William Kempe


Attorney General of New York, 1752-1759

On November 6, 1752, the New York Gazette reported that “William Kemp, Esq., His Majesty’s Advocate and Attorney General for this Province, who, together with all his Family, landed in good Health.” Kempe was an English lawyer but little is known about his life before he received the royal commission to the office of Attorney General of New York.

William Kempe was Attorney General during the Seven Years’ War (the French and Indian War) and the effect of this conflict between Great Britain and France impacted the Province of New York. In 1755, the New York Assembly enacted a statute that prohibited trade with the French and the following year, Kempe prosecuted the first case under the statute. In May 1756, Samuel Stilwell loaded a sloop docked on the East River with a cargo of provisions that although officially consigned to the neutral Dutch territory of St. Eustatius, was intended to be delivered to the French island of Saint-Domingue. The sloop failed to clear customs or provide the bond required by the 1755 Act and Attorney General William Kempe argued that the cargo was bound for the enemy through the neutral islands of the Caribbean and that Stilwell had a long history of “this collusive and destructive practice.” The jury found Stilwell guilty and he was briefly imprisoned. He was also fined £500.

Perhaps the final matter handled by Attorney General William Kempe was the potential mutiny by sailors on the Hudson River. In a letter to Kempe dated March 27, 1759, Governor James De Lancey wrote:

I was yesterday at the Generals shown a letter from you to Captain Pettigrew threatening to sue him in behalf of some of his sailors, the General has desired me to acquaint you, that his vessel is taken into his Majesty’s Service as a transport, which may be obstructed if the Sailors should quit the vessel. Colonel Robertson has promised me that the men shall be paid their wages due as soon as the vessel goes into Hudsons River, and shall while in the transport service be allowed the same wages as other mariners shall have in it. His being reasonable, I do suppose the men will have no objection to it & there will be no further trouble on that account.

Less than four months later, on July 19, 1759, the New York Mercury reported that “Thursday last departed this life William Kempe, Esq., who for six years last past had been His Majesty’s Attorney General for this Province. His remains were decently interred in Trinity Church on Saturday last.”



Thomas M. Truxes. Defying Empire: Trading with the Enemy in Colonial New York (2008)

College of William and Mary. Earl Gregg Swem Library Special Collections Database scdb.swem.wm.edu


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