William Kent.

Memoirs and letters of James Kent online

. (page 1 of 24)
Online LibraryWilliam KentMemoirs and letters of James Kent → online text (page 1 of 24)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook






2-^ ^/c-fs-


AT LOS angele;











Hate CljancEllor of tfte State of Neiu iorft.





\ \




Copyright, 1S98,
By Little, Brown, and Company.

All rights reserved.

SEnibcrsitg ^ress :
JonN Wilson and Son, Cambridge, U.S.A.









STfjia iScmoir of %n Jatijcr,




ONE of the peculiarities of letters, as a form of
literature, is that the writer cannot superintend
their publication ; and the duty which therefore falls
upon a literary executor is complex.

It should be his aim to present to the reader a
concise, true, and attractive selection from the mate-
rial at hand, yet at the same time neither to dwarf
nor magnify his subject out of true proportion.

Light and shadow, as they inevitably come into the
life of every man, are necessary to give true perspec-
tive, and, as Mr. Froude has said, " the sharpest scru-
tiny is the condition of enduring fame."

To this end has this Memoir been written, in which
there has been nothing to hide, nothing to extenuate.

It has been the Editor's aim to tell the simple story
of the life of this painstaking, industrious, and con-
scientious student, in his own words ; and the narra-
tive is chiefly interesting as we note the method by
which he became the embodiment of such a vast
store of legal erudition.

The fire of the Revolution had burned fiercely,
destroying the traditions, institutions, and usages
which the colonists had transplanted from the mother

To James Kent came the duty of reconstruction;
and at this day, fifty years after his death, it can be



truly said that it is due to his life's work, more than
to that of any other man, that the United States,
from ocean to ocean, is controlled by the same sys-
tem of jurisprudence, founded upon those principles
of law and equity which he enunciated.

Early in his professional career he grasped the
thought that he was free to reconstruct, with no one
to controvert; and from the writings of the great
sages and civilians of antiquity, he enriched, beauti-
fied, and enlarged the commercial laws of his coun-
try, and dignified for all time the profession to which
he belonged.

Much of the material for this Memoir was col-
lected by Judge William Kent shortly after the death
of his father.

It is much to be regretted that he could not carry
out his intention to write a biography; the failure to
do which was largely caused by the weakening effect
of disease, which brought about his death a few years

The assistance of Mr, Edmund J, Carpenter, of
Boston, in preparing this book for the press in its
present form, is thankfully acknowledged, and the
work submitted to the indulgence of the public. The
frontispiece is from the portrait by Rembrandt Peale,
painted in 1843, and in the possession of the family
at Tuxedo Park.

Tuxedo, N. Y., January, 1S98.


Chapter Page

I. Kent's Boyhood, College Life at New
Haven, and Admission to the Bar, 1763-
1793 I

11. Early Professional Life in New York;
HIS Intimacy with Alexander Hamil-
ton, AND Professorship at Columbia
College, i 793-1804 29

in. The Letters of John Adams in relation


Lecture, and the Beginning of his Offi-
cial Career, 1793- 1796 60

IV. Election to the Assembly from New York
City, and Appointment to the Office of
Recorder, i 796-1 798 82

V. Career upon the Bench as Judge and
Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of
New York, 1798-1807 108

VI. Reading and Studies, 1799-1807 139

VII. His Life as Chancellor, 1814-1823 ... 157

VIII. At the age of Sixty-three Chancellor
Kent begins the preparation of his
Commentaries; his Correspondence with
Webster and Everett, i 823-1 846. . . . 189


Chapter Page

IX. Address at the Dinner to Washington
Irving, 1S32; Notes on Books and Authors,
1 790-1847 227

X. Retirement from Public Life, and Last

Years, 1839-1847 257

APPENDIX. Chancellor Kent's Memories of

Alexander Hamilton 279


Memoirs of Chancellor Kent


JAMES KENT, LL.D., Chancellor of the State of
New York, and the author of " Kent's Commenta-
ries on American Law," was of pure New England
descent. His father, Moss Kent, a lawyer in Dutchess

— now Putnam — County, was the son of the Rev,
Elisha Kent, D, D., a graduate of Yale College, and
himself the great-grandson of Thomas Kent, a resi-
dent of Gloucester, Massachusetts, in 1644.

