The Courtroom Where It Happened: Hamilton As A Lawyer

The Courtroom Where It Happened: Hamilton As A Lawyer

This article originally appeared in Law360 (September 28, 2016).

“A legislative folly has afforded so plentiful a harvest to us lawyers that we have scarcely a moment to spare from the substantial business of reaping.” The busy lawyer speaking here was Alexander Hamilton. He was describing his good fortune in a letter to Gouverneur Morris in 1784.[1]The war was over and Hamilton was laboring in cases involving New York laws enacted to penalize those who had remained loyal to Great Britain.[2] Little has changed in 230 years. Legislatures are still in the folly business and lawyers of reaping the harvest. Alexander Hamilton was also a founding father of government law work.

Often lost in all the talk about Alexander Hamilton, first Secretary of the Treasury, is that he was also an extremely important New York lawyer. Hamilton was admitted to the bar in 1782 — after just six months of self-study,[3]an exercise that he described in a letter to Marquis de Lafayette as “studying the art of fleecing my neighbors.”[4] Hamilton had an extensive law practice until his death in 1804.[5] He wrote what is considered to be the first treatise in the field of private law and may have done so while he was studying for the bar.[6]Hamilton certainly did get a lot farther "by working a lot harder, by being a lot smarter, by being a self- starter."[7]

Unlike today’s uber-specialization for lawyers, Hamilton handled cases of many stripes, including contracts, creditor’s rights, admiralty, maritime insurance and constitutional law.[8] Yet, despite what Hamilton told Lafayette he was doing to his neighbors, one noted historian wrote that Hamilton “seemed relatively indifferent to money, and many contemporaries expressed amazement at his reasonable fees.”[9] Perhaps Hamilton was motivated by something greater than the paper that would later bare his picture — an impersonator singing two centuries later: “I practiced the law, I practically perfected it. I’ve seen injustice in the world and I’ve corrected it.”[10]

Ron Chernow, whose award-winning and bestselling 2004 biography, "Alexander Hamilton"[11], was the inspiration for Lin-Manuel Miranda’s smash hit musical now on the Great White Way, told me in an email that Hamilton’s life as a lawyer is a “wonderful and overlooked subject” and encouraged me to write about it. I’m not in the habit of turning down writing advice from Pulitzer Prize winners ("Washington: A Life" (2011)).

Chernow says that Hamilton was “regarded as one of the premier lawyers of the early republic.”[12] And the biographer does an impressive job of making that case — pointing to incredible accolades bestowed on Hamilton by judges who were witnesses to his work. Chernow also describes Hamilton as having a “taste for courtroom theatrics,” “the most durable pair of lungs in the New York bar,” and a “melodious voice coupled with a hypnotic gaze, and he could work himself up into a towering passion that held listeners enthralled.”[13]He also had “an incorrigible weakness for aiding women in need.”[14]

Defender Of The Press And Foreshadowing Donald Trump

One of Hamilton’s most important contributions as a lawyer — and one still felt today by the press — was his representation of Harry Croswell. Croswell was a journalist indicted in New York for libel against President Thomas Jefferson. He was tried in 1803. All that was required to convict was proving that the published statements were defamatory. Truth of the statements was not a consideration. Croswell was found guilty.

Croswell appealed to New York’s highest court — where he was now represented by Hamilton. In a six-hour argument before the bench, Hamilton maintained that “[t]he right of giving the truth in evidence, in cases of libels, is all important to the liberties of the people.”[15]One of the judges in the case years later stated of Hamilton’s presentation that “a more able and eloquent argument was perhaps never heard in any court.” [16] This judicial admirer adopted, as “perfectly correct,” Hamilton’s argument that “the liberty of the press consists in the right to publish, with impunity, truth, with good motives, and for justifiable ends, whether it respects government, magistracy or individuals.”[17]While Croswell lost — because the court tied — his case is regarded as the beginning of the adoption of the now fundamental principle that truth is a defense in libel cases. The rule of law that Hamilton advocated was ultimately implemented into New York’s Constitution.[18]

The Croswell case is still cited in judicial decisions two centuries later, sometimes with a nod to Hamilton’s involvement and his significant contribution to a free press. A New York court in 2000 cited Croswell, and Hamilton’s role — calling him a “tireless defender of freedom of the press in New York” — in its decision to permit a television station to televise a criminal trial.[19]

In a 1972 decision, the venerable D.C. Circuit, in a Federal Communications Commission licensing dispute, went out of its way to make the point that Hamilton, owing to Croswell, made the “greatest single contribution” toward preventing the use of prosecution of the press as a political weapon.[20]

Biographer Chernow notes that Jefferson was “not quite the saintly purist that he pretended” when it came to freedom of the press.[21] To that point, Chernow says that Hamilton had Jefferson in mind when, during his Croswell argument, Hamilton stated that “men the most zealous reverers of the people’s rights have, when placed on the highest seat of power, become the most deadly oppressors. It becomes therefore necessary to observe the actual conduct of those who are thus raised up.”[22]

