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. □