On the distaff side, his grandfather was the cele-
brated Dr. Uriah Rogers, of Norwalk, Connecticut,

— Mr. Kent deriving his lineage through the Moss,
Russell, Dudley, and other sturdy New England stock,
for the most part substantial farmers, with a strong
infusion of Presbyterian clergymen.

The Rev. EHsha Kent, D. D., was one of the
Presbyterian clergymen of the olden days. Gradu-
ated at Yale College in 1728, he studied divinity, and
for several years preached at Newtown, Connecticut.
Comparatively early in life he removed to the pre-
cinct of Fredericksburgh, — now the town of South
East, — Dutchess County, New York, where he was
settled for many years over a parish still — or until



recently — known as "Kent's Parish." Dr. Kent died
in the y^aV.'-i 776',', at- tlie iige of seventy-tAvo years.

Rev.. jEljsb^ .Kept Hve'd jn the quiet discharge of
his p'asicjfal'dfiitifcs'iiji. Jh-^.secUided valley of the Cro-
ton for many years, and during his life had the hap-
piness of having his children prosperously settled
around him. His son, Moss Kent, the father of the
Chancellor, was graduated at Yale College in 1752.
He studied law for some time in Norwalk, Connect-
icut, under Lieutenant-Governor Fitch, and subse-
quently at Poughkeepsie, in the State of New York,
under Mr. Cranny. He was married in 1760, and
established himself, partly as a lawyer and partly as
a farmer, in the neighborhood of his father and in
the precinct of Fredericksburgh. Within a very few
miles were settled his three sisters. One of them,
Sybil, was married to Mr. John Kane, an Irish
Protestant, who was the progenitor of the wide-
spread and distinguished family in the State of New
York, of which family Dr. Elisha Kent Kane, the
famous leader of the Grinnell Arctic expeditions in
search of Sir John Franklin, was a member. A
second sister, Lucy, was married to Mr. Cullen, a
Scotchman; a third sister was married to Mr. Mal-
colm Morrison, also a native of Scotland ; and a
fourth sister was the wife of Mr. Alexander Grant, a
lieutenant in the 42d Highland Regiment, who per-
ished with his family in a shipwreck on the coast of
Nova Scotia.

Here the old minister held unbounded sway, visit-
ing his children and guiding his parishioners. His
grandson so well remembered the rigidness of the


Puritan regimen that it seems to have inspired him
through life with a strong distaste of the severity and
asceticism of the sect, while he rivalled in every rela-
tion of life the purity of its morals. Yet his grand-
father, though a man severe and stern to view, seems
to have had mingled with his professional strictness
a strong dash of humor. His grandson used to tell
one or two anecdotes illustrative of this feature of
his character. On one occasion, while pacing on
horseback the roads of his parish, he saw a collec-
tion at a farm-house of young men and girls quite
symptomatic of a dancing party, — for even in 1760,
and in this secluded Presbyterian valley, this fas-
cinating temptation was not unknown. The old gen-
tleman immediately fastened his horse among the
pillioned and saddled steeds of the company, and
presented himself to the circle of young folks, to
whom his vdiite wig and portly presence were never
more unwelcome. Yet he was received with great
respect, and assiduously furnished with a chair, and
his pipe was officiously filled and lighted. After
smoking he smiled complacently upon the assembly,
and, observing such a fine assembly of young people,
proposed a hymn. A good long one was sung
with melancholy cadence. After a little while the
old gentleman condescended to smoke another pipe,
and, that furnished, he set another hymn; and he
continued smoking and singing till one young settler
after another stole away with his horse, taking
his sweetheart behind him on the pillion, and the
evil spirit of the dance was effectually exorcised.
The old minister then took his leave of the family,


with a grave congratulation on the pleasant and prof-
itable evening which had been passed. He died, as
has been mentioned, in 1776, happily before the
utter dispersion of his children by the War of Inde-
pendence. The actual presence of the enemy was
seen but httle in the valley of the Upper Croton, but
the entire breaking up and permanent separation of
the near relatives, whose names have been mentioned,
is a striking exhibition of the wide-spread conse-
quences and effects of civil war.

