Biography of Esek Cowen

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THIS name appears on the title pages of countless thousands of legal volumes, monuments to the erudition and patient research of its owner, who for many years was a resident of the village of Saratoga Springs, and who began, in this county, the practice of the profession which he honored. He was born in Rhode Island, February 24, 1784, a son of Joseph Cowen, who was a son of John Cowen, a Scotch emigrant who settled in Scituate, Mass., in 1656. Joseph Cowen removed with his family to this county about 1793, but in a few years settled at Hartford, Washington county. Here Esek Cowen labored upon his father’s land until he reached his sixteenth year when he began his legal studies in the office of Roger Skinner at Sandy Hill. It is said that the only educational advantages he ever enjoyed were gained by a six months’ attendance at a neighborhood school. He was in every sense of the term a self-educated man. In 1810 he was admitted to the Supreme Court bar and as above stated began practice in Saratoga county, locating at Northumberland, and forming a partnership with Gardner Stowe, and later being associated with Wessell Gansevoort. In 1817 he formed a partnership with Judge William L. F. Warren which continued until 1824. He was also associated for some years with Judiah Ellsworth. He removed to Saratoga Springs in 1812 and soon gained recognition. He was a man who would have attracted notice anywhere for he was possessed of indomitable energy and remarkable endurance, an athletic frame, being over six feet tall, and of fine muscular development. Later in life the dignity of years gave him a commanding presence and bearing—not oppressive but of simple charm.

He first held the office of justice of the peace in the village, and in 1821—22 served the town as supervisor. In 1824 he was appointed reporter in the Supreme Court and Court of Errors, a position which he held until appointed a circuit judge by Governor Van Buren. His reports cover nine volumes and are justly prized by the profession. In 1835 he was appointed a justice of the Supreme Court, succeeding Judge Savage, and in this office he continued until his death in 1844.

In addition to his “Reports” he published a “Treatise on the Practice in Justices’ Courts” and “Cowen and Hill’s Notes on Phillips’ Evidence.” This latter work was published in 1839 and represents eleven years of labor. He was assisted in its preparation by Nicholas Hill, elsewhere noticed in this book. It was these works which made his name famous.

Socially Judge Cowen was a man of noble character and his attainments made him a delightful companion. The “Stone house,” his home on Congress street in Saratoga Springs, was the abode of rare and kindly hospitality. He was by nature generous and gave material aid as well as advice to many a young struggler. With Dr. Clarke and Judge Walker he built the Bethesda Episcopal chapel. He was a founder of the first temperance society in the United States—the Northumberland—established in 1812. The following description has been written of him: “As a writer he was plain but accurate; as a judge, prompt, acute, learned and upright. But it was as a jurist that he was best known. Of his opinions which so eminently distinguish him as a jurist, it has been said that in their depth and breadth of research, and their strength and reason of bearing, they are not excelled by those of any judge in England or America. Hiè opulent mind, his love of research, caused him to trace every legal opinion to its fountain-head, to discover every variation between apparently analogous precedents. Like Lord Mansfield, to whom he has frequently been compared, he was accustomed, in the preparation of his opinions, to a liberal expenditure of mental capital, an excess of intellectual labor which renders them the triumph of a great genius, impelled by an unprecedented industry.”

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