CES Firm History

If you live in Upstate New York, your history is our history. A great many of the formative historical events of this area, and the nation, are linked to the history of Cooper Erving and Savage LLP, which traces its origin back to 1785.

The name Cooper in the firm comes from Paul Fenimore Cooper and James Fenimore Cooper, son and grandson respectively of the renowned author of Last of the Mohicans. The novel was published in 1826, two years after Paul’s birth. The Cooper family lived in New York City at that time and later moved to France, where Paul acquired a fluency in French. He graduated from Hobart College and attended Harvard Law School. Paul was a partner in the firm from 1851-1895 and James from 1882-1938.

Another name in the firm, William Van Rensselaer Erving, takes the history of the firm back even farther to 1785, when Abraham Van Vechten became the first attorney admitted to the bar in the State of New York after the adoption of the New York State Constitution. Van Vechten was the attorney for the so-called "good patroon" Stephen Van Rensselaer.

The 1895 obituary of Paul Fenimore Cooper in the Albany Evening Journal noted that the firm had its origins in Van Vechten and the Van Rensselaer estate. "Abraham Van Vechten was attorney for the old patroon estate and the new firm continued to conduct the affairs of the estate." The affairs of the estate were substantial. Stephen Van Rensselaer had a worth of several billion dollars and was one of the wealthiest men in the history of the United States.

The firm’s offices display a deed drawn in 1716, by Killiaen Van Rensselaer, 23rd Lord of the Manor, which directed his tenants to pay him not only rent but "one fat sheep on the feast of St. Michael the Archangel." There is also an 1810 deed from the Estate of William Cooper, founder of Cooperstown and father of James Fenimore Cooper, the author, conveying some acreage in the area of Cooperstown. Finally, there is a deed dated 1787 for certain islands in the Chenango River from chiefs of the Onondaga Nation to a resident of Claverack, New York in Columbia County. The chiefs used hand drawn symbols as their signatures, including a turtle, which the firm has adopted as its symbol.

The Van Rensselaers were "Patroons," Dutch landowners who received their real estate titles from the Dutch crown when New York was a Dutch colony. Afterwards, they operated what can only be described as feudal estates in the region. Van Vechten’s good friend and fellow Federalist, Alexander Hamilton, though widely praised as the leader of early American capitalism, drew deeds which tied the tenant farmers to the Van Rensselaer land in a manner that was feudal but technically avoided the legal prohibition on feudalism in the guise of an "incomplete sale." Hamilton and Van Vechten were both married into the family of revolutionary war General Philip Schuyler. Hamilton wrote the first practice manual for lawyers in New York called "Practical Proceedings in the Supreme Court of the State of New York." The earliest surviving manuscript prior to its eventual publication in print is in Van Vechten’s own handwriting.

Van Vechten played a significant role in the famous case of Gibbons v. Ogden, which established the exclusive power of Congress to regulate interstate commerce. New York had granted a franchise to two of its own residents to operate steamboats on New York waterways. The New York Courts upheld the franchise and excluded Gibbons whose attorney Daniel Webster argued the case in the United States Supreme Court, but his argument was based on an opinion by Van Vechten, which was adopted by the Supreme Court, holding that New York’s restrictive law was unconstitutional and that the State lacked the power to exclude Ogden, a former Governor of New Jersey.

Abraham Van Vechten practiced law from 1785-1837. He was joined in the practice by his nephew Teunis Van Vechten who practiced from 1807-1850 and was in partnership in the firm with several other individuals. Teunis was also Mayor of Albany.

In 1843, the firm took in Daniel Cady as a partner, who like Abraham Van Vechten, had begun his law practice in Johnstown. Cady, though later a New York State Supreme Court Justice, is most famous for being the father of Elizabeth Cady Stanton, the legendary advocate for women’s rights. Her sisters married Samuel Wilkeson, Jr. and Duncan McMartin, who were both partners in the firm. In those days, rather than attending law school, attorneys were often trained through apprenticeship with a practicing member of the bar. Daniel Cady trained both Wilkeson and McMartin.

Wilkeson’s first love was journalism. He purchased the Albany Evening Journal newspaper and wrote famous reports on the Battle of Gettysburg for the New York Times. Wilkeson’s son Lt. Brayard Wilkeson led a famous charge in the battle. Left in a farmhouse after having his leg destroyed by a cannon ball, Bayard amputated his own leg but died soon thereafter. The Wilkesons are mentioned in Ken Burns’ documentary on the Civil War. Wilkeson wrote the following words at the conclusion of his article concerning the end of the battle: "Oh, you dead who at Gettysburg have baptised with your blood a second birth of Freedom in American, how you are to be envied." Some that have suggested that these words inspired Lincoln’s words at the end of the Gettysburg address: ". . . that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain; that his nation shall have a new birth of freedom; and that this government of the people, by the people, and for the people, shall not perish from the earth."

Duncan McMartin was a colonel in the Union army and his life also took a path away from the practice of law after the war. He moved to Iowa and became one of the largest landowners in that State.

The firm continued to represent the Van Rensselaer family. Charles M. Jenkins, partner from 1850-1881, when the firm was known as Jenkins and Cooper, was from Rensselaerville and was executor of the estate of Stephen Van Rensselaer IV, the son of the famous patroon.

During the 1840s, after the death of Stephen Van Rensselaer III in 1839, the tenants of his lands fought an armed rebellion, prompted by his heirs’ effort to enforce rents, to eliminate all vestiges of feudalism from Upstate New York. The conflict was called the Anti-Rent Wars. The type of lease that tied the tenant farmers to the land was made unlawful in the Constitutional Convention of the State of New York held in 1846. Nonetheless, legal battles followed over back rents. Jenkins and Cooper represented the rent claimants.

The firm throughout its history reflected the changing demographic, political, and economic landscape of Upstate New York. Reflecting the Irish immigration that began with the building of the Erie Canal in the early 19th century, James F. Tracey, partner from 1882 to 1925, was Irish, Catholic, and a Democrat, unlike the earlier partners who were either of Dutch or English origin, Protestant, and Republican.

For example, William Van Rennselaer Erving, partner from 1925-1940, was the final candidate of the longstanding Republican Barnes machine to run for Mayor of Albany. He lost to William S. Hackett, the first mayor from the Democratic Corning/O’Connell machine. Eugene P. Devine, partner from 1947 to 1974, was Albany County Treasurer and a former director of the Hedrick Brewing Company, well-known as an O’Connell-owned entity. Thomas M. Whalen III, partner from 1964 to 1988, became mayor, after the death of his mentor Corning (though Whalen became known as a reformer). Michael A. Kornstein became the firm’s first Jewish partner in 1983. Kornstein, however, shared a common background with many of the firm’s founders who had graduated from Union College in Schenectady since its founding in 1795.

During the period from the late 19th Century through the 1980s, the firm’s principal clients were banks. Edward P. Rooney, partner from 1929-1970, was also President of First Trust Company and a Trustee of Albany Savings Bank. B. Jermain Savage, another of the name partners in the firm, had similar roles with both banks. He was a partner from 1910-1952. Those two institutions, however, disappeared from Albany as banking was gradually deregulated in the 1980s.

The law firm has had a variety of its partners serve in prominent government positions. Partners have served as United States Congressman, Mayor of Albany, New York State Attorney General, Assistant Secretary of the United States Treasury, Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the Philippines when it was under American control, State Supreme Court Justices, New York State Senator, and local government officials such as City Councilmen, Town Councilmen, and County Legislators. Presently one of the firm’s partners is a member of the New York State Assembly.