into six parts: the law of nations; constitutional law; municipal law of the states; the rights of persons; the law of personal property; and the law of real property. The work was marked by a lucid prose style and a practical, toughminded approach to legal questions. Discussing a widow’s rights to the property left by her husband, for example, he expressed relief that “in this country, we are, happily, not very liable to be perplexed by such abstruse questions and artificial rules, which have encumbered the subject &in England to a grievous extent.” Kent’s eagerness to rationalize jurisprudence was part of his utilitarian philosophy. He remained a forceful exponent of Hamiltonian principles, eager to use the powers of the state to advance economic growth. He spent his last years mostly in reading and preparing new editions of the Commentaries until his death in 1847.
John Theodore Horton, James Kent: A Study in American Conservatism (New York: Appleton, 1939);
William Kent, Memoir and Letters of James Kent, LL.D. (Boston: Little, Brown, 1898);
Perry Miller, The Life of the Mind in America: from the Revolution to the Civil War (New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1965).
James Kent was a U.S. attorney, judge, and scholar who played a central role in adapting the common law of England into the common law of the United States. As a justice and later chief justice of the New York Supreme Court and a chancellor of the New York Court of Chancery (then the highest judicial officer in New York), Kent wrote many decisions that became foundations of nineteenth-century law. Kent's great legal treatise Commentaries on American Law (1826–30) offered the first comprehensive analysis of U.S. law.
Kent was born July 31, 1763, in Putnam County, New York. In 1777 he entered Yale University. The Revolutionary War periodically disrupted his studies. During one of his forced suspensions, Kent read Sir William Blackstone's Commentaries on the Laws of England (1765–69), which led him to decide on a legal career. Following college he secured a clerkship with the attorney general of New York, and he was admitted to the New York bar in 1785.
Kent began his law practice in Poughkeepsie, New York. In 1790 he was elected to the New York state legislature, where he served three terms. A steadfast Federalist and supporter of the U.S. Constitution, Kent was committed to a strong national government. After losing a congressional race in 1793, he moved to New York City, where he practiced law and served as a professor of law at Columbia University.
Kent became a member of the New York Supreme Court in 1798, and served as chief justice from 1806 to 1814. He is credited with transforming the court into a professional, respected bench. He introduced the practice of issuing written as well as oral opinions, and was instrumental in appointing an official reporter to collect the written opinions into official law reports. Kent believed that such reports were necessary so that past precedents could be read and cited more easily.
"The dignity or independence of our Courts is no more affected by adopting [English judicial precedents], than in adopting the English language."
During his time on the court, Kent addressed the then burning issue of whether English
precedents could claim the authority of law in the United States. Some members of the New York bar felt that the American Revolution would be unfinished until the United States had a body of law of its own, untainted by the laws of its former imperial master.
Kent disagreed. He argued that the predictability of justice was an indispensable requirement for achieving the commercial progress and stable social order sought by the Federalists. He further suggested that citation and the following of precedent were the best means to judicial predictability. Like many Federalists he admired the stability of the English common law and he maintained that it was the best system ever devised to ensure justice and order. Although he did not follow precedent blindly, Kent believed that previous decisions should not be expressly overturned except when absolutely necessary.
Kent was appointed chancellor of the New York Court of Chancery in 1814. This court was a court of equity, which applied rules of fairness, rather than a court of law, which applied common and statutory law to the resolution of disputes. Most of the matters before it involved commercial disputes. As chancellor Kent was empowered to do justice based on the particular facts of each case and the equitable principles that had developed in England. He used his equity powers to effect his sense that commercial bargains ought to be subject to some equitable scrutiny to ensure that unconscionable advantage was not taken.
By law Kent was forced to retire from the bench at age sixty, in 1823. He returned to the private practice of law and was reappointed to a professorship at Columbia. He was consulted by lawyers and judges about legal issues, and gave a series of lectures at Columbia that became, in revised form, the core of his Commentaries. This treatise, which was published in four volumes, was similar to Blackstone's Commentaries in scope but did not follow Blackstone's precisely in form. Kent's Commentaries covered international law, the Constitution and government of the United States, the municipal laws of the states, personal rights, and real and personal property. It quickly became an authoritative and classic example of the U.S. treatise tradition. Five editions were published in
Kent's lifetime, and many more followed in the nineteenth century. The twelfth edition (1873) was edited by oliver wendell holmes, jr.
Kent died December 12, 1847, in New York City.
James Kent (1763-1847), influential American jurist, is best known for his Commentaries on American Law. He was a leading conservative of his time.
James Kent was born on July 3, 1763, at Fredericksburgh, N.Y. His father was a lawyer and farmer. James entered Yale College in 1777 at the age of 14 and graduated 4 years later with honors. After studying law with a prominent Poughkeepsie, N.Y., attorney, he was admitted to the bar in 1785. In April he married Elizabeth Bailey; it was a most happy marriage and they had four children.
Kent thought that the legal profession would "always enable Gentlemen of active Geniuses to attain a decisive Superiority in Government," and his career showed this concept to be valid. From 1785 to 1793 Kent practiced in Poughkeepsie. He served two consecutive terms in the New York Assembly, starting in 1791. He moved to New York City in 1793, and the following year he was appointed Columbia College's first law professor. After an auspicious start, attendance dropped noticeably, and he resigned in the spring of 1797. Kent was elected to another term in the Assembly in 1796. John Jay, governor of New York, appointed him master in chancery in 1796 and recorder of the city in 1797.
In 1798 Kent was made a justice on the New York Supreme Court, the main function of which was appellate. Kent helped adjust the law to contemporary conditions. His rigorous and systematic work habits set a good example for his fellow judges, and he was responsible for adoption of the practice of writing opinions, which in a short time led to published reports in New York. He was promoted to chief justice in 1804 and remained on the court until 1814, when he was appointed chancellor, a position he held until reaching the mandatory retirement age of 60. As chancellor, Kent was largely responsible for the creation of equity jurisdiction in the United States.
By a quirk in the constitution of 1777, Kent and his fellow judges reviewed all bills passed by the legislature. Thus he was part of the governing process for 25 years. Kent and other conservative judges incurred the wrath of the majority of the electorate, culminating in the calling of a constitutional convention in 1821. As a delegate, Kent was one of a small but articulate group that fought unsuccessfully against such changes as a sharp reduction in property requirements for voting. The convention reaffirmed the provision that the judiciary retire at 60 and thus guaranteed Kent's retirement.
After Kent retired, he left Albany, where he had resided since 1798, and returned to New York City. In 1824 he began another series of law lectures at Columbia, based on the immense research that had gone into his judicial opinions. This research also provided the basis for Commentaries on American Law. For the rest of his life he was constantly revising the book and had just completed the sixth edition when he died on Dec. 12, 1847.
William Kent, Memoirs and Letters of James Kent (1898), provides some interesting letters and excerpts from autobiographical sketches. John Theodore Horton, James Kent: A Study in Conservatism, 1763-1847 (1939), successfully relates Kent's work and thought to his environment. □
Kent, James, English organist and composer; b. Winchester, March 13, 1700; d. there, May 6, 1776. He was a chorister at Winchester Cathedral and in the Chapel Royal. He was organist of Trinity Coll., Cambridge (1731–37), then of Winchester Cathedral and Coll. (1738–74). He publ. Twelve Anthems (1773). J. Corfe ed. A Morning and Evening Service with Eight Anthems (c. 1777).
—Nicolas Slonimsky/Laura Kuhn/Dennis McIntire