So Hamilton no doubt would not be surprised to learn that one of the candidates for the nation’s “highest seat of power,” after spending a lifetime as a businessman cultivating and playing the press, stated earlier this year: “I’m going to open up our libel laws so when they [the press] write purposely negative and horrible and false articles we can sue them and win lots of money.”[23]

The Manhattan Well Mystery

In Chernow’s biography the author says that Hamilton rarely handled criminal cases, but when he did it was usually on a pro bono basis. This, Chernow says, is evidence that “challenges the historic stereotype of Hamilton as an imperious snob.” [24]

That Hamilton — whose practice was so heavily dominated by commercial cases — handled any criminal cases is remarkable, when viewed through the lens of the modern legal profession. An intelligent person today wouldn’t let a commercial lawyer represent them in a jaywalking case. But that was a long time ago and a world away from today’s sharp line that usually separates civil and criminal practitioners.

A criminal case that Hamilton did handle — murder, no less — was People v. Levi Weeks. One of his co-counsel was Aaron Burr. (“I practiced law, Burr worked next door.”[25]) The Historical Society of the New York Courts credits the Levi Weeks case as the first murder trial in the country for which there is a formal record.[26] The significance of the Weeks case was not lost on Miranda: “Gentlemen of the jury, I’m curious, bear with me. Are you aware that we’re making hist’ry? This is the first murder trial of our brand-new nation. The liberty behind Deliberation.”[27]

The Levi Weeks case reads like an episode of Dateline NBC. It is easy to imagine Keith Morrison, in that creepy — but can’t-get-enough-of — voice describing the facts. On a snowy evening in late 1799, 22 year-old Gulielma Sands left her boarding house. It was the last time that she would be seen alive. She was found eleven days later, fully clothed, in a wooden well owned by the Manhattan Well Company. Her fiancé, Levi Weeks, quickly found himself under suspicion as the murderer. There was also gossip that Weeks had impregnated her. A coroner’s inquest found that she was not pregnant. However, her body was placed on public display so that the curious could decide for themselves. Public interest in the case was huge. Weeks was indicted for the murder of Sands and placed on trial with Hamilton, Burr and Brockholst Livingston at his side.[28][29]

The defense team claimed that Weeks had an alibi — he was dining with his brother on the night that Sands went missing — and had no motive to kill Sands. The defense also attacked the credibility of a key prosecution witness — Richard Croucher, “a shady salesman of ladies’ garments,” and tenant at Sands’ boarding house — by making him admit that he had quarreled with Weeks. Sands’ promiscuity was also placed into evidence.[30]

According to Hamilton’s son, John, his father was suspicious of Croucher and placed candles on each side of Croucher’s face while he was testifying. After an objection was overruled, Hamilton called upon the jury to “mark every muscle of his face, every motion of his eye. I conjure you to look through that man’s countenance to his conscious.” Croucher, according to John Hamilton’s account, supposedly “plunged from one admission to another.”[31] Following five minutes of deliberation the jury returned a verdict, finding Levi Weeks not guilty.[32]

The manner of proceeding of the Weeks trial is unthinkable by today’s standards. The trial, with 75 witnesses supposedly sworn, began on March 31, 1800, at 10 a.m. It proceeded continuously until 1:30 a.m. on April 1. The trial resumed at 10 a.m. and didn’t stop until the verdict was announced near 3 a.m. on April 2.[33]

People v. Levi Weeks, the first murder trial in the country for which there is a formal record, shares several similarities to another murder trial of historic proportions. Levi Weeks had a legal dream team, he allegedly murdered a woman — with whom he had a marriage connection — in a gruesome manner, his case had huge public and press fascination and he was found not guilty after just minutes of deliberation. Sound familiar?

Rutgers v. Waddington: Judicial Review

While not as exciting as freedom of the press or murder, Hamilton was involved in a case that has been said to be “a marker on the long road that led to the ultimate formulation of the American doctrine of judicial review.”[34] Rutgers v. Waddington is a highly complicated case that involved the 1783 Trespass Act, “which allowed patriots who had left properties behind enemy lines to sue anyone who had occupied, damaged or destroyed them.”[35] In general, Elizabeth Rutgers, relying on the Trespass Act, sought rent from Joshua Waddington for occupation of her brewery during the war.[36]

A detailed discussion of Rutgers v. Waddington is beyond the scope here. Here is how a federal appeals court summarized it 200 years later in a case involving the impact of treaties on a purchase of land: “On at least one occasion during the Confederation a New York court decided a case in which it was claimed (by no less an advocate than Alexander Hamilton) that a New York statute was invalid because of a conflict with the Articles of Confederation. Rutgers v. Waddington (unreported) (Mayor’s Court of New York City 1784), summarized in 1 J. Goebel, supra, at 132-34.

