Justice and Chief Justice of the New York Supreme Court of Judicature, 1737-1777
Daniel Horsmanden was born in Purleigh in Essex, England on June 4, 1691. He studied law, was admitted to the Middle Temple on May 20, 1721 and to the Inner Temple on May 9, 1729. He arrived in New York in 1731 and set up a law practice. Two years later, he was appointed to the Governor’s Council. For his services on the committee charged with identifying seditious statements in John Peter Zenger’s New-York Weekly Journal, he was appointed Recorder in May 1735, Judge of the Court of Vice-Admiralty in 1736, and Third Justice of the Supreme Court in January 1737.
Horsmanden was among the judges who presided at notorious trials of those charged in the New York Slave Conspiracy Trials in 1741. Some 200 people were arrested and tried in the Supreme Court of Judicature. Based upon legally dubious testimony, thirty were sentenced to death and seventy others to slavery in the Caribbean. Horsmanden, whose professional reputation was at stake, wrote a journal that has been described as “one of the most startling and vexing documents in early American history.”
In March 1763 Horsmanden became Chief Justice of the Colony of New York and in 1773, he was appointed to the royal commission of inquiry into the burning of the King’s ship Gaspee in Rhode Island. On February 21, 1773, he reported upon the proceedings to the Earl of Dartmouth, stating:
My Lord, as to the Govern’ (if it deserves that name) it is a downright Democracy; the Govr is a mere nominal one, and therefore a Cypher, without power or authority, entirely controuled by the populace elected annually, as all other Magistrates & officers whatsoever.
In 1764, Chief Justice Horsmanden presided in one of the most important cases of the colonial era, Forsey v. Cunningham. The Lieutenant-Governor, then acting Governor, sought to amend or reverse a jury verdict by royal prerogative. Horsmanden was a staunch protector of the jury, and his assertion that the only appeal from a jury verdict lay by way of a writ of error was confirmed by both the attorney-general and solicitor-general of England in a joint opinion issued by them in 1765.
Chief Justice Horsmanden also presided in the 1766 case of King v. Prendergast, the treason trial of the Anti-Rent Movement leader William Prendergast, whom he sentenced to death. The execution was stayed by the Governor, and Prendergast later received a royal pardon. Chief Justice Horsmanden, the last to serve as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Judicature in the Province of New York, died at Flatbush, New York on September 28, 1778.
McAdam, David., ed. A History of the Bench and Bar of New York. New York, 1897.
Whitfield Jenks Bell. Patriot-Improvers: Biographical Sketches of Members of the American Philosophical Society, 1743-1768. Philadelphia, 1997.