Revolution & the Emerging State: 1777-1846

Images from L to R: 1) Detail of a profile of the Eastern Section of the Erie Canal from "Map of the State of New-York" by David H. Burr (1832)
2) Detail of the first New York State Constituition adopted on April 20, 1777 at Kingston, New York. Courtesy NYS Archives.
3) Banquet tables at the July 23, 1788 banquet held in honor of the ratification of the Federal Constitution on Nicholas Bayard's farm between the Bowery and Broadway.
4) Gov. DeWitt Clinton pouring a cask of Lake Erie water into the Atlantic Ocean to comemorate the opening of the Erie Canal on Nov. 4, 1826. (Mural by C.Y. Turner, 1905, in DeWitt Clinton High School, Bronx, NY)

Although New York adopted the Declaration of Independence at a meeting of the Fourth Provincial Congress in White Plains on July 9, 1776, it was not until November 25, 1783 that British troops finally departed from New York. In the midst of the ongoing war, New York drafted and adopted its first constitution, and set up a functioning government.

The New York State Constitution of 1777 continued the English statutory and common law, provided that it did not conflict with the State's constitution. In 1788, chapter 46 of the laws enacted that year rendered English statutory law invalid, providing that "none of the statutes of England or Great Britain shall operate or be considered as laws of this State." The common law was unaffected by this provision, and the State's second constitution, adopted in 1822, stated that "such parts of the common law and the acts of the legislature of the colony of New York would continue unless altered or repealed or found unconstitutional."

Looking at cases decided in those first 70 years, we can see how the New York judiciary resolved the issues encountered by the nascent State. The impact of the War of 1812 and the growing importance of international relations is readily apparent. Case law from this time shows the ongoing chilling effect of criminal libel actions on political speech, and controversies arising from slavery and colonial land tenure continued to populate court dockets. Judicial resolution of cases associated with New York's growing industrialization and rapidly-developing technology (canals, roads, steamboats and railways) enabled commerce to thrive.

The Bench and the Bar included men of outstanding intellect and achievement, who made a tremendous and lasting contribution to the State and the Nation. In their capable hands, jurisprudence developed through the arguments lawyers presented in court and the judicial decisions that resulted. New York's involvement in the development of the legal framework of the new nation, the ratification of the Federal Constitution and the drafting of Bill of Rights was significant and of lasting value.

Featured Cases: Crown v. Zenger

When the College was broken up & dispersed in July 1779 by the British, I retired to a country village & [found] Blackstone's com. ...the work inspired me ...I fondly determined to be a lawyer. – James Kent

Important Figures

New York Supreme Court of Judicature

John Jay (1777-1778)

John Sloss Hobart (1777-1798)

Robert Yates (1777-1798)

Richard Morris (1779-1790)

John Lansing, Jr. (1790-1798)

Morgan Lewis (1792-1804)

Egbert Benson (1794-1801)

James Kent (1798-1814)

John Cozine (1798)

Jacob Radcliff (1798-1804)

Brockholst Livingston (1802-1806)

Smith Thompson (1802-1818)

Ambrose Spencer (1804-1823)

Daniel Tompkins (1804-1807)

William Van Ness (1807-1822)

Joseph Christopher Yates (1808-1822)

Jonas Platt (1814-1823)

John Woodworth (1819-1828)

Jacob Sutherland (1822-1835)

John Savage (1823-1836)

William Marcy (1829-1831)

Samuel Nelson (1831-1837; 1837-1845)

Esek Cowen (1835-1844)

Greene Bronson (1836-1847)

Samuel Beardsley (1844-1847)

Freeborn Jewett (1845-1847)

History of the Supreme Court
Duely & Constantly Kept: A History of the new York Supreme Court, 1691-1847 [PDF]

New York Chancellors

Robert R. Livingston (1777-1801)

John Lansing, Jr. (1798-1801)

James Kent (1814-1823)

Nathan Sandford (1823-1826)

Samuel Jones (1826-1828)

Reuben H. Walworth (1828-1847)

