Hamilton the Lawyer

Ron Chernow explores Alexander Hamilton’s many sides in his best-selling biography, Alexander Hamilton (Penguin Press, 2004), which inspired Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Broadway blockbuster: indigent adolescent immigrant orphan; Gen. George Washington’s most trusted aide during the American Revolution; post-war political leader in New York who participated in the Constitutional Convention of 1787; initiator and co-author of the Federalist Papers, which were instrumental in the success of the post-convention ratification effort; President Washington’s most trusted cabinet member as the country’s first secretary of the treasury; financial genius whose ideas got the nation’s economy off to a sustainable beginning; extortion victim in an extramarital affair with Maria Reynolds; founder of the Federalist Party and arch-enemy to Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and their Republican Party; and, finally, fatality in the duel with Aaron Burr.

Amidst his subject’s highly accomplished and dramatic life, Chernow highlights an important side to Hamilton’s career that until now has received little attention. When he wasn’t involved in military or political affairs, Hamilton was a spectacular lawyer recognized as being at the top of his profession in New York City, with an elite clientele and a well-earned reputation for frequent trial and appellate victories.

His path to becoming a lawyer and his sense of professional ethics are strikingly similar to those of Abraham Lincoln. Both Hamilton and Lincoln prepared to become members of the bar by instructing themselves (largely by reading Sir William Blackstone’s Commentaries on the Laws of England) without being trained in any type of clerking apprenticeship. After being admitted to the bar, both men maintained reverence for the law throughout their careers; became well known for charging extremely reasonable fees; had a flair for courtroom drama; had outstanding reputations for discerning the most important parts and principles in a case; were highly respected by the judges who presided over their trials; and on occasion took on pro bono cases. With Hamilton’s command of the tools in his lawyer’s toolkit, Chernow explains how he put them to good use in his commercial and political activities:

  • As a master draftsman, he drew up the charter for the Bank of New York that “was taken up as the pattern for many subsequent bank charters and helped to define the rudiments of American banking.”
  • In advocating for ratification of the Constitution after the convention, he showed he “had the attorney’s ability to make the best case for an imperfect client,” and at the New York state ratification convention, he “cross-examined an opponent to the Constitution in prosecutorial style.”
  • His Federalist Papers “showed special solicitude for an independent judiciary that had the power to check legislative abuses and laid the groundwork for judicial review.”
  • As secretary of the treasury, he “quickly built an institutional framework consistent with constitutional principles … and converted the Constitution into a flexible instrument necessary for economic growth, activating three still amorphous clauses — the necessary-and-proper clause, the general-welfare clause, and the commerce clause.”
  • As President Washington pondered whether America should take a side in the war between England and France, in cabinet meetings, Hamilton “pummeled listeners with authorities on international law,” and also, in his successful advocacy for neutrality, according to Thomas Jefferson, “made a jury speech of three-quarters of an hour.”
  • As House Republicans led by Madison opposed Jay’s Treaty and in their quest to derail it, sought access to Washington’s correspondence with John Jay, Hamilton invented executive privilege to protect the confidentiality of the president’s documents.
  • In summary, just as Pulitzer Prize-winning historian James McPherson has concluded that Lincoln successfully navigated the Civil War’s constitutional and political minefield only because of his superior legal skills, Pulitzer winner Chernow also has made a compelling case that Hamilton’s virtuoso talents as a lawyer played a major role in allowing the United States to move forward during its infancy with a workable Constitution, an independent judiciary, an expanding economy, a prudent foreign policy, and a strong presidency that could hold its own with Congress.

Talmage Boston is a commercial litigator in the Dallas office of Shackelford, Bowen, McKinley & Norton. He is also a historian and the author of four books.

This article was originally printed in the January 2019 issue of the Texas Bar Journal and is reprinted with permission.

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