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John K. Kane


John K. Kane

John Kintzing Kane (May 16, 1795 – February 21, 1858) was an American politician, attorney and jurist. Kane was noted for his political affiliation with President Andrew Jackson and for an 1855 pro-slavery legal decision dealing with the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850.

Kane was born in Albany, New York, the son of Elisha Kane and Alida Van Rensselaer. He graduated from Yale University in 1814, studied law with Joseph Hopkinson, and was admitted to the bar on April 18, 1817. He established a legal practice in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

Kane married Jane Duval Leiper in 1819. The couple had six children, included two well-known sons. Elisha Kent Kane was a naval officer, physician and explorer. He was a member of two Arctic expeditions which attempted to rescue the explorer Sir John Franklin. Thomas L. Kane was an attorney, abolitionist and military officer who was influential in the western migration of the Latter-day Saint movement and served as a Union colonel and general of volunteers in the American Civil War.

Kane was active in founding Girard College and was involved in the appointment of the institution's first board of trustees. Kane was one of the trustees and legal advisers of the Presbyterian church in the United States. He also took a prominent role in the controversy which eventually divided the Presbyterian church into the "new" and "old" schools. From 1856 until his death, he was President of the American Philosophical Society.

Kane died in Philadelphia on February 21, 1858, and was buried at Laurel Hill Cemetery in Philadelphia.

Political career

Intensely interested in politics and public affairs, Kane was a member of the Federalist party as a young man and served in the Pennsylvania legislature in 1823. Shortly afterward, he moved his allegiance to the Democratic party. He filled the office of solicitor of Philadelphia in 1828-1830.

Kane supported Andrew Jackson in 1828, and received a number of appointments and honors during Jackson's administration. In 1832, Kane was appointed as one of three commissioners under the "Convention of Indemnity with France of 4 July of 1831." This commission was charged with collecting reparations paid by France to the United States for damages the country had received to its shipping and trade during recent European wars. He was a primary author of the commission's report, and prepared the record of "Notes" on questions decided by the board. This material was published after the conclusion of the board's activities in 1836.

Kane drafted the first printed attack on the United States Bank, and is credited with preparing written materials and speeches on the topic which were used by President Jackson. His friendship with the President led to a period of social difficulty in Philadelphia, which was a stronghold of the "bank" party. A memorable letter addressed by Jackson to James K. Polk during the campaign of 1844 was written by Kane, and he was an effective manager of the Democratic party during what is known as the Buckshot War in Pennsylvania.

Legal actions

Kane became attorney-general of Pennsylvania in 1845, but on June 11, 1846, Kane was nominated by President James K. Polk to a seat as a United States District Court judge for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, which had been vacated by Archibald Randall. Kane was confirmed by the United States Senate on June 17, 1846, and received commission the same day. He held that judicial office for the rest of his life. He was distinguished both for his knowledge of the law and his judicial decisions. Many of his rulings impacted admiralty and patent law.

His pro-slavery decision in the case of the slave Jane Johnson and the abolitionist Passmore Williamson, who was committed for contempt of court under the Fugitive Slave Law, came immediately under fire. This case, a year and a half earlier than the better-known Dred Scott decision, denied the escaped slave all legal rights and placed legal penalties on the actions of abolitionists. Kane was violently attacked by the Abolition party and the liberal press. Angry stories were found in major papers, including Horace Greeley’s influential New York Tribune, the National Anti-Slavery Standard of New York, and William Lloyd Garrison’s The Liberator out of Boston. The Hartford Religious Herald wrote: "A tyrannical judge is one of the vilest and most dangerous of despots. We refer to Judge Kane of Philadelphia. Fellow citizens of the North, let us unite to free our country from this degrading bondage of the Slave Power."

The Judge's son, Thomas L, Kane, held a position as a Clerk of the District Court in eastern Pennsylvania. An abolitionist, Thomas Kane was distressed at the passage of the Compromise of 1850, and the associated Fugitive Slave Act, which increased his legal responsibility to return fleeing slaves to southern territories. He tendered his resignation to his father, who had the younger Kane jailed for contempt of court. The U.S. Supreme Court overruled this arrest.

Although the public breach between father and son was well known, Thomas and his wife Elizabeth DW Kane continued to live at the home of Judge Kane. Actually, the Judge politely ignored the unidentified Negroes whom Thomas brought to their home, only to take them to other stations on the Underground Railway, later in the night. Although Judge Kane felt himself required to enforce Federal Slavery Laws, he colluded with the anti-slavery acts of his son.


  • Kevin R. Chaney. "Kane, John Kintzing"; American National Biography Online Feb. 2000. Accessed October 2006 (subscription required).
  • King, Moses. Philadelphia and Notable Philadelphians. New York: 1901.
  • Federal Judicial Center.

External links

  • The Liberation of Jane Johnson -- an account of the Wheeler-Williamson case

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