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foreshadowed the progress the country has made since that time.
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 the 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. Fronu constitutional diffidence, or habits of study, he appeared not to feel confident in the possession of the powers requisite to ensure pre-eminence 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 position 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 important to the honor and happiness of his after life, and upon which depended so much of his subsequent use fulness.
On becoming a judge, he returned to Poughkeepsie, but in the following 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, they had the force of authority. The opinions of the judges were generally delivered orally, with little regu
larity, 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. These opinions he was ready to deliver on 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 Seldon, Hale and Mansfield, he thought law could not well be 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, their edition of them, comprised in two volumes octavo, was published.
In July, 1804, he was appointed Chief-Justice of the Supreme Court, in which he continued to preside until 1814. His opinions 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 scarcely any precedents of its decisions, to
which reference could be made in case of doubt. 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.
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 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 in the hearing or decision of his
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 the 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 afterward wish to have his decisions re-examined or to test the correctness of his conclusions.
Accustomed to take a large view of jurisprudence, and considering law not as a connection of arbitrary and disconnected cules, 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 of 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. After speaking of the inestimable benefits conferred on the community by his judicial labors for five and twenty years, they say:
“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 enlightened and venerable 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 in Utica, in August following. In the latter, reference was made to the entire revolution which had been accomplished in the administration of equity; and it was coinpared to a similar revolution
in the English chancery, affected by Sir Heneage Finch, afterward Earl of Nottingham, who became chancellor in 1673.
In the same address, they refer to their intercourse with him as a judge-to his personal kindness, his pureness and gentleness of heart, and the uniform and uninterrupted course of generous, candid and polite treatment which had marked his intercourse with the bar.
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.”
In August, he visited the Eastern States, and soon afterward determined to remove to the City of New York, open a law school and 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 toward 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. Manv causes actually pending in court were, by the agreement of 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