Revolution & The Emerging State

Revolution Era Header

Although New York adopted the Declaration of Independence at a meeting of the Fourth Provincial Congress in White Plains on July 9, 1776, it was not until November 25, 1783 that British troops finally departed from New York. In the midst of the ongoing war, New York drafted and adopted its first constitution, and set up a functioning government.

First Constitution

The New York State Constitution of 1777 continued the English statutory and common law then in force in the Province of New York, provided that it did not conflict with the State’s constitution. In 1788, chapter 46 of the laws enacted that year rendered English statutory law invalid, providing that “none of the statutes of England or Great Britain shall operate or be considered as laws of this State.” The common law was unaffected by this provision, and the State’s second constitution, adopted in 1822, stated that “such parts of the common law and the acts of the legislature of the colony of New York would continue unless altered or repealed or found unconstitutional.”

New York Case Law Develops

Looking at cases decided in those first 70 years, we can see how the New York judiciary resolved the issues encountered by the nascent State. The impact of the War of 1812 and the growing importance of international relations is readily apparent. Case law from this time shows the ongoing chilling effect of criminal libel actions on political speech, and controversies arising from slavery and colonial land tenure continued to populate court dockets. Judicial resolution of cases associated with New York’s growing industrialization and rapidly-developing technology (canals, roads, steamboats and railways) enabled commerce to thrive.

The State and the Nation

The Bench and the Bar included men of outstanding intellect and achievement, who made a tremendous and lasting contribution to the State and the Nation. In their capable hands, jurisprudence developed through the arguments lawyers presented in court and the judicial decisions that resulted. New York’s involvement in the development of the legal framework of the new nation, the ratification of the Federal Constitution and the drafting of Bill of Rights was significant and of lasting value.


Autobiographical Letter by James Kent NYS Ratifies the US Constitution

Important Cases

Animal Law

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Comity of Laws

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Conflict of Laws

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Court Jurisdiction

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Criminal Law

People v. Mather, 1830

4 Wend. (N.Y.) 229 21 AmD 122 3 Wend. 431 (1830) Juror Disqualification In 1826, William Morgan of Batavia, New ...
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People v. William Freeman, 1846

4 Denio 8 (1847) First Use of the Insanity Defense in the United States John Van Nest, a wealthy farmer, ...
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Eminent Domain

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Employment Law

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Family Law

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International Law

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Military Law

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Public Property — Streets

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Evidence — Scientific

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Tort Law

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Seditious Libel

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Courts of the Era

Probate Court, 1778-1823

The Probate Court was established in 1778. Initially, it exercised the prerogative powers of the colonial Governor but later its ...
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Circuit Courts, 1786-1895

In 1786, the Justices of the Supreme Court of Judicature were directed to hold sessions of the Circuit Court in ...
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Surrogate’s Court, 1787 to Present

The Surrogate's Courts are statutory courts that were established by chapter 38 of the Laws of 1787. The Surrogate’s Court, ...
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Court of Oyer and Terminer, 1788-1895

In 1788, the justices were required to convene criminal courts (Oyer and Terminer) during the terms of the Circuit Court ...
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The Marine Court of the City of New York, 1807-1883

The Marine Court was initially known as the Justices’ Court and was established in New York City in 1807. In ...
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The Superior Court of the City of New York, 1828-1894

In New York City, bank failures and the conspiracy cases of 1826 caused severe calendar congestion in the Supreme Court ...
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Judges of the Era

New York Supreme Court of Judicature

John Cozine

1738-1798 Associate Justice of the New York Supreme Court of Judicature, 1798 John Cozine, born in 1738, was a New ...
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Morgan Lewis

1754-1844 Associate Justice of the New York Supreme Court of Judicature, 1792-1800 Chief Justice, 1801-1804 Morgan Lewis was the son ...
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John Lansing, Jr.

