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James Kent was born the 31st July, 1763, in that part of Dutchess county then called the precinct of Fredericksburgh, now in the county of Putnam, in the state of New York. His grandfather, the Rev. Elisha Kent, a native of Suffield, in the state of Connecticut, married the daughter of the Rev. Joseph Moss, of Derby, and was for some time a minister of the Presbyterian church at Newtown, in that state. He removed, as early as 1740, to the south-east part of Dutchess county, then wild and uncultivated, but which gradually increased in population, and became known as Kent's Parish. He continued to reside there until his death, in July, 1776, at the age of seventy-two. His eldest son, Moss Kent, who, as well as his father, was a graduate of Yale college, commenced the study of the law, under Lieutenant-Governor Fitch, at Norwalk, in Connecticut, and was admitted to the bar, in Dutchess county, in 1756. In 1760 he married the eldest daughter of Dr. Uriah Rogers, a physician at Norwalk, by whom he had three children, who are now living. JAMES, the subject of this memoir, Moss, who was a member of the senate of New York for four years, afterwards a member of congress, and first judge of the court of common pleas of Jefferson county, which office he resigned on being appointed register of the court of chancery in 1817, and Hannah, who married William Pitt Platt, of Plattsburgh. They lost their mother in 1770, and their father died in 1794, at the age of sixty-one. .
When five years old, James, the eldest son, was placed at an English school, at Norwalk, and lived in the family of his maternal grandfather, until 1772, when he went to reside with an uncle, at Pawlings, in Dutchess county, where he acquired the first rudiments of Latin. In May, 1773, he was sent to a Latin school, at Danbury, in Connecticut, under the charge of the Rev. Ebenezer Baldwin, a highly respectable Presbyterian minister. After the death of Mr. Baldwin, in October, 1776, he was under different instructers, at Danbury, Stratford, and Newtown, until he entered Yale college, in New Haven, in September, 1777. At these different schools, he was remarked as possessing a lively disposition, great quickness of parts, a spirit of emulation, and love of learning. The pious puritans, among whom he lived, were sober, frugal, and industrious, and the strict and orderly habits of those around him had their influence in forming his own. From their example and the impressions received at that early age, he acquired that simplicity of character and purity of morals which he ever afterwards preserved, without losing his natural vivacity and playfulness of temper. He has often mentioned the delight he experienced on his periodical returns from school to his home, in rambling with his brother among the wild scenery of his native hills and valleys. The associations then formed rendered him an enthusiastic admirer of the beauties of nature; and in after life during the intervals of business, he made excursions into every part of his native state, through New England, and along the borders of Canada, visiting each mountain, lake, and cascade; and while gratifying his taste for simple pleasures, preserving and invigorating his health.
In July, 1779, in consequence of the invasion of New Haven by the British troops, the college was broken up, and the students for a time dispersed. During his exile, having met with a copy of Blackstone's Commentaries, he read the work of that elegant writer, with great eagerness and pleasure, and it so excited his admiration, that he determined, at the age of sixteen, to be a lawyer.
He left college, after taking the degree of bachelor, in September, 1781, with high reputation; and, after passing a few weeks at Fairfield, to which place his father had removed on his second marriage, he went to Poughkeepsie, and commenced the study of the law, under the direction of Egbert Benson, then attorney-general of the state of New York, and, afterwards, one of the judges of the supreme court. His strong and decided attachment to jurisprudence could not fail to ensure his success. Besides the books of English common law, he read the large works of Grotius and Puffendorf, making copious extracts from them, and, as a relaxation, perusing the best writers in English literature, of which his favorite portions were history, poetry, geography, voyages, and travels. He was temperate in all his habits, a water-drinker, and entered into no dissipation, not even joining in the ordinary fashionable amusements of others of the same age. He was very far, however, from being grave, reserved, or austere; but was uniformly cheerful, lively, and communicative. The love of reading had become his ruling passion, and when he felt the want of amusement," he better knew great nature's charms to prize," and sought it in rural walks, amidst objects that purify and elevate the imagination. In September, 1784, he took the degree of master of arts at Yale college, and in January, 1785, was admitted an attorney of the supreme court. He went to Fredericksburgh, with the intention of commencing the practice of his profession there; but the solitude of that retired spot soon became insupportable, and in less than two months, he returned to Poughkeepsie, where, in April, 1785, he married Miss Bailey, a lady a few years younger than himself, and with whom he has since lived in the uninterrupted enjoyment of domestic felicity. He possessed, at this time, little or no property, but living with great simplicity in a country village, his wants were few, and supplied at little expense. Young, ardent, and active, he felt no anxiety for the future; but engaged with increased alacrity in professional business and literary pursuits, so as to leave no portion of his time unemployed.
