James Kent

James Kent (1763-1847)

James Kent (July 31, 1763December 12, 1847), American jurist and legal scholar, was born at New York. He graduated from Yale College in 1781, having helped establish the Phi Beta Kappa society there in 1780, and began to practise law at Poughkeepsie in 1785 as an attorney, and in 1787 at the bar. In 1791 and 1792-93 Kent was a representative of Dutchess County in the New York State Assembly. In 1793 he removed to New York City, where Governor John Jay, to whom the young lawyer's Federalist sympathies were a strong recommendation, appointed him a master in chancery for the city.

He was the first professor of law in Columbia College in 1793-98 and again served in the Assembly in 1796-97. In 1797 he became recorder of New York, in 1798 judge of the Supreme Court of the State, in 1804 Chief Justice, and in 1814 chancellor of New York. In 1822 he became a member of the convention to revise the state constitution. Next year, Chancellor Kent resigned his office and was re-elected to his former chair.

He has been long remembered for his Commentaries on American Law (four volumes, published 1826-1830), highly respected in England and America. The Commentaries treated both state, federal and international law, and the law of personal rights and of property, and went through six editions in Kent's lifetime.

Kent rendered his most essential service to American jurisprudence while serving as chancellor. Chancery, or equity law had been very unpopular during the colonial period, and had received little development, and no decisions had been published. His judgments of this class cover a wide range of topics, and are so thoroughly considered and developed as unquestionably to form the basis of American equity jurisprudence.

With his wife Elizabeth Bailey, Kent had four children: Elizabeth (died in infancy), Elizabeth, William and Mary.

Kent County, Michigan is named in his honor.

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