« AnteriorContinuar »
year, he removed to Albany, where he continued to reside until 1823.
When he took his seat on the bench of the supreme court, there were no reports of its decisions, nor any known or established precedents of its own to guide or direct his judgment. The English law books were freely cited, and the adjudications of English courts regarded with the highest respect, and in most cases, with the force of authority. The opinions of the judges were generally delivered orally, with little regularity, and often after much delay. The law was in a state of great and painful uncertainty. He began by preparing a written and argumentative opinion in every case of sufficient importance to become a precedent for the future. These opinions he was ready to deliver at the day when the judges met to consult on the decisions to be pronounced by the court. The other judges, pursuing a similar course, also gave their reasons in writing, supported by legal authorities. As he read with a pen in his hand, extracting, digesting, abridging, and making copious notes, the practice of writing opinions was easy and agreeable. Besides making himself master of all the English adjudications applicable to the points under examination, he frequently brought to his aid the body of the civil law, and the writings of eminent jurists of the countries in which that law prevails; especially, in the discussion of questions arising on personal contracts, or of commercial and maritime law, the principles of which have been so admirably unfolded and illustrated by Domat, Pothier, Valin, Emerigon, and others. Like Selden, Hale, and Mansfield, he thought law could not be well understood as a science, without seeking its grounds and reasons in the Roman law. From that great repository of “written wisdom," he drew largely, engrafting its sound and liberal principles on the hardy stock of the English common law. Thus commenced that series of judicial decisions which have enriched the jurisprudence of New York, and shed their influence on that of other states.
In 1800 he and Mr. Justice Radcliffe were appointed by the legislature, to revise the statutes of the state; and in January, 1802, was published their edition of them, comprised in two volumes octavo. Without venturing to change the phraseology of the laws, they confined themselves to the single object of placing together the various acts of the legislature relative to the same subject, so as to bring the original enactments and all subsequent additions and amendments, into one act; and by a full and accurate index, to facilitate a reference to them.
In July, 1804, he was appointed chief justice of the supreme court, in which he continued to preside until 1814. We shall not here attempt to enter into any examination of the opinions delivered by him during the time he was a judge of that court. They are contained in sixteen volumes of Reports, from January, 1799, to February, 1814; and the judgment of the public has long since been formed on their merit and importance.
In February, 1814, he was appointed chancellor. The powers and jurisdiction of the court of chancery were not clearly defined. There were no precedents of its decisions, (if we except what might be gleaned from a few cases heard in the court of errors, on appeal, and reported by Mr. Johnson,) 'to which reference could be made in case of doubt; and it is a fact, that during the whole period of his sitting in chancery, from 1814 to 1823, not a single opinion or dictum of his predecessors was cited. Without any other guide, he felt at liberty to exercise such powers of the English chancery, as he deemed applicable, under the constitution and laws of the state, subject to the correction of the court of errors, on appeal. As to the course of equity to be administered, it was to him, in effect, as if the court had been then newly established. The causes before the court were managed by a few lawyers. He opened wide its doors; and his kindness and affability, his known habits of business, and promptitude of decision, attracted many to the court. The number of causes rapidly increased, and it soon required the most strenuous and unceasing efforts of his active mind to hear and decide the cases brought before him. Besides his attendance during the regular terms of the court, he was, at all times, easy of access at his chambers; so that no one ever complained of delay, as to the hearing or decision of his cause. He considered the cases in the order in which they were presented or argued, and did not leave one until he was fully prepared to deliver his judgment upon it. He read the pleadings and depositions with the greatest attention, carefully abstracting from them every material fact; and having become familiar with the merits of the cause, he was able, unless some technical or artificial rule was interposed, by his own clear moral perception to discover where lay the equity of the case. Not content, however, with satisfying his conscience as to the justice of his decision, he was studious to demonstrate that his judgment was supported by the well established principles of equity to be found in the decisions of the courts of that country from which our laws have been derived. His researches on every point were so full, as to leave little or nothing to be supplied by those who might after wards wish to have his decisions reëxamined or to test the correct ness of his conclusions.
Accustomed to take a large view of jurisprudence, and considering law not as a collection of arbitrary and disconnected rules, but rather as a science founded on general principles of justice and equity, to be applied to the actions of men in the diversified relations of civil society, he was not deterred, but animated, by the novelty and intricacy of a case; and while his mind was warmly engaged in the general subject, he sought rather than avoided difficult points, even when the discussion of them was not essential to the decision of the main question between the parties; so that nothing was suffered to pass without examination. His judicial opinions, are, therefore, uncommonly interesting and instructive to all, but especially to those who have commenced the study of the law, and aspire to eminence in that profession. The decisions in chancery are contained in seven volumes of Reports.
