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Appleton's Cyclopedia of American Biography, edited by James Grant Wilson, John Fiske and Stanley L. Klos. Six volumes, New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1887-1889 and 1999. Virtualology.com warns that these 19th Century biographies contain errors and bias. We rely on volunteers to edit the historic biographies on a continual basis. If you would like to edit this biography please submit a rewritten biography in text form . If acceptable, the new biography will be published above the 19th Century Appleton's Cyclopedia Biography citing the volunteer editor





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James Kent

KENT, James, jurist, born in Putnam county, New York, 31 July, 1763; died in New York city, 12 December, 1847. His grandfather, Elisha, was graduated at Yale in 1729, became the pastor of the Presbyterian church at Philippi, New York, in 1740, and died there in 1776, and his father, Moss, was graduated at Yale in 1752, became a lawyer, was surrogate of Rensselaer county, and died in 1794. James was graduated at Yale in 1781, where he was one of the founders of the Phi Beta Kappa society in 1780, studied law with Egbert Ben-son, was admitted to practice as an attorney in 1785 and as a counsellor in 1787, and settled in Poughkeepsic, New York he had been attracted to the study of the law by reading Blackstone at the age of sixteen. Not satisfied with the limited classical acquirements obtained at college, he adopted at the beginning of his professional life a plan of daily study, which he followed until he was elevated to the supreme bench. Rising early in the morning, he devoted two hours to Latin and two to Greek before breakfast. After the conclusion of his labors for the day he was accustomed to read French works for two hours, and, when not socially engaged, devoted his evenings to English writers. He was elected to the legislature in 1790 and 1792, but was defeated as the Federalist candidate for congress in 1793. He had already achieved a high reputation for legal learning, and on removing to New York city was appointed professor of law at Columbia college, which post he held till 1798. His attention was called to the writers on civil law of continental Europe by Alexander Hamilton, whose acquaintance he had made during the struggle over the adoption of the Federal constitution in New York state. Reading the works of Pothier, Emerigon, and other French jurists, he became imbued with the principles of the civil law. He began his lectures in November, 1794. The "Introductory" was published by the trustees of the college, and three preliminary dissertations, discussing the constitutional history of the United States and important principles of the law of nations, were issued by him in a volume (1797). In 1796 Governor Jay, whose friendship he had won when a, member of the legislature by his course during the election dispute in 1792 between Jay and George Clinton, appointed him one of the two masters in chancery, and in the same year he was returned to the legislature from New York city. In an anniversary address before the State society for the promotion of agriculture, arts, and manufactures in 1796, he displayed an enlightened appreciation of the material needs and capabilities of the country. In 1797 he was appointed recorder of New York city, an officer at that time exercising civil jurisdiction, and Governor Jay nominated him in 1'798 as one of the justices of the supreme court. On becoming a judge he returned to Poughkeepsie, but in 1798 removed to Albany, where he continued to reside while he was on the bench. In 1802 he was joint editor of a collection of the " Revised Statutes of the State of New York." On 2 July, 1804, he became chief justice of the supreme court. He originated the custom of presenting a written argumentative opinion, with the citation of legal authorities, in all cases of importance. The law was at that time in an inchoate condition, and the courts depended for precedents on English decisions, and followed the procedure of the English tribunals. Judge Kent applied himself to the task of determining the unsettled principles of the law. In defining the limitations of the English common law as applicable to the United States, in the interpretation of constitutional provisions and the construction of recent statutes, in settling the forms of judicial procedure and the principles of practice, and in evolving principles of commercial law to fit the changing conditions of commerce and production and the needs of a young and growing nation, he did as much as any other jurist to give shape and direction to the evolution of American jurisprudence. To questions of commercial and maritime law and the interpretation of contract obligations he brought the light of his reading of the civil law and its commentators. His written opinions contain the results of exhaustive researches on every mooted point. His decisions are fully recorded in the " Reports" of George Caines (New York, 1813), and William Johnson's" Reports of Cases in the Supreme Court and Court of Errors of New York from 1806 to 1823." On 25 February, 1814, he was appointed chancellor of New York. The court of chancery previous to his accession had been shunned by lawyers and litigants on account of its dilatory proceedings and circuitous and