Cadwallader David Colden was born at Spring Hill on Long Island, New York, on April 4, 1769, the grandson of Cadwallader Colden, royal Lieutenant-Governor of New York. In his early years, he studied classics with his tutors and in the spring of 1784, he accompanied his father on a trip to England where he attended school. On his return to New York, he started his legal studies with Richard Harrison, one of New York's most eminent attorneys. He continued his studies with Mr. Van Schaick in Kinderhook, and was admitted to the bar in 1791. Colden moved his practice to New York City in 1796 and was counsel for the defense in the landmark fox-hunting case of Pierson v Post (1805).
Colden was appointed district attorney in 1798 and again in 1810. During the War of 1812, he served as a militia officer and held the rank of Colonel. Following service in the New York Assembly in 1818, Colden became Mayor of New York City, a position he held from 1819 until 1821.
Successfully contesting the election of Peter Sharpe to the House of Representatives in the Seventeenth Congress, Colden served as a Federalist congressman from New York's 1st Congressional District from December 12, 1821, to March 3, 1823. A member of the New York State Senate from 1824 to 1827, he was a strong advocate for the construction of the Erie Canal and was recognized as one of the fifteen individuals most responsible for the successful construction of the canal. Colden was also instrumental in organizing the New York public school system.
Cadwallader Colden was President of the anti-slavery Manumission Society, and was a leading member of the New York Society for the Prevention of Pauperism. In an investigation into prison conditions, he identified the need to separate younger delinquents from the adult prisoners, stating: "It must be obvious that under such circumstances it would be in vain to expect that their punishment would improve their morals: it can hardly fail to have a contrary effect."
Colden published two books, The Life of Robert Fulton (1817) and Memoir at the Celebration of the Completion of the New York Canals (1825).
Cadwallader D. Colden died at his residence in Jersey City on February 7, 1834.