The tender age of James Kent would have pre-
vented, even if his inclinations had pointed in that
direction, his personal participation in the War of
Independence. He frequently stated to his children
that he vividly remembered the outbreak of the
War and the Declaration of Independence, which
was signed when he was thirteen years of age ; and
he used to recount many incidents of the times, the
most striking of which was a slight adventure which
happened to him when the British made their attack
on Danbury in 1777. On this occasion the future
Chancellor was for the first and only time under fire.

The English troops landed in the neighborhood
of Saugatuck and advanced on Greenfarms in force.
Brigadier-General Gold F. Silliman, then a colonel
(the grandfather of Benjamin D. Silliman, of New
York), collecting the militia, hurried to Greenfarms
to check the advance. Young Kent, noting the ex-
citement of the villagers as the militia was gathering,
followed the troops as they marched out to oppose
the attack. The posse occupied the highway a little
in advance of a fork of the road, at which point was


standing a school or meeting house, having a chimney-
on the side facing the main highway. A barricade of
fence-rails had been hastily thrown across the road
and preparations were made to dispute the passage.

Young Kent, eager to see what was going on,
climbed to the roof of the house, and, edging his
w^ay along the ridgepole, ensconced himself behind
the wide chimney, in a place of comparative safety,
and from which he could watch the proceedings
below. His interest in the matter did not last loner,
however. The attacking party, having unlimbered a
small field-piece, fired a round shot at the barricade,
which, flying high, struck the chimney, behind which
Kent was sitting, with considerable force. Naturally
thinking that he had been discovered, and that the
British were firing directly at him, he deemed pru-
dence the better part, and scrambling down from his
perch made his way back to his father's farm. Many
years afterward, when on a visit to this locality, he
pointed out the building, which was still standing,
behind the chimney of which he had hidden during
this encounter.

It must be remembered that when Kent came to
early manhood, the war had drifted into the Southern
States, except for occasional raids along the north
shore of Long Island Sound. It is doubtful if his
instincts would have led him to embrace the calling
of a soldier, except at the stern demand of duty to
his country; still, we find his commission, dated Octo-
ber 24, 1786, signed by George Clinton, whereby he
was appointed Paymaster No. i of a militia regiment
of Dutchess County, of which Elias van Banschoter,


Esquire, was lieutenant-colonel commander; and
Kent duly qualified for and acted in his appointed
place. Later in life he followed with deep interest
the progress of the great wars in Europe, and numer-
ous manuscript volumes testify to his interest and
devotion to the subject.

Shortly after his elevation to the Supreme Court
Bench, Judge Kent prepared a series of memoranda
of his life and experiences, in which he gave a very
clear idea of the methods of study which were the
means by which he gained success in life. He speaks
but briefly of his family, simply noting that his grand-
father " was distinguished for a strong and lively mind,
and for wit and humor and a talent to command," and
speaking in equally affectionate terms of his father.
He notes his father's marriage to his mother, Miss
Hannah Rogers, the eldest daughter of Dr. Uriah
Rogers, of Norwalk, Connecticut, and states that " he
lived in great conjugal felicity, for she was a woman
of great prudence and discretion, until her death, the
30th Dec'r, 1 770." The latter portion of the father's
life was marked by vicissitudes. His property was
several times devastated and plundered during the
War of the Revolution by British troops and Tories.
He imprudently sold his farm, the proceeds of which
sale, being invested in the colonial currency of the
day, were lost or greatly reduced by depreciation.
Later in life he was disabled and finally rendered
totally helpless by repeated strokes of palsy, and
died at the home of his son, in the city of New York,
February 4, 1794, at the age of sixty-one years.
Mr. Kent, in the memoranda to which allusion has


been made, records some of his recollections of early
childhood. After fixing the date of his birth as July
31, 1763, in the precinct of Fredericksburgh, in the
county of Dutchess, New York, he continues : —

" After I had begun to read (and I well recollect
the first evening that I essayed to read in the spelling-
book the paragraph, ' Hold fast in the Lord,' etc., and
what joy I gave to my mother), I was sent to Nor-
walk to school about the age of five years, and here I
lived with my grandfather Rogers till the spring of
1772, and passed nearly four years at an English
School, and in innocent and youthful sports. The
government of my grandfather was pretty strict, and
his family, after the manner of the day, was orderly,
quiet, and religious. On the 28th of July, 1772, I
went to study under Mr. Kalna, at my Uncle Kane's
in Pawling Precinct, and here I commenced the study
of Cordery and the Latin tongue. I remained here
until April, 1773, and then was sent to Danbury to
a Latin School under the Rev'd Ebenezer Baldwin,
a very respectable scholar, and a worthy and dis-
tinguished preacher.

