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Kent, James (author)

Born: 1763-07-31 Dutchess County, New York

Died: 1847-12-12 New York, New York

Flourished: New York, New York

James Kent was an American jurist and legal scholar. He received his early education at various boarding schools, most notably Ebenezer Baldwin's school at Danbury, Connecticut. In 1777, he enrolled at Yale College, graduating in 1781. He read law in Poughkeepsie, New York, in preparation for the New York bar. He received admittance to the bar in January 1785. After failing in a solo law practice in Frederickburgh, New York, Kent became the junior partner of Gilbert Livingston in Poughkeepie. He married Elizabeth Bailey, with whom he had four children. Kent became a staunch supporter of Alexander Hamilton and the new federal constitution, eventually gravitating to the Federalist Party. In 1790 and 1792, he won election as a Federalist to the New York State Assembly. The growing Anti-Federalist and Republican sentiment in Poughkeepsie and what Kent viewed as an unequal partnership with Livingston prompted Kent to move to New York City in April 1793. In December 1793, Columbia College appointed him to the new position as professor of law, which continued until 1795. Kent served as master of chancery for New York City in 1796, and as recorder in 1797. In 1798, he received appointment as associate (puisne) justice of the New York Supreme Court. Among the innovations Kent brought to the court were written opinions and published reports. Kent's reports, completed in collaboration with friend and reporter William Johnson, became a model for similar volumes around the country. Kent remained an associate justice until 1804, when he was elevated to chief justice. In 1814, Kent became chancellor, using his position on the equity court in making English equity law applicable to America--a part of his larger objective to transplant English common law, with its emphasis on precedents and judge-made law--to America. Kent remained chancellor until he reached the mandatory retirement age of sixty in 1823. In 1821, he was a delegate to the New York State constitutional convention, where he opposed universal suffrage and other reforms, becoming the voice of conservatism. Denied the ability to extend his tenure as chancellor by the convention, Kent returned to Columbia, where his lectures in 1824-25 became the basis for his Commentaries on American Law, which would go through fourteen editions throughout the rest of the nineteenth century. In his Commentaries, Kent combined the practical and theoretical in approaching the law, giving judges and the legal profession considerable power interpreting and crafting law. Income derived from the Commentaries allowed Kent a comfortable retirement.

Donald M. Roper, "Kent, James," American National Biography, ed. by John A. Garraty and Mark C. Carnes (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999), 12:596-99.