expensive forms of practice. Chancellor Kent enlarged and improved the court, and by expounding and applying the doctrines of chancery, which before had not been adequately administered, laid the foundations of equity jurisprudence in the United States. His chancery decisions are given in Johnson's "Reports of Cases in the Court of Chancery of New York from 1814 to 1823." At the age of sixty, though possessed of the fullest degree of physical and mental vigor, he was retired in conformity with a statute that was afterward repealed. As judge of the supreme court and as chancellor he had important legislative as well as judicial duties to perform. The higher judiciary constituted with the governor a council of revision, possessing a qualified veto on acts of the legislature, until the council was abolished, with the acquiescence of the judges, by the constitutional convention of 1822. He was active and efficient in the discharge of these political functions. In the discussions of the constitutional convention he took an active part, opposing without success the extension of the electoral franchise and other democratic innovations, but succeeding in the prevention of the proposed abolition of the court of chancery. His name was warmly urged by William Wirt, then attorney-general, for an appointment to a vacancy in the United States supreme court, but President Monroe had already selected Smith Thompson. Returning to New York city, he resumed the professorship of law in Columbia college. A "Summary of the First Ten Lectures" was published in 1824. The courses of lectures delivered to the classes during two years were embodied in his "Commentaries on American Law" (4 vols., New York, 1826-'30), which embraces the jurisprudence of the Federal Union, the common and statutory laws of the individual states, and the leading principles of international law. It has since served as the standard general treatise on law in the United States. Retiring from the active duties of his professorship in 1825, he gave his attention to revising and elaborating his work, and to chamber practice and the decision of legal controversies that were submitted to his judgment. In 1828 he delivered an anniversary address before the New York historical society, of which he had been chosen president, and in 1831 one before the Phi Beta Kappa society at Yale college. A second edition of the "Commentaries." with many changes and additions, appeared in 1832. The sixth edition, which was the last one revised by the author, appeared shortly before his death. Part of the " Commentaries" was republished in Edinburgh under the title of "A Treatise on Commercial and Maritime Law" (1837). J. Eastman Johnson published an '" Analytical Abridgment of Kent's Commentaries" (New York, 1840). The seventh (1852), eighth (1854), ninth (Boston, 1858), and tenth (1860) editions of the "Commentaries" were edited by William Kent and his friend Dot-man B. Eaton, the eleventh edition (Boston, 1866) by George F. Comstock, the twelfth (1873) by Oliver W. Holmes, Jr., the thirteenth by Charles M. Barnes (1884). This work, which was designated by Judge Story as the first judicial classic of the United States, is as lucid, terse, and pure in style as the "Commentaries" of Blackstone, and resembles them in logical exactness of expression and cogency of reasoning; yet in breadth of scholarship and copiousness of learning the American jurist was superior to his English predecessor, drawing illustrations, parallels, and arguments from the Roman law and the jurisprudence of continental nations, and discussing subjects which Blackstone was unable from lack of knowledge to include in his work, such as commercial and maritime law, the law of nations, and equity jurisprudence. In 1836 Judge Kent prepared and published at the instance of the common council of the city a compendious treatise " On the Charter of the City of New York and on the Powers of the Mayor, Aldermen, and other Municipal Officers" (reissued in 1856). The same year he delivered an address before the New York bar association. In 1840 he prepared for the benefit of the Mercantile library association of New York a "Course of Reading," which, with additions and changes made by Charles King, was republished by Henry A. Oakley in 1853. After his death eulogistic orations were pronounced at a meeting of the bar of New York by Ogden Hoffman, Benjamin P. Butler, and others. See a "Discourse on the Life, Character, and Public Services of James Kent," by Judge John Duer (New York, 1848).--His brother, Moss, born in Rensselaer county, New York, studied law, and began practice in Le Raysville, Jefferson County, New York He was a member of the state legislature in 1807 and 1810, and was elected to congress as a Federalist, and re-elected for the following term, serving from 24 May, 1813, to 3 March, 1817. He was subsequently register of the New York court of chancery.--William, jurist, the son of James, born in 1802; died in Fishkill, New York, 4 January, 1861, studied law, and practised with success in New York city. Governor Seward appointed him a judge of the circuit court of New York, but after serving some years he resigned in 1846 in order to accept the professorship of law in Harvard. Resigning in 1847, he returned to New York, where he was frequently employed as a referee.

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