"Such was the progress of the first ten years of
my life ; and I well recollect I was then as fond of
activity and play as other boys, yet I had discovered
an aptitude to learn, and an emulation to understand
my lesson well. At Danbury I remained under Mr.
Baldwin till his death in Sept'r or October, 1776, and
had read Eutropius, Justin, and Cornelius Nepos and
Virgil, and had made progress in Latin exercises. I
boarded in Danbury at the house of Deacon Knapp,
a worthy, pious, illiterate farmer, whom I used to


revere as a grandfather. After the death of Mr. Bald-
win I continued my studies under Mr. Ebenezer White,
at Danbury, Mr. Ross, at Stratfield, and again with
Mr. White at Newtown, until I entered New Haven
College, September, 1777.

" During this continual residence abroad, the sea-
sons with me of unbounded transport and romantic
felicity were my periodical visits at home, at my father's
house, either at Fredericksburg or at Compo, in Fair-
field. Nothing could equal the delightful pleasures
of such periods, when I was freed from restraints and
books and tasks, and could roam with my brother
from one juvenile play or amusement to another, in
rapid activity. Perhaps these incidents of life are not
so much noticed as they ought to be, but I can from
experience declare that these home visits were the
most joyful, and my returns from thence to my
studies, for a little while, the most distressing periods
of my youthful life. And this passion for home lasted
till I left for college ; then the impression grew fainter,
and my return (to college at least) ceased to be pain-
ful and grew to be pleasant.

" My four years' residence at New Haven College
were distinguished by nothing material in the memo-
randa of my life. I had the reputation of being quick
to learn, and of being industrious and full of emula-
tion. I surpassed most of my class in historical and
belles-lettres learning, and was full of youthful vivac-
ity and ardor ; I was amazingly regular, decorous, and
industrious, and, in my last year, received a large
share of the esteem and approbation of the Presi-
dent and tutors. I left New Haven September, 1781,


clothed with college honors, and a very promising

James Kent was graduated September 22, 1781,
with the degree of Bachelor of Arts. Sixty-seven
years later, in February, 1848, one of his classmates,
Mr. Simeon Baldwin, in a letter addressed to Hon. Wil-
liam Kent, the son of the Chancellor, supplied an
admirable and interesting account of the Chancellor's
college life, which he himself, in his " memoranda,"
dismissed with such brief description. Says Mr.
Baldwin : —

" I was introduced to James Kent on the first Mon-
day in May, 1773, at Danbury. He had that day
come to town, to go to school to my brother, the
Rev'd Mr. Baldwin, the clergyman of the parish, who
had opened a school for a few boys, to fit them for
college. Danbury was then quite an isolated coun-
try town (N. B. On a vague rumor of the Bunker
Hill battle I was sent an express to New Milford,
sixteen miles, to obtain a newspaper containing the
particulars), its inhabitants plain in their manners,
and Deacon Knapp and his wife, with whom he was
placed to board, like most of the people, were Puritans
of the old school. [After the death of Mr. Baldwin,
Danbury was made a military depot; the consequent
intercourse with the army materially changed the
habits and manners of the inhabitants.] He was then
about ten years of age, the youngest of the school, a
friendly, social, innocently playful boy, beloved by
all who knew little Jimmy Kent, as he was familiarly
called. He was studious and attentive to all the rules
of the school, and a good scholar in all the branches


taught. He became a favorite of his instructor, and,
guided by his influence, and the guardian care of the
worthy family where he hved, I do not recollect that
his conduct ever required reprimand or censure. He
continued in that school until the death of Mr. Bald-
win on the 5th of October, 1776.

