Alexander Hamilton and the Development of American Law

Kate Elizabeth Brown

Alexander Hamilton is commonly seen as the standard-bearer of an ideology-turned-political party, the Federalists, engaged in a struggle for the soul of the young United States against the Anti-Federalists, and later, the Jeffersonian Republicans. Alexander Hamilton and the Development of American Law counters such conventional wisdom with a new, more nuanced view of Hamilton as a true federalist, rather than a one-dimensional nationalist, whose most important influence on the American founding is his legal legacy.

In this analytical biography, Kate Elizabeth Brown recasts our understanding of Hamilton’s political career, his policy achievements, and his significant role in the American founding by considering him first and foremost as a preeminent lawyer who applied law and legal arguments to accomplish his statecraft. In particular, Brown shows how Hamilton used inherited English legal principles to accomplish his policy goals, and how state and federal jurists adapted these Hamiltonian principles into a distinct, republican jurisprudence throughout the nineteenth century. When writing his authoritative commentary on the nature of federal constitutional power in The Federalist, Hamilton juxtaposed the British constitution with the new American one he helped to create; when proposing commercial, monetary, banking, administrative, or foreign policy in Washington’s cabinet, he used legal arguments to justify his desired course of action. In short, lawyering, legal innovation, and common law permeated Alexander Hamilton’s professional career.

“Katherine Brown’s ambitious study of Alexander Hamilton’s statesmanship as revealed through “the lens of the law” is long overdue. Brown sees Hamilton as a father of American law and “recasts” him as a founder dedicated to solving the problems of the uniquely American system of federalism. Brown rejects the simplistic notion that Hamilton sought to consolidate all power at the national level and thereby restores a more nuanced understanding of his principles and practices. Browns groundbreaking examination of Hamilton’s legal legacy is essential reading for students of the American founding, of American legal history, and of Alexander Hamilton himself.”

—Stephen F. Knott, author of Alexander Hamilton and the Persistence of Myth

Alexander Hamilton and the Development of American Law by Katherine Brown is an important addition to the literature on Alexander Hamilton. Dozens of books have been written on Hamilton the historical figure and on his political ideas, but there is no book, until now, that explores his legal legacy. Bits and pieces of Hamilton’s legal legacy are found in various books and articles, but they do not come close to matching what Brown has accomplished in her lucidly written and well organized book.”

—Michael P. Federici, author of The Political Philosophy of Alexander Hamilton

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Re-examining Hamilton’s post-war accomplishments through the lens of law, Brown demonstrates that Hamilton’s much-studied political career, as well as his contributions to republican political science, cannot be fully understood without recognizing and investigating how Hamilton used Anglo-American legal principles to achieve these ends. A critical re-evaluation of Hamilton’s legacy, as well as his place in the founding era, Brown’s work also enhances and refines our understanding of the nature and history of American jurisprudence.

About the Author

Kate Elizabeth Brown is assistant professor of history and political science at Huntington University.