1754-1829 Associate Justice of the Supreme Court, 1790-1798 Chief Justice, 1798-1801 Chancellor of New York, 1801-1814 John Ten Eyck Lansing, ...
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Smith Thompson

1768-1843 Associate Justice of the New York Supreme Court, 1802-1814 Chief Justice of New York, 1814-1818 Born on January 17, ...
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(Henry) Brockholst Livingston

1757-1823 Associate Justice of the New York Supreme Court of Judicature, 1802-1806 (Henry) Brockholst Livingston, the son of Governor William ...
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Daniel D. Tompkins

1774-1825 Associate Justice of the New York Supreme Court of Judicature, 1804-1807 Daniel D. Tompkins was born in Westchester County, ...
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History of the Supreme Court

Duely & Constantly Kept: A History of the New York Supreme Court, 1691-1847


New York Chancellors

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Important Figures

New York Attorneys General, 1777-1846

Matthias B. Hildreth

1774-1812 Attorney General of New York, 1808-1810; 1811-1812 Matthias Bernard Hildreth was born in 1774 in Southampton, Long Island. His ...
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Thomas Addis Emmet

1764-1827 Attorney General of New York, 1812 Thomas Addis Emmet was born in Ireland on April 24, 1764, the son ...
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Martin Van Buren

1782-1862 Attorney General of New York, 1815-1819 Martin Van Buren was born on December 5, 1782 in the village of ...
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John Woodworth

1768-1858 Associate Justice of the New York Supreme Court, 1819-1828 John Woodworth was born on November 12, 1768 in Schodack, ...
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Thomas J. Oakley

1783-1857 Attorney General of New York, 1819-1821 Thomas Jackson Oakley was born on November 10, 1783 near Poughkeepsie, New York ...
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Ambrose Spencer

1765-1848 Associate Justice of the New York Supreme Court of Judicature, 1804-1819 Chief Justice, 1819-1823 Justice Ambrose Spencer was born ...
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District Attorneys, 1777-1846


Notable Attorneys

John Van Ness Yates

1779-1839 John Van Ness Yates was born on December 18, 1779 in Albany, New York, the son of Robert Yates, ...
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Harmanus Bleecker

1779-1849 Harmanus Bleecker was born in Albany, New York on October 9, 1779. He received a classical education and was ...
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William H. Seward

1801-1872 William Henry Seward was born in Florida, New York on May 16, 1801. He was educated at the Farmers' ...
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Charles O’Conor

1804-1884 Charles O'Conor was born on January 22, 1804, in New York City, the son of a rebel who fled ...
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About the Period

New York Constitutions of 1777 & 1821

The New York Constitution of 1777 (Courtesy NYS Archives)

The New York Constitution of 1777 (Transcript)

The New York Bill of Rights of 1787

1801 Constitutional Amendments

New York Constitution of 1821 (Transcript)

Excerpts from Charles Z. Lincoln’s Constitutional History of New York

Courtesy the New York State Library

Commentary on the 1st NY Constitution

Commentary on the 1787 Bill of Rights

Commentary on the 1801 Amendments to the NY Constitution

Commentary on the 2nd NY Constitution

Other Constitutional Commentaries

The New York State Constitution, 2nd Edition, by Peter J. Galie & Christopher Bopst (London: Oxford University Press, 2012)

New York and the Ratification of the Federal Constitution

The United States Constitution, New York’s Ratification Statement and Instructions to the New York Delegates & Transcript

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An Empire of Reason (Video)

A Rein on Government: New York’s Constitution of 1777 and Bill of Rights of 1787 by John P. Kaminski, New York Legal History Vol. 1, No. 1 (2005)

New York State’s Role in the Creation and Adoption of the Bill of Rights by Betsy L. Rosenblatt, New York History (October 1991), pp. 407-420

(The definitive work on New York’s ratification of the Constitution is: The Documentary History of the Ratification of the Constitution: Ratification by the States: New York, Volumes XIX-XXIII, edited by John P. Kaminski et al (Madison: Wisconsin Historical Society Press, 2005))

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