" We were then separated one year, and met as
freshmen of Yale College in 1777. Our class was
small, consisting of young men grown up, most of
them much older than either of us. He, I think, was
the youngest in the class, but was better fitted for his
standing than most of them. While we were mem-
bers of college the students were often dispersed and
their studies interrupted in consequence of the war,
but he still kept his standing in the class, and, to say
the least, in all the classical studies, he ranked among
the best. In history, in the belles-lettres studies,
and in reading generally, he excelled them all. His
attention to what he read was strict, and his memory
was uncommonly retentive. It was the common re-
mark of his companions that they could generally tell
the author he last read, by the style and matter of his
next composition.

" He wrote his compositions with great care, and
in a pleasing, flowing style. But the rapid flow of
his ideas often embarrassed him in public speaking,
whether extempore or memoriter. When prepar-
ing for public speaking, he has often requested me
to hear him rehearse, and, by signal, to check him
when speaking too rapidly, as he generally would,
without knowing it, when he felt the spirit of the
subject. On these occasions, when often checked, I


have known him to sit down and weep ; but he would
try again and again, and by repeated trials, did learn,
in a great measure, to regulate the rapidity of his
speech, which, without attention, would, at times, be

" He left college universally beloved by his class
and ranked as a scholar among the first. During
President Stiles' administration, the Bachelors had a
public exhibition connected with the examination for
their degrees in July. Their cliosophic and valedictory
orations were then pronounced, and the class dismissed
till Commencement, when the Bachelors occupied the
forenoon, and the valedictory by the Masters closed
the exercises of the day. From the year 1798, the
valedictory of the Bachelors has been transferred to
Commencement, and the Masters do not now take part
in the exercises of Commencement. I find by Presi-
dent Stiles' diary that at the July examination of our
class, Kent had the most honorable appointment;
namely, the cliosophic oration, for which, from his
extensive reading, he was the best qualified of any
in the class. Gridley had the valedictory in Latin.
There was also a dispute and a dialogue. At Com-
mencement, Baldwin had the salutatory oration in
Latin ; Perkins, oration in Greek on Greek Litera-
ture ; Hinckley, oration in English. There was a
dispute on the question whether the modern sur-
passes the ancient literature, in which Gridley and
Kent maintained the affirmative, and Channing and
Stebbins the negative. These, with sundry syllogistic
disputes, occupied the forenoon. In the afternoon
the Masters exhibited a poem by Barlow, orations by


Webster and Wolcott, and the valedictory by Tutor

"When we took our degree as Masters (in 1784),
Kent was appointed to dehver an oration. He ac-
cepted the appointment, but was prevented from
attending, and sent an apology to the President.
Baldwin also delivered an oration in English, and
Channing delivered the valedictory. No others of
the class took part in the exercises. It will be re-
membered we were in college during part of the
Revolutionary War, and all the classes were for a
time convened for safety in separate country towns,
in the centre of the State. James Kent and myself
joined the class in Glastenbury, under the care of
Professor Strong as tutor, and continued together un-
til the January vacation ; were then dismissed, and
not called together again until June of the next year.
We then met at New Haven and Doctor Stiles was
inaugurated President. Mr. Atwater was appointed
tutor of our class, — a meek, modest, unassuming
man, a good scholar in the languages taught, a
preacher by profession, not much of an orator or
belles-lettres scholar, but peculiarly affectionate, kind,
and conscientiously devoted to the faithful discharge
of his official duties. We continued under his faithful
care and instruction till we became seniors. The
President then became our instructor.

"On the 5th of July, 1779, the British troops took
possession of New Haven, and the students were
again scattered. They were not called to return till
the end of the fall vacation, about ist of November
following. The winter of 1779-80 was severe, and


the quantity of snow from successive and continued
storms was seldom, if ever, equalled ; in consequence
of which the steward of college informed the Presi-
dent that he could no longer furnish commons for
the students. College was of course dismissed, a fort-
night before the usual January vacation, and did not
convene again until the next summer. Our class were
then juniors. From that time we pursued our studies
without further interruption ; but it will be perceived
that a large portion of valuable term time was lost by
those various interruptions ; and when together, our
means of instruction and of obtaining information
were very much limited, — the college library then
consisting of little more than three thousand volumes,
most of them valuable for their antiquity and much

Online LibraryWilliam KentMemoirs and letters of James Kent → online text (page 1 of 24)