Important Figures

New York Attorneys General, 1777-1846

Richard Varick

Aaron Burr

Morgan Lewis

Nathaniel Lawrence

Josiah Ogden Hoffman

Ambrose Spencer

John Woodworth

Matthias B. Hildreth

Thomas Addis Emmet

Abraham Van Vechten

Martin Van Buren

Thomas J. Oakley

Samuel A. Talcott

Greene Bronson

Samuel Beardsley

Willis Hall

George P. Barker

John Van Buren

District Attorneys 1777-1846

Notable Attorneys

Harmanus Bleecker

Daniel Cady

De Witt Clinton

Cadwallader Colden

Alexander Hamilton

Charles O'Conor

William Sampson

William H. Seward

John Van Ness Yates

Samuel Young

Featured Cases: 1741 New York Slave Insurrection Trials

That all Power is originally vested in and consequently derived from the People, and that Government is instituted by them for their common Interest Protection and Security. – New York's Ratification Statement

Important Cases

Cases of Special Note

People v. Frothingham (1779)

Rutgers v. Waddington (1784)

People v. Croswell (1804)

Pierson v. Post (1805)

John Van Ness Yates Cases (1809-1811)

Gardiner v. The Trustees of the Village of Newburgh (1816)

People v. Godfrey (1819)

Gibbons v. Ogden (1820)

Jackson ex dem. People v. Lervey (1826)

Livingston v. Mayor of New York (1831)

Jack v. Martin (1834)

People v. Fisher (1835)

People v. Alexander McLeod (1841)

Hadden's Case (1777)

Johnson v. Caulkins (1799)

People v. Weeks (1800)

Hitchcock & Fitch v. Aiken (1803)

People v. Barrett and Ward (1806)

People v. Ruggles (1811)

Taylor v. Briden (1811)

Livingston v. Van Ingen (1812)

Clarke v. Morey (1813)

Vanderheyden v. Young (1814)

In re Waldron (1816)

People v. Casborus (1816)

People v. Christian Smith (1817)

Maurice v. Judd (1818)

Bradshaw v. Rogers & Magee (1822)

People v. Mather (1830)

Hart v. City of Albany (1832)

Wilson v. Mackenzie (1845)

People v. Freeman (1846)


Courts of the Era

New York Court of Chancery, 1683-1846

The Court of General Sessions, 1683-1847 (in NYC, 1683-1962)

Court of Common Pleas, 1686-1895

New York Supreme Court of Judicature, 1691 to Present

The New York Court of Admiralty, 1775-1789

Court for the Trial of Impeachments and Correction of Errors, 1777-1846

Probate Court, 1778-1823

Circuit Courts, 1786-1823

Surrogate's Courts, 1787 to Present

Court of Oyer and Terminer, 1788-1895

The Marine Court of the City of New York, 1807-1828

The Superior Court of The City of New York, 1828-1894

About the Period


New York Constitutions of 1777 & 1821

The New York Constitution of 1777 (Courtesy NYS Archives)

The New York Constitution of 1777 (Transcript)

1787 New York Bill of Rights (L. 1787, ch 1)

1801 Constitutional Amendments

New York Constitution of 1821 (Transcript)


Excerpts from Charles Z. Lincoln's Constitutional History of New York
Courtesy the New York State Library

Commentary on the 1st NY Constitution

Commentary on the 1787 Bill of Rights

Commentary on the 1801 Amendments to the NY Constitution

Commentary on the 2nd NY Constitution


Other Constitutional Commentaries

The New York State Constitution, 2nd Edition, by Peter J. Galie & Christopher Bopst (London: Oxford University Press, 2012)


New York and the Ratification of the Federal Constitution

The United States Constitution, New York's Ratification Statement and Instructions to the New York Delegates & Transcript

The Federalist

The Anti-Federalist Papers

New York Cases

Kent's Commentaries

John Jay's Letters

An Empire of Reason (Video)

A Rein on Government: New York's Constitution of 1777 and Bill of Rights of 1787 by John P. Kaminski, New York Legal History Vol. 1, No. 1 (2005)

New York State's Role in the Creation and Adoption of the Bill of Rights by Betsy L. Rosenblatt, New York History (October 1991), pp. 407-420

(The definitive work on New York's ratification of the Constitution is:
The Documentary History of the Ratification of the Constitution: Ratification by the States: New York, Volumes XIX-XXIII, edited by John P. Kaminski et al (Madison: Wisconsin Historical Society Press, 2005))

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