On the 31st July, 1823, having attained the age of sixty years, the period limited by the constitution for the tenure of his office, he retired from the court, after hearing and deciding every case that had been brought before him. On this occasion, the members of the bar residing in the city of New York, presented him an address, from which, as coming from those most competent, by their situation, to form a just estimate of his judicial character and services, we cannot refrain from giving some extracts. After speaking of the inestimable benefits conferred on the community by his judicial labors for five and twenty years, they observe: “During this long course of services, so useful and honorable, and which will form the most brilliant period in our judicial history, you have by a series of decisions, in law and equity, distinguished alike for practical wisdom, profound learning, deep research, and accurate discrimination, contributed to establish the fabric of our jurisprudence on those sound principles that have been sanctioned by the experience of mankind, and expounded by the venerable and enlightened sages of the law. Though others may hereafter enlarge and adorn the edifice whose deep and solid foundations were laid by the wise and patriotic framers of our government in that common law which they claimed for the people as their noblest inheritance, your labors on this magnificent structure will forever remain eminently conspicuous, commanding the applause of the present generation, and exciting the admiration and gratitude of future ages.”
A similar address was presented to him by the members of the bar in Albany, and also by those from the different counties of the state, attending the supreme court at Utica, in August following. In the latter, it is observed, that, “in the space of little more than nine years, an entire and wonderful revolution in the administration of equity has been accomplished;" and a reference is aptly made to the account given by Sir William Blackstone of a similar revolution in the English chancery, by Sir Heneage Finch, afterwards earl of Nottingham, who became chancellor in 1673. "The necessities of mankind,” says that writer, “coöperated in his plan and enabled him in the course of nine years, to build a system of jurisprudence and jurisdiction upon wide and rational foundations." In the same address, speaking of their intercourse with him as a judge, they called to mind “so many instances of personal kindness—so many scenes of delightful instruction-so many evidences of pureness and singleness of heart-such a uniform and uninterrupted course of generous, candid, and polite treatment, that we are unable to express the fulness of our feelings, and can only say that our affection for you as a man, almost absorbs our veneration for you as a judge."
In these addresses, the bar were led to express a doubt as to the wisdom of that clause in the political constitution of the state, which " compelled him in the full enjoyment of his intellectual faculties, to relinquish a station he had filled with such consummate ability.” And, in this case at least, the application of the policy of that provision might well induce them to call in question the wisdom and expediency of so singular a limitation.
In August, he visited the eastern states, and on his return home he became apprehensive that after being so many years actively engaged in discharging the duties of a public station, the sudden transition to privacy and seclusion, might produce an unfavorable effect on his health and spirits. He soon determined to remove to the city of New York, to open a law school, and to act as chamber counsel. The trustees of the college again offered him the professorship of law in that institution, which he accepted ; and, in 1824, he prepared and delivered a series of law lectures, on a more comprehensive plan than that pursued in his former course. He also gave private instruction to students, who resorted to him from various parts of the United States. His parental kindness towards the young, and the frankness and affability of his manners, won their affection without diminishing their respect; and his conversation and example could not fail to inspire that ardor and emulation so conducive to their progress and success. His high reputation as a judge, induced many, not only in the city, but in distant places, to consult him on difficult and important questions, and, instead of the brief answers usually returned by counsel, he gave full and argumentative opinions. Many causes actually pending in court, were, by the agreement of the parties, submitted to his final decision. He had continued, for some years, thus usefully and agreeably occupied, when having discontinued his law lectures, he began to revise and enlarge them for publication; and in November, 1826, appeared the first volume of the “Commentaries on American Law." This volume includes three parts; the law of nations, the government and constitutional jurisprudence of the United States, and the various sources of municipal law. The second volume was published in November, 1827, the third in 1828, and the fourth in 1830. The three last comprise the law concerning the rights of persons, and personal and real property.
He has treated the several subjects comprised under these extensive and most important titles,—the rights of persons and the rights of property-in a manner more full and satisfactory than Blackstone; and has introduced many others, not found in the work of that author, with numerous references, quotations, and illustrations, the result of his various and extensive reading, highly pleasing and instructive to the student. He has left untouched the subjects of private wrongs, and the mode of pursuing their remedies by actions in courts of justice; of the powers and jurisdiction of judicial magistracy, and of public wrongs, or the law concerning crimes and punishments, which occupy the third and fourth volumes of the English commentator.
The work of Sir William Blackstone, by the elegance of its style, its lucid arrangement and finished execution, is so well adapted to render the study of the law attractive, and to give a knowledge of the constitution and laws of England, well deserving the attention of every liberal mind, that it has been, (though, for many years, more from necessity than choice,) very properly placed in the hands of every student; but as much of those admirable Commentaries relate to the political constitution of England, so different from our own, to its peculiar institutions, and to rights and duties, public and private, not existing in this country, an American work, exhibiting our own constitution, laws, institutions, usages, and civil relations, had been long wanted. In the full maturity of his understanding, with a mind long habituated to legal investigations and researches, and