Justice of the New York Supreme Court of Judicature, 1751-1762
John Chambers was born in 1710, the son of William Chambers, a landowner in Newburgh, New York. He received a good education, and commenced the study of law when he was admitted to the Middle Temple in London, England on May 3, 1731. Chambers was admitted to the New York Bar in 1735, commenced a practice in New York City, and almost immediately became involved in the great controversy of the time, the trial of John Peter Zenger (1735).
Zenger, the printer of the New-York Weekly Journal, was charged with seditious libel for printing articles critical of the colonial administration of Governor Cosby. Initially Zenger was defended by two of the Province’s leading attorneys, James Alexander and William Smith, Sr. At Zenger’s arraignment, Alexander and Smith challenged the validity of Chief Justice James De Lancey’s appointment and the commissions of the other judges of the court. The following day, Chief Justice De Lancey disbarred Smith and Alexander and appointed the young John Chambers to represent Zenger. Although inexperienced, Chambers twice successfully challenged the lists from which the jury was to be chosen. His challenges were crucial because they ensured that the jury empaneled to hear the case was not biased against Zenger. Without an impartial jury, Andrew Hamilton’s famous address might have been for naught. Indeed, Chamber’s actions marked the beginnings of an independent, professional Bar in the Province.
John Chambers married into the powerful Van Cortlandt family and became a prominent and wealthy New York City lawyer. He was a longtime alderman of New York City, and Chambers Street in Manhattan is said to be named for him. On July 30, 1751, he was appointed Second Justice of the New York Supreme Court of Judicature, a position he held until 1762. In 1752, he became a member of the Governor’s Council and he was also a delegate to the Albany Congress of 1754.
At the time of his death, April 19, 1764, John Chambers is said to have owned the largest law library in the Province, part of which he willed to his nephew, namesake and godson, John Jay.
Johnson, Herbert A. John Jay: Colonial Lawyer. New York, 1989.
Moglen, Eben. “Considering Zenger: Partisan Politics and the Legal Profession in Provincial New York.” Columbia Law Review 94.5 (1994): 1495.
Nutt, John J. Newburgh: Her Institutions, Industries and Leading Citizens. Newburgh, 1891.