Associate Justice of the New York Supreme Court of Judicature, 1777-1790
Chief Justice, 1790-1798
Robert Yates was born on January 27, 1738 in Schenectady, New York. He received a classical education, became a surveyor and produced many maps, including the first civil map of Albany. Later, he would serve on the commissions concerning land boundaries.
Yates studied law with William Livingston (Governor of New Jersey), was admitted to the New York Bar in May 1760 and established a legal practice in Albany. Between 1771 and 1775, he was a member of the Albany Board of Aldermen where he provided legal advice and compiled the first published version of the Laws and Ordinances of the City of Albany (1773).
Robert Yates served on the Albany Committee of Safety, and represented Albany County to the 1st, 2nd, 3rd and 4th Provincial Congresses of New York, held in 1775 and 1776. When, following the Declaration of July 4, 1776, a Convention of Representatives of the State was convened, he played a significant role in the drafting of New York’s first constitution. On May 8, 1777, he was appointed a Justice of the Supreme Court of the State and following the Hadden Case, the appointment was approved by the Council of Appointment on October 17, 1777. He was appointed the third Chief Justice of the State on October 28, 1790, a position he held until he reached the mandatory retirement age of sixty in 1798. His reputation was that of a fairminded, impartial judge, and unprejudiced against Loyalists.
In 1787, the New York Legislature appointed Robert Yates, with Alexander Hamilton and John Lansing, Jr., to be delegates to the convention on the Constitution of the United States (the Philadelphia Convention). According to the form of the resolution, they were appointed “for the sole and express purpose of revising the Articles of Confederation.” When a document outlining an entirely new form of government was introduced at the convention, Yates and Lansing withdrew because as anti-Federalists, they believed the proposed constitution did not effectively secure the rights of the individual States. Robert Yates took detailed notes during the Constitutional Convention and these form the basis for a work entitled Secret Proceedings and Debates of the Convention Assembled … for the Purpose of Forming the Constitution of the United States that was published twenty years after his death. Robert Yates is also the presumed author of the Anti-Federalist political essays published in 1787 and 1788 under the pseudonym “Brutus.” In contrast to the essays that became the Federalist Papers, Yates’ essays opposed the ratification of the United States Constitution. Historians Howel and Tenney pay tribute to Yates and Lansing, stating: “To these men and their copatriots the nation is indebted for the ten important amended Articles which were subsequently made a part of the Constitution.”1
Robert Yates twice ran unsuccessfully for Governor of New York — against George Clinton in 1789, and against John Jay in 1795. He died in Albany on September 9, 1801.
George Rogers Howell and Jonathan Tenney. Bi-centennial history of Albany, vol. 1.
Joseph C. Morton. Shapers of the great debate at the Constitutional Convention of 1787.
- George Rogers Howell and Jonathan Tenney. Bi-centennial History of Albany, vol. 1, p 131.