Alexander Hamilton

Alexander Hamilton was one of the great personalities in the American history.  His accomplishments are legendary. Born in Charlestown in the British West Indies out of wedlock to a mother of British and French Huguenot ancestry and to a Scottish father, he was orphaned at an early age when his father abandoned him for fear of being charged with bigamy, and his mother died.  There is a controversy, regarding his age in that he would have been 13 when his mother died but he would later say he was born in 1757, not 1755 making him 11 and therefore more desirable as an apprentice to local businessmen.  He did receive a position and at the age of 15, by the 1757 date, Alexander Hamilton was send to the colonies to further his education.

Attending Kings College, now Columbia University, Hamilton volunteered for the military.  Partly due to his connections, he was elected Captain of the New York Provincial Company of Artillery in 1776.  Taking part is several battles, Hamilton was offered positions as aide of several high-ranking officers, all of which he turned down, until an offer to work on the staff of General Washington as a Lieutenant Colonel came through.  He finished the war as a commander of a light infantry battalion at Yorktown, the final major battle of the Revolution.  After the battle, he resigned his commission and was appointed by New York to the Congress of Confederation, starting his political career that would see his rise along with his former commander, George Washington to the highest levels of government.  Alexander Hamilton’s accomplishments include being a major contributor to the Federalist Papers, writing 51 of the 86 essays.  James Madison wrote 29 and John Jay the remaining 5.  The Federalist Papers were a series of essays written to promote the ratification of the new Constitution.

After George Washington’s election, Hamilton was appointed as the first Secretary of the Treasury, where he helped found the first National Bank, the US Mint and the United States Revenue Cutter Service, a tax collection service which became the United States Coast Guard.  Hamilton even devised the naval communication guidebook, which was still in use as of the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis.

After resigning from government life amid scandal, Hamilton returned to New York, where he continued to leave his mark with the founding of the Bank of New York and the New York Post.  In 1782, after just 6 months of self-study, Hamilton was admitted to the New York bar.  In a letter to his war comrade, Lafayette, Hamilton called the study of law, “studying the art of fleecing my neighbors”.

Unlike most practices today which are extremely specialized, Hamilton took on a wide variety of cases, including contracts, creditor’s rights, admiralty, maritime insurance and, of course, constitutional law.  Despite his note to Lafayette, many contemporaries notes that Hamilton did not worry about the money and were impressed as the reasonable rates he charged his clients.  According to Washington biographer Ron Chernow, Hamilton was one of the premier lawyers of his time.  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.” He also had “an incorrigible weakness for aiding women in need.”

Hamilton’s greatest contribution to the law was with his representation of Harry Croswell, a journalist indicted for libel against President Thomas Jefferson, who was convicted even though the truth of this statements were never taken into consideration.  Hamilton took the case on appeal to the Supreme Court, where he argued for six hours that the reporting the truth and submitting the truth into evidence in cases of libel is “all important to the liberties of the people”.  Years later one of the justices on the case said that Hamilton’s argument was the most eloquent argument ever heard in any court.  More than 200 years later, the Croswell case is still cited as precedent.  In 2000, Croswell was cited saying that Hamilton was a tireless defender of the freedom of the press.  In 1972, Croswell was said to be the “single greatest contribution” toward preventing the use of prosecution of the press as a political weapon.

 

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