The court was urged to conclude that the state statute, authorizing a trespass action for military occupation of private homes, was contrary to alleged releases effected by the Treaty of Paris, ending the war with Great Britain, and thereby interfered with Congress’ authority under the articles. The court appeared to accept the proposition that no state could alter the Confederation or a treaty of the United States, but ultimately decided the case by narrowly construing the state statute, in light of the law of nations, to deny any benefit to the claimant. See 1 J. Goebel, supra, 131-37.” [37]

For Hamilton, Rutgers v. Waddington was much more than just a single Trespass Act case involving a rent dispute. Chenow’s biography addresses in detail the impact of the case on Hamilton’s career as a lawyer, the issues surrounding his decision to defend loyalists after the war and his development of concepts that he later expanded upon in The Federalist Papers. [38]

Two centuries after Aaron Burr’s shot heard ‘round the world, Hamilton’s work as a lawyer remains influential. And the former Treasury secretary is still teaching economics lessons as well. Thanks to the insane ticket prices for the Broadway production of the life of the "10-dollar founding father," my Hamilton-obsessed 10-year-old now understands supply and demand.

[1]  Francis Paschal, “The Law Practice of Alexander Hamilton, edited by Julius Goebel, Jr.,” Indiana Law Review, Vol. 40, Iss. 4 (1965), at 599 (“Paschal”), citing 3 The Papers of Alexander Hamilton 512 (Syrett ed. 1962).
[2]  Id. at 602.
[3]  Ron Chernow, Alexander Hamilton, p. 169, Penguin Books, 2004 (paperback) (“Chernow”).
[4]  Paschal at 599, citing 3 The Papers of Alexander Hamilton 192.
[5]  Hamilton’s two decades as a lawyer are chronicled in "The Law Practice of Alexander Hamilton," a five volume set published by Columbia University Press, between 1964 and 1981, and edited by Julius Goebel, Jr. and others (“The Law Practice of Alexander Hamilton”).
[6]  Paschal at 600-01, discussing the origin of Hamilton’s practice manual, Practical Proceedings in the Supreme Court of New York.
[7]  Lin-Manuel Miranda, “Alexander Hamilton,” Hamilton (Original Broadway Cast Recording), Atlantic Recording Corporation (2015) (“Hamilton Soundtrack”).
[8]  See The Law Practice of Alexander Hamilton, generally.
[9]  Chernow at 188.
[10]  Hamilton Soundtrack, “Non-Stop.”
[11]  See note 3. The details contained in the accounts in Chernow’s book are staggering. The book includes 2,925 endnotes.
[12]  Chernow at 189.
[13]  Id. at 190.
[14]  Id. at 189.
[15]  Historical Society of the New York Courts ( york/legal-history-eras-02/history-new-york-legal-eras-people-croswell.html).
[16]  The Law Practice of Alexander Hamilton, Vol. 1, at 848, n.130.
[17]  People v. Croswell, 3 Johns. Cas. 337, 393-94 (N.Y. 1804).
[18]  The Law Practice of Alexander Hamilton, Vol. 1, at 848.
[19]  People v. Santiago, 185 Misc. 2d 138, 150 (N.Y. Sup. Ct. Monroe Cty. 2000).
[20]  Brandywine--Main Line Radio, Inc. v. FCC, 473 F.2d 16, 53 n.167 (D.C. Cir. 1972).
[21]  Chernow at 667.
[22]  Id. at 669.
[23]  Deborah Barfield Berry, “Trump says he’ll ‘open up’ libel laws if he’s elected,” USA Today, Feb. 27, 2016 ( says-hell-open-up-libel-laws-if-hes-elected/81042044/).
[24]  Chernow at 603.
[25]  Hamilton Soundtrack, “Non-Stop.”
[26]  Historical Society of the New York Courts ( york/legal-history-eras-02/history-new-york-legal-eras-people-weeks.html).
[27]  Hamilton Soundtrack, “Non-Stop.”

[28]  See Chernow at 603-04 for a fuller description of the death of Gulielma Sands, from which this summary was prepared.
[29]  Livingston was himself no my cousin Vinny. He was an officer in the Revolutionary War, a justice of the New York Court of Appeals and an Associate Justice of the Supreme Courtof the United States from 1807 to 1823.
[30]  See Chernow at 605 for a fuller description of the trial of Weeks, from which this summary was prepared. Chernow also notes that Sands had “a little weakness for laudanum.” [Laudanum is a type of opium. I had to look that up.] 
[31]  The Law Practice of Alexander Hamilton, Vol. 1, at 700 and noting that John Hamilton’s account of the candle episode is subject to debate.
[32]  Id. at 704. Just a few months later Croucher was convicted of raping a 13 year-old girl. Id. at 700, n.33.
[33]  Id. at 695.
[34]  Id. at 283.
[35]  Chernow at 195.
[36]  Historical Society of the New York Courts ( york/legal-history-eras-02/history-new-york-legal-eras-rutgers-waddington.html).
[37]  Oneida Indian Nation v. New York, 860 F.2d 1145, 1151, n.4 (2d Cir. 1988).
[38]  Chernow at 194-99.

Featured Members