Joseph K. Angell

Inducted: 2001
Born: 1794
Died: 1857

Angell, Joseph K. (Joseph Kinnicut), 1794-1857

Joseph K. Angell (1794-1857) of Providence was one of America’s foremost legal scholars of his era. Most of his many legal treatises dealt with changes in the law occasioned by the transformation of the American economy from a commercial to an industrial base, and he was the nation’s leading authority on riparian law. Angell also assisted Thomas Dorr in the development of the doctrine of popular constituent sovereignty upon which the People’s Constitution was based. That treatise entitled “The Right of the People to Form a Constitution,” otherwise known as the “Nine Lawyers’ Opinion” is the most cogent and learned statement of the ideology of the Dorr Rebellion.

Joseph, the son of Nathan Angell, a storekeeper, and Amy Kinnicutt, graduated from Brown University in 1813 and then studied law at the famous law school run by Tapping Reeve in Litchfield, Connecticut. Upon his return to Providence, he clerked for Thomas Burgess, a future mayor of the city.

After a two-year sojourn in London, Angell embarked upon a career as a legal theorist and writer of legal treatises and from 1824 he produced a steady stream of books that attempted to meet the dramatic transformation in Rhode Island and America from an agricultural and commercial to an industrial economy. His first book, Treatise on the Common Law in Relation to Watercourses (1824), examined rivers as a source of power for mills. Angell followed this effort with a series of works that were designed to provide both a history and a summary of legal developments in the forms of business organization and the methods for the transportation of goods. He dealt with the rights of property in tidewaters (1826), eminent domain (1847), state taxation of corporations (1837), the law of common carriers (1849), the law of highways (1857), and the law of fire and life insurance (1854). These works exerted a significant influence on the development of American law and were widely praised by contemporary legal scholars.

In the March term of 1845, Angell was appointed as the first reporter for the Supreme Court of Rhode Island. His summaries of the high court’s decisions appeared in pamphlet form in July, 1847 and consisted of cases decided as early as 1828 when the Court had been reorganized and its justices were required to be learned and professional. Angell also prepared a second volume before resigning in 1849.

Angell, who never married, died suddenly in Boston, where he had traveled for business, on May 1, 1857, one day after observing his sixty-third birthday.

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