James Rent, an American jurist, born in Philippi, Putnam co., N. Y., July 31, 1763, died in New York, Dec. 12, 1847. His grandfather, the Rev. Elisha Kent, whose family was early established at Suffolk, Conn., became in 1740 the Presbyterian clergyman of Philippi. His father, Moss Kent, Esq., was a lawyer, and for some years surrogate of Rensselaer co. James Kent graduated at Yale college in 1781, studied law, was admitted in 1785 as an attorney, and in 1787 as a counsellor, and commenced the practice of his profession in Pough-keepsie. He soon became remarkable among his contemporaries for his legal learning and literary attainments. He was elected successively in 1790 and 1792 a member of the legislature for Dutchess co. The country was then excited by political discussions, arising from the adoption of the federal constitution, and Mr. Kent became an active and leading federalist, attracting the notice and confidence of Hamilton and Jay. It was by Hamilton's counsel that the reading of the young lawyer was directed to the doctrines of the civil law, and the treatises of the jurists of continental Europe; and thus he acquired the deep knowledge of the works of Pothier, Emerigon, and other civilians, which is to be traced throughout his own writings.
In 1793 he was an unsuccessful candidate for a seat in congress for Dutchess co., and in the same year removed to New York, and was appointed by Gov. Jay one of the two masters in chancery for that city. In 1796 he was elected a member of the legislature, and also professor of law in Columbia college. Three of his lectures in the latter capacity, forming together an introduction to his general course, were published in 1797, and attracted the favorable notice of the legal profession. In 1797 he was appointed recorder of the city, an officer then administering a court of civil jurisdiction; and the extraordinary ability he exhibited in the office induced Gov. Jay in 1798 to nominate him a judge of the supreme court of the state. He continued a member of this tribunal till 1814, having been from 1804 chief justice. The supreme court at that time was formed after the model of the English king's bench, being composed of five judges, who rode the circuits to try jury cases, and convened during the year at four appointed terms to decide reserved questions of law. Both the court and the law itself were in a rudimental state. There were no American law books, and no reports of American decisions, except those of Mr. Dallas, which were just commenced.
The proceedings of the court were languid and dilatory; and resort was had for rules of procedure and principles of law almost exclusively to English precedents and decisions. The accession to the bench of a young, energetic, and able judge produced a striking change. It was the difficult task of the court to expound the principles of the common law as applicable to American institutions; to define and limit our new constitutional provisions; to construe recent statutes; to bring the principles of commercial law to bear upon transactions of trade and commerce; to devise rules of practice; and in short to adapt to a young and rising nation a complicated yet practical code of laws. That this work was well accomplished, and that a large portion of its success must be attributed to the unremitting energy and talent of the chief justice, will appear from the reports of Mr. Parsons, and the 14 volumes, entitled "Johnson's Cases" and "Johnson's Reports," of the decisions of the supreme court during the time of Mr. Justice Kent. By the constitution of New York as it then existed an important political duty was imposed on the judiciary of the state.
The judges of the supreme court and the chancellor formed with the governor a council of revision, possessing a qualified veto on the acts of the legislature. This council was abolished by the constitutional convention of 1822, the judges themselves acquiescing in the change. They felt that, though the council was often a salutary check upon hasty and unwise legislation, the effect upon the judiciary was unfavorable, as exposing it to the influence and excitements of political parties. The subsequent publication of the proceedings of the council of revision displays Mr. Kent as prominent and efficient in the discharge of his political, as he had been in performing his judicial duties. In 1814 Chief Justice Kent was appointed chancellor. Up to that time the court of chancery had been of secondary importance in the jurisprudence of the state. This was partly owing to the nature of its business. Complicated trusts and intricate settlements of property, which form the peculiar subjects of chancery jurisdiction, belong to an advanced period of national growth. But the proceedings of the court had been dilatory; its mode of practice was circuitous and expensive, and the court was regarded with disfavor both by the profession and the community.
The change effected by Chancellor Kent was aptly described in an address presented to the chancellor by the members of the bar, on his retirement from the office after nine years' administration of its duties. They compared him to Lord Nottingham, the English chancellor, who was described by Blackstone as the founder of the equity system of England, and who was "enabled in the course of nine years to build a system of jurisprudence and jurisdiction upon wise and national foundations." The seven volumes of Johnson's " Chancery Reports" contain the decisions of Chancellor Kent, and present a profound and extended exposition of the whole system of equity law. In 1822 he was elected a member of the convention called to revise the constitution of the state. He took an active part in the discussions of this body, and displayed a power of debate remarkable for one so long retired from forensic discussions. His opinions were strongly conservative. He opposed without success the extension of the right of suffrage, and other democratic innovations; but his personal influence and character preserved for the time the court of chancery, which he believed to be a useful means of administering justice.
In 1823 his official term ended; and, having attained the age of 00, he found himself, by the then existing constitution of the state, prevented from holding judicial office. Still in vigorous health, he soon formed for himself new occupations. Returning to the city of New York, whence he had removed on becoming a judge, he was reelected professor of law in Columbia college, and for several years he delivered courses of lectures on law to numerous classes, which were embodied in his "Commentaries on American Law" (4 vols. 8vo, 1826-30). This work has since passed through many editions, and has acquired a world-wide celebrity. It has assumed in the United States the position long filled in England by Black-stone's "Commentaries on the Laws of England." It embraces not merely the jurisprudence of the federal Union, but the municipal law, written and unwritten, of the several states. Vast and comprehensive in plan, elaborate and minute in research, the beauties of its style and its historical learning commend it to the general reader, while it has been proved to be the best guide to the law student, and a valuable aid to the practical lawyer.
The last years of Chancellor Kent's life were passed in tranquil pursuits, in enlarging and correcting his " Commentaries," in giving opinions on legal subjects, in advising and deciding on controversies submitted to him, and performing all the duties of an active and patriotic citizen. In 1836 he wrote and published, at the request of the common council of the city, a compendious treatise on the charter of New York and the powers of the municipal officers. - His son William, born in 1802, was prominent as a lawyer and judge in New York, and in 1846-'7 was professor of law in Harvard university. He died at Fishkill, N. Y., Jan. 4, 1861.