In 1787, he resolved to renew and extend his acquaintance with the Greek and Roman classics, which he had entirely neglected after leaving college. When it is considered that the only Greek book at that time read by the classes in that seat of learning, was the Greek Testament, and the only Latin works, Virgil, the select orations of Cicero, and some parts of Horace, we may easily imagine how imperfect must have been that part of his education, the defects of which he was determined to supply. He began a course of selfinstruction, with an energy and perseverance, that mark a strong and generous mind. That he might lose no time, and pursue his various studies with method and success, he divided the hours not given to rest, into five portions: rising early and reading Latin until eight, Greek until ten, devoting the rest of the forenoon to law; in the afternoon two hours were applied to French, and the rest of day to English authors. This division and employment of his time were continued with little variation, until he became a judge. By this practice, he was under no necessity of encroaching on those hours best appropriated to sleep, and preserved his health unimpaired. If his mind became weary in one department of study, he found relief by passing to another; “from grave to gay, from lively to severe.” He read Homer, Xenophon, and Demosthenes with great delight. Though he afterwards relinquished the pursuit of Grecian literature, he continued to read the best Latin and French authors and many of the former more than once. As large public libraries, if any then existed, were not within his reach, he began a collection of books which he has gradually increased to several thousand volumes, and he has often said, that next to his family, his library had been to him the greatest source of enjoyment. It fed, while it increased his appetite for useful knowledge, and cherished that love of literature that had grown and strengthened with his growing years. In April, 1787, he was admitted a counsellor in the supreme court. He soon entered with ardor into the discussion of the great political questions which then absorbed the attention and agitated the minds of all. He could not long remain neutral between the two contending parties, and after a careful examination of the arguments of each, he, from the purest motives and with the clearest conviction, joined the federal side. He soon became the friend of Jay, Hamilton, and other eminent men of that party, with whom he uniformly acted, and to whose principles he has steadily adhered to the present day.
In April, 1790, he was elected a member of the state legislature for Dutchess county, and again in 1792. In the session held in the city of New York, he took a zealous and distinguished part in the memorable question which arose in that body, on the conduct of the canvassers of the votes given in the warmly contested election for governor, in destroying those returned from Otsego county, by which means Mr. Clinton obtained a small majority over Mr. Jay, (then chief justice of the United States, who was the federal candidate. His writings on that occasion attracted much attention, and he became favorably known in the city. He was, at that time, nominated as a candidate for congress, in Dutchess county, but his competitor, who adhered to the opposite party, succeeded by a small majority. During his attendance in the legislature, his principles and conduct were so highly respected, that he was urged by his friends to remove to the city, where he might find greater scope for the exercise of his talents, and more lucrative business in his profession. He accordingly removed to New York, in April, 1793. The first month of his residence in the city was embittered by the loss of an only child, and for a time his prospects were clouded with sorrow. In December, he was appointed professor of law in Columbia college, and commenced the delivery of lectures, in November, 1794. The course was attended by many respectable members of the bar, and a large class of students. In the following winter, he read a second course; but the number of his hearers having diminished, he was discouraged from delivering another. The three prelimi
nary lectures were afterwards published, but the sale of them did not reimburse the expense of publication. The trustees of the college conferred upon him the degree of doctor of laws, and he has since received similar honors from Harvard university and Dartmouth college.
In February, 1796, he was appointed a master in chancery, and there being, at that time, but one other, the office was lucrative. In the same year, he was elected a member of the legislature from the city of New York. He delivered an address before the society for the promotion of agriculture, arts, and manufactures, at their anniversary meeting in New York, on the 8th of November, 1796, which is inserted in the first volume of the transactions of the society. It contains a rapid and animating sketch of the great natural and political advantages of the United States, and especially of the state of New York, for the advancement of the great objects of the society, and the progress of the country since that time has more than realized the most glowing anticipations of its patriotic founders.
In March, 1797, he was, without solicitation and quite unexpectedly to himself, appointed, recorder of the city. This being a judicial office, was the more acceptable as well as more honorable; and being allowed to retain that of master, the duties of both were so great, and the emoluments so considerable, that he gradually relinquished the more active business of his profession, to which he was not strongly attached. From constitutional diffidence, or habits of study, he appeared not to feel confident in the possession of the powers requisite to ensure preëminence as an advocate at the bar.
In 1798, Governor Jay, who knew his worth and highly respected his character, offered him the office of junior judge of the supreme court, then vacant, which he accepted. This appointment gratified his highest ambition. It placed him in a situation where he could more fully display his attainments, and have a wider field for the investigation of legal science. In accepting the office, he relinquished, for a limited income, all the flattering prospects of increasing wealth that had opened to him during five years' residence in the city. Though most of his friends doubted the wisdom of his choice, he never regretted it. And all who feel interested in the pure and enlightened administration of justice, have found reason to rejoice that he followed the dictates of his own judgment, in a matter so interesting to the honor and happiness of his after life. On becoming a judge he returned to Poughkeepsie, but in the following