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Of the most prominent Founding Fathers, Alexander Hamilton may be the least familiar to modern Americans, even as they live under the protection of the strong central government he championed and enjoy the material benefits of the industrialized society he envisioned. Such ignorance persists, despite the recent burst of scholarship about Hamilton, and is regrettable because if any r�sum� deserves careful review, Hamilton’s does. In 1772, the 17-year-old West Indies native first came to New York, a penniless orphan. With the help of benefactors, he attended Columbia University, then served as General George Washington’s most trusted aide-de-camp, personally leading one of the final assaults at Yorktown in 1781. Along with Madison, he became a leading advocate for the new federal Constitution and then served as the first secretary of the treasury, transforming a bankrupt collection of squabbling states into a financially united nation. But these are only the most familiar facts. Less familiar to modern Americans is how Hamilton filled the gaps in his public r�sum�: He practiced law. He was, in fact, the most prominent lawyer in all of New York, perhaps in all of the brand-new United States of America. His law practice was notable from its inception. In March 1782, Hamilton left the Continental Army. Time was short. The New York Assembly, in a gesture to returning veterans, had waived the three-year clerkship normally required to qualify for the state bar examination. But the waiver was only available through April. With the instinct of a born litigator, Hamilton quickly obtained an extension. But even so, he faced the daunting task of cramming what normally would have been several years of legal study into only a few months. To organize his efforts, Hamilton created a tool that is now familiar to law students everywhere-a comprehensive outline. Unlike a modern law student, however, Hamilton labored without the assistance of commercial bar courses. His efforts were also hampered by the unsettled state of post-revolutionary law. Nonetheless, quill pen in hand, he quickly assembled a detailed, 40,000-word document that was so well done that, for years afterward, New York attorneys copied it for use as a reference manual. Hamilton’s outline is now available in Practical Proceedings in the Supreme Court of the State of New York (American Lawyer Media, 2004). Practical Proceedings is a valuable little book, both for those interested in Hamilton’s practice and in legal history generally. Lawyers will appreciate the sheer effort involved in Hamilton’s undertaking, as well as his sarcastic commentary on the law, conveniently collected in Julius Goebel’s introduction. For example, when Hamilton discussed the practice of inconsistent pleading, he described it as being, “among the Absurdities with which the Law abounds.” At another point he remarked dryly that, “the Court . . . lately acquired . . . some faint Idea that the end of Suits at Law is to Investigate the Merits of the Cause, and not to entangle in the Nets of technical Terms.” The times may change, but law students do not. A high-profile legal career After joining the New York bar, Hamilton hung his shingle in Manhattan, where clients immediately flocked to him, drawn both by his military reputation and by an acute shortage of lawyers, due to a new state law barring attorneys who had been Loyalists from practicing law. Ironically, much of Hamilton’s early practice was devoted to restoring the civil rights of Loyalists, most notably in the 1784 case Rutgers v. Waddington, in which Hamilton defended Benjamin Waddington, a well-heeled Tory sued under the Trespass Act by Elizabeth Rutgers, a sympathetic Patriot widow, whose brewery had been operated by Waddington at the behest of the British during the Revolutionary War. Hamilton endured a great deal of criticism for taking the case, but he prevailed, arguing that the Trespass Act was inconsistent with federal law. Hamilton’s arguments foreshadowed his later advocacy, in Federalists 22 and 78, for the supremacy of national law and for strong, independent judicial review. Hamilton maintained his practice as he attended the Constitutional Convention of 1787 and even while he feverishly wrote 51 of the 85 Federalist Papers. When Washington selected him as secretary of the treasury, Hamilton devoted his energies almost exclusively to public service, even moving, along with the nation’s capital, from New York to Philadelphia in 1790. He returned to private practice in 1795, leaving his Treasury post in large part because of his worsening personal finances. (Unlike Jefferson and Madison, eloquent advocates of inalienable rights, Hamilton-a vociferous opponent of slavery-kept no slaves to bolster his income.) Hamilton took on a variety of cases, many of them mundane commercial matters, but occasionally he argued a prominent cause, including the sensational murder trial in which he defended one Levi Weeks accused of a brutal and salacious boardinghouse murder. In another irony of Hamilton’s life, his co-counsel on the case was Aaron Burr; together, they won an acquittal. Among the last of Hamilton’s cases was his pro bono defense of Federalist newspaper editor Harry Croswell in 1803 to 1804, against charges of seditious libel. Though Croswell was convicted, Hamilton’s argument-that truth should be a defense to libel-was later adopted by the New York Legislature and became a fundamental concept in First Amendment law. Hamilton did not live to see his last legal triumph. Burr shot him dead at Weehawken, N.J., on July 11, 1804, at age 49. The loss to American law is unknowable and irretrievable. Stewart Harris teaches constitutional law and civil procedure at the Appalachian School of Law in Grundy, Va.

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