Egbert Benson was born in New York City on 21 June 1746. His father Robert, a brewer, was English while his mother Catherine Van Borsum was descended from a New York Dutch family. The third among their four sons, Egbert was raised for his first six years by his maternal grandmother. He attended school taught in the Dutch language and was steeped in the catechism of the Dutch Reformed Church. Proud of his Dutch ancestry, Benson wore his ethnic identity like a badge throughout his long life.
After graduating from King's College (now Columbia University) in 1765, Benson chose a career in the law. Under the tutelage of one of the city's foremost lawyers, John Morin Scott, he passed the bar in January 1769 and commenced practice. Eschewing the fierce competition in New York City, he soon moved up the Hudson River to Red Hook in Dutchess County. Chancellor James Kent, who read law under Benson, thought him second only to Hamilton in his command of legal principles.
Benson formally joined New York's revolutionary movement in 1775 when he attended the Provisional Congress, his first political office. Throughout the remainder of the Revolutionary War and the Confederation period he served in a series of offices at the state level. These included the first state attorney general from 1777 to 1789, commissioner to settle New York's boundary disputes with Vermont in 1777 and Massachusetts in 1784, and state Assemblyman from 1777 to 1781. His influence and effectiveness as a state legislator and administrator derived in part from his confidential friendship with long time Governor George Clinton.
Benson had an undistinguished record as a delegate to the Confederation Congress. First elected in 1781, he did not attend; elected again in 1784, 1787, and 1788 he attended a total of less than five months despite the fact that Congress met in New York City. In 1783 Washington named him a commissioner to coordinate the evacuation of Loyalists from New York City. In September 1786, he and Hamilton represented New York at the Annapolis Convention, where Benson acted as secretary. A resolution that he later introduced in the state Assembly became the basis for the official action calling a convention to ratify the Constitution. A staunch Federalist, he was defeated for election to that convention.
During the first federal election, the call for a second federal convention sharply divided New York's third congressional district, comprised of the predominantly Antifederalist Dutchess County and the northern part of Federalist Westchester County. There, Benson faced a younger and relatively unknown Antifederalist lawyer named Theodorus Bailey. After rejecting some of Bailey's votes for their "irregularity,"1
the legislature on 8 April declared Benson the winner by ten votes. He took his seat in Congress the next day, and was equally prompt to the two succeeding sessions, being present on the scheduled opening dates. His only official leave was for two weeks beginning 2 July 1790
During the first session, and probably the second, Benson kept bachelor quarters at the corner of Nassau and Pine Streets. His living arrangement was not prompted by lack of friends. According to Benson's own Reminiscences, he was on most intimate terms with such local luminaries as Hamilton, King, and Schuyler. State Chancellor Robert R. Livingston and Chief Justice John Jay were friends from college days, while Ellsworth
, and Strong were more recent additions to his circle.
Benson's most significant contributions to the First Congress were made behind the scenes. He served on a total of thirty-nine committees. Many, including seven of the nine committees he reported for, dealt with administrative matters, from planning the inaugural ceremony to the use of presidential titles. His assignments covered the full spectrum of Congress's agenda, and included the standing committee on elections and Grand Committees on the three executive departments and on the proposed amendments to the Constitution. Two of his committees touched on New York's interests specifically: the committee that drafted the Vermont Act [HR-128] and the committee on the Sandy Hook Lighthouse at the entrance to New York Harbor. From 23 February to 22 March 1790 he served as chairman of the Committee of the Whole House.
Benson's terse, unadorned style of speech was rarely heard on the floor. Not surprisingly, he rose most often during the first session debates on the organization of the judicial and executive branches, where his judicial and administrative experience proved an asset in the movement for an assertive, efficient central government. In one of his longest speeches, he defended the extensive judicial establishment proposed in the Judiciary Act [S-1], claiming that the rejection of the district court system "would involve a total abandonment of the judicial power."2
In the later debate on the Salaries-Judiciary Act [HR-28], he argued for high salaries "in order to command the first abilities."3
On 8 February 1790
, Benson was one of eight members of Congress sworn in as a counsellor admitted to argue before the Supreme Court.
One of Benson's most significant contributions to the infant federal judiciary was a motion he made only days before the end of the Congress. On 3 March he proposed an amendment to the Constitution which would incorporate the state supreme courts into the national court system. The maneuver was designed to counter proposals by Attorney General Edmund Randolph that aimed at keeping federal jurisdiction cases in state courts. By overdramatizing the divisiveness of the issue of federal jurisdiction, Benson succeeded in persuading the House to postpone the entire issue indefinitely.
As an advocate of a strong and efficient executive, Benson renounced the suggestion that the treasury be headed by a board rather than a single secretary. He also counselled distributing the duties of a home secretary among the three "great departments," and defended the president's exclusive right to remove the heads of all three. His speeches as well as his roll call votes on the power of removal under the Foreign Affairs Act [HR-8]
indicate that he believed it was an inherent right of the executive, "fixed by a fair legislative construction of the constitution."4
He voted with majorities in favor of the relatively high salaries and appropriations under the Salaries-Executive Act [HR-21] and the Indian Treaties Act [HR-20], and he stood, with a minority this time, in favor of the president's power to authorize writs under the Courts Act [S-4].
Benson was a core member of the Madison coalition that supported rights-based amendments to the Constitution. He spoke rarely during the amendments debate, although his legal background prompted several motions on due process, search and seizure, and double jeopardy. Like Madison, he also advocated that the amendments be incorporated into the body of the Constitution.
Beyond a brief speech opposing discriminatory tariffs on distilled spirits, Benson played no recorded role in the first session debates on the impost, collection, and tonnage. At the end of the session he acted as spokesman for his state delegation in recommending nominees for New York posts under the Collection Act [HR-11]. In the second and third sessions he broke his public silence on economic issues and became an avid and vocal supporter of Hamilton's fiscal programs. He spoke often during the debate on public credit and voted for the assumption of the states' war debts and the Duties on Distilled Spirits Act [HR-110] designed to finance it. He also voted in favor of the Bank Act [S-15].
Benson consistently fought a Potomac capital, and regretted perhaps more than most of his Northern colleagues the relocation of the seat of government southward. His legal practice and his network of friends and acquaintances were centered on New York and its active social circuit. Chancellor Kent recalled Benson as being a handsome man who knew "the pleasures of the table" and how to "keep the table in a roar" by "his fund of anecdotes."5
Pertinacious and disputatious, he turned grave in the presence of women, which may explain his lack of success in courting one of Jeremiah Wadsworth's daughters. He was to remain, in Kent's words, an "invincible bachelor."6
Benson was reelected to the Second Congress, once again beating Bailey but by a wider margin of victory. Soon after leaving Congress in 1793, he was appointed to a specially created fifth seat on the state Supreme Court. In 1801 he left the state bench for one of the federal circuit court judgeships established by the Federalists' short lived Judiciary Act of 1801. He won election as a Federalist to the Thirteenth Congress, but resigned after only a few months and retired from the political stage. He received numerous honorary degrees in his lifetime, and served the cause of higher education as regent of the University of the State of New York and trustee of Columbia College. A self-appointed guardian of New York lore, he founded the New-York Historical Society, and published many antiquarian tracts before his death in Jamaica, Long Island, on 24 August 1833
There is no collection of Benson's papers. The fullest biographical treatment is Egbert Benson: First Chief Justice of the Second Circuit (1801-1802), essays by Wythe Holt and David A. Nourse (New York, 1987). John Trumbull executed a miniature portrait in 1792, now at the Yale University Art Gallery. Gilbert Stuart's 1794 portrait is located at the John Jay Homestead, Katonah, New York.