Chief Justice of the New York Supreme Court of Judicature, 1733-1760
James De Lancey was born in New York City on November 27, 1703, the eldest son of Etienne De Lancey, a Huguenot who fled France after the revocation of the Edict of Nantes, arrived in America in 1686, and amassed a large fortune. His mother, Anne Van Cortlandt, was the daughter of New York Mayor Stephanus Van Cortlandt. Their family home at 54 Pearl Street later became Faunces Tavern, the venue for Washington’s farewell address. James received an excellent education, and graduated from Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, England. He studied law at the Inner Temple in London and was called to the Bar.
On his return to New York in 1725, James entered politics and in 1729 became a member of the New York Assembly. In 1730, De Lancey led a commission to frame a new charter for the City of New York, the Montgomerie Charter, enacted by the New York Assembly in 1732. As a reward for his services, De Lancey was presented with the Freedom of the City, making him the first person to receive this honor. Also in 1730, De Lancey was appointed to the Governor’s Council. The following year, he was appointed a Justice of the New York Supreme Court of Judicature, and he was a member of the majority that found in favor of Governor Cosby in the case of Cosby v. Van Dam. Governor Cosby immediately removed from office the justice who wrote the dissenting opinion in that case, Chief Justice Lewis Morris, and appointed James De Lancey to replace him.
Chief Judge De Lancey presided over the 1735 case of Crown v. Zenger, the trial of John Peter Zenger, the publisher prosecuted for seditious libel in the aftermath of the Cosby case. Zenger’s attorneys, William Smith and James Alexander, challenged the validity of De Lancey’s appointment as Chief Justiceon the ground that Lewis Morris had been removed from office without an investigation (indeed, the Lords of the Board of Trade in London would later rule that Morris’s removal had been illegal). De Lancey responded by striking both men from the roll of attorneys and appointing John Chambers, a young, newly-admitted attorney, to represent Zenger. Chambers did so until the arrival in New York of the renowned Philadelphia lawyer, Andrew Hamilton. The Zenger trial is recognized as a landmark colonial case that eventually led to the establishment of a free press in America.
Justice De Lancey was also a judge on the court that conducted the 1741 Slave Insurrection Trials.
In 1746, King George II appointed De Lancey Lieutenant-Governor of New York. Governor Clinton withheld the commission until October 1753 because of De Lancey’s support of the New York Assembly’s position in a dispute regarding the Governor’s salary. In October 1753, George Clinton was replaced as Governor and the new Governor, Sir Danvers Osborne, died five days after his arrival. De Lancey became acting Governor and in this capacity, he convened and presided over a congress of colonial delegates held in Albany, NY in June 1754 (the Albany Congress). It was the first meeting of colonial representatives to discuss some form of formal union of the colonies in America.
In September 1755, Sir Charles Hardy arrived from London to assume the office of Governor of New York, and De Lancey returned to his duties as Chief Justice. When Sir Charles took command of a military expedition to Louisbourg, Nova Scotia in July 1757, De Lancey again became acting Governor, an office that he performed until his death on July 30, 1760.
De Lancey is credited with directing “the development of the civil policy of the province, to the end of making it an efficient mechanism for executing the will of the people, without impairing the efficiency of the executive. Encroachments upon the power of the executive were made only when necessary for the purpose of public protection, and not for the purpose of making it subservient to the Assembly.”
Belknap, Michael R., ed. American Political Trials. Westport: Greenwood, 1994.
The Cyclopaedia of American Biography. Vol. 2. 1899.