restricted access Introduction: Alexander Hamilton, Lawyer and Lawmaker
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1 Alexander Hamilton never handed down decisions from a Supreme Court bench, nor did he write influential treatises on law. Yet he became the central figure in the development of American law during the early republic era. Hamilton’s authority over the formation of a republican jurisprudence both fit for a newly independent nation and compliant with the recently ratified Constitution was extensive; he transformed inherited imperial law into legal and constitutional principles befitting the American experiment in government, one that aimed to divide sovereignty among a central national government, individual states, and the American people. Hamilton’s formative influence on American law was a direct result of his unique role in the American founding. During the two decades of his career after the army, Hamilton served as a powerful and effective statesman in President George Washington’s Cabinet and as a preeminent attorney, representing the US government and private clients alike. His influence on the development of federal and state jurisprudence would persist decades after his death, well into the nineteenth century. Hamilton’s impact was so foundational, in fact, that even Hamilton’s political and ideological adversaries —Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, Andrew Jackson, and their partisans—adopted Hamiltonian constitutionalism to govern. We do not think of Hamilton as the father of his country, like we do Washington, nor Alexander Hamilton, Lawyer and Lawmaker introduction x 2 introduction is he considered the father of the Constitution, like Madison; but Alexander Hamilton deserves to be remembered as a father of American law. Born in either 1755 or 1757 on the isle of Nevis, British West Indies, Alexander Hamilton grew up sensitive to the social stigma attached to his illegitimate birth. His mother died in 1768, and an impoverished but ambitious young Hamilton worked to support himself, joining the mercantile house of Beekman and Cruger in St. Croix as a clerk. When Hamilton demonstrated his perspicacity and managerial abilities on the job, Nicholas Cruger and another benevolent patron, the Reverend Hugh Knox, sponsored the young clerk’s escape from West Indian obscurity by underwriting Hamilton’s formal education in America. Hamilton arrived in New Jersey in 1772. Soon after Hamilton moved to New York and enrolled in King’s College (now Columbia University), revolutionary fervor swept through New York City, and he seized this opportunity to taste glory and to rise to prominence. Hamilton organized a company of provincial artillery, and soon after, in March 1777, General George Washington appointed the young artillery captain to join his family of aides-de-camp. Although he served Washington as a most trusted wartime subordinate, Lieutenant Colonel Hamilton eventually resigned as the general’s aide to lead his own battalions at the battle of Yorktown. He left the Continental Army in 1781. After the war, and with a new wife and son in tow, Hamilton began to read law in preparation for what would be an illustrious and lucrative practice in his adopted home. An astonishingly quick study, Hamilton was admitted to practice before the New York Supreme Court bar by July 1782; the state then admitted him as common law counsel in October 1782, and he qualified as both a solicitor and counsel in the Court of Chancery in 1783.1 Hamilton practiced law in New York until he became the young republic’s first secretary of the treasury in September 1789. Before taking the post in Washington’s Cabinet, he also served in the Confederation Congress, in the New York assembly, and as a delegate to the Annapolis and Philadelphia constitutional conventions as well as the New York ratifying convention, during the 1780s. Hamilton then quickly resumed his private caseload after resigning his Cabinet post in January 1795. Ever the industrious attorney, Hamilton had pressing business awaiting him in the New York courts up until his untimely death at the hand of Aaron Burr, a fellow member of the New York bar, on July 12, 1804. Like other members of America’s founding generation, Hamilton trained and practiced in the tradition of the common law, a centuries-old amalgamation of homegrown English, and later American, colonial law that also Alexander Hamilton, Lawyer and Lawmaker 3 incorporated elements borrowed from the civil, canon, and natural law traditions . English lawyers exported the common law, as well as European Enlightenment traditions grounded in reason, natural law, and scientific inquiry , to the British colonies and around the world. Enlightenment thought infused into legal communities on both sides of the...