The extraordinary success of the Broadway musical “Hamilton” has spiked renewed interest in the accomplishments of the actual Alexander Hamilton (1757-1804). And indeed, Hamilton was a genuine military hero in the Revolutionary War, George Washington’s unofficial chief of staff, author of two-thirds of the “Federalist Papers,” the nation’s first Secretary of the Treasury, and the leading architect of the Early Republic’s market economy. His accomplishments as an attorney have attracted less attention, but legalists in particular might remember that in his era, he was New York City’s pre-eminent attorney.
When Hamilton returned to New York City after the defeat of the British in 1781, he qualified for a veteran’s exemption from the requirement that aspiring attorneys complete an apprenticeship. He studied law on his own for only six months, concentrating his studies on Lord William Blackstone’s “Commentaries on the English Common Law.” He then passed an oral bar examination and was admitted to practice in 1782.
The New York City bar of the 1780s consisted of between 40 and 50 attorneys, and most of them had offices near the southern tip of Manhattan. An instant leader of the bar, Hamilton took an occasional criminal case pro bono, but it was his civil practice that proved especially rewarding and lucrative. He represented merchants, wealthy testators, and maritime insurance companies and proved to be particularly talented in the courtroom. According to his biographer, Ron Chernow, he “had a melodious voice coupled with a hypnotic gaze, and he could work himself up to a towering passion that held listeners enthralled.”
Hamilton put aside his practice to serve as Secretary of the Treasury in Washington’s first cabinet, but he returned to practice during the Adams and Jefferson presidencies at the turn of the nineteenth century. Wealthy clients reportedly besieged him in his Manhattan offices at 12 Garden Street. He remained spellbinding in New York City courtrooms, and, in addition. he frequently argued before appellate judges in Albany. He proved able to speak extemporaneously for hours, all the while uttering grammatically correct sentences and perfectly formed paragraphs. On one occasion, he delivered a six-hour oral argument without flinching.
Hamilton also tutored dozens of apprentices and inspired three of the four sons who survived him to become attorneys. But despite a distinguished career as an attorney he never gave his ultimate allegiance to the law. To be sure, he venerated the Constitution and believed deeply in Blackstone’s version of property rights, but, perhaps because he had overcome a hard-scrabble youth in the West Indies, he attached the greatest importance to reputation and standing. If somebody insulted him, it became a matter of honor, and honor, in his opinion, had to be protected at all cost.
While technically illegal, dueling was common among elite men of the time, and at least sixteen duels took place in New York City between 1795 and 1807. Philip Hamilton, Hamilton’s favorite son, died painfully in one of those duels, and Hamilton himself was involved in duel preliminaries six times and also served as a second on three occasions.
In the early summer of 1804, Hamilton accepted Aaron Burr’s request for a duel, and Hamilton‘s determination to preserve his honor led to his death. Always the conscientious attorney, he asked that the date for the duel be set a few weeks later so that he could tend to lawsuits his clients had pending. Then at dawn on July 11, 1804, he crossed the Hudson by boat with his second and a physician, took his position on a New Jersey bluff, and was killed by Burr’s pistol shot.
The dispute could have been resolved with suits and counter-suits for libel, and Hamilton, father of eight children, could have lived another twenty-five years. But unfortunately, he subscribed to a set of principles prioritizing honor and using dueling fields rather than depending on the common law and relying on the courts. The tragic irony is that New York City’s leading attorney did not believe enough in the law. He excelled in practice but never developed the jurisprudence that could have saved him.