Hamilton Studies Law, 1782 (Hamilton 40)

By late December 1781, Alexander Hamilton was recovering from the Yorktown campaign at the Schuyler family mansion in Albany – still so exhausted that he hardly wrote any letters (see here). If you accept 1757 as his year of birth, he turned 25 on January 11, 1782. Eleven days later, his son Philip was born. Hamilton wrote to Richard Kidder Meade in early March:

You cannot imagine how entirely domestic I am growing. I lose all taste for the pursuits of ambition, I sigh for nothing but the company of my wife and my baby. (More here)

That same month, the New York State legislature kicked him into action.

Legal training in the 18th century

In the eighteenth century, an aspiring lawyer in New York State would have become an apprentice in law office. There he would have copied a variety of legal documents, read legal treatises, and assisted the lawyer with increasingly more complicated tasks. In the 1760s, the clerkship in New York lasted five years. In 1778, the New York State Supreme Court set the requirement at three years, to be followed by a bar examination. (Julius Goebel, Jr., introduction to Practical Proceedings in the Supreme Court of the State of New York, pp. 10-12: henceforth PP)

On January 18, 1782, the New York State legislature passed a law aimed at would-be lawyers who had served in the military: “such young gentlemen who had directed their studies to the profession of the law but upon the breaking out of the present war had entered the army” (PP p. xii). These men would be allowed to take the bar exam without serving a three-year clerkship – but only until April 30, 1782. Hamilton submitted a petition for a six-month extension, and got to work. (Per Goebel in PP, citing 3 PAH 82; documents not located in Founders Archives.)

Hamilton was not, in fact, among those who had “directed their studies to the profession of the law” before the Revolution. King’s College did not offer a course in law. But Hamilton’s writings during the Revolutionary War show that he had read many works on the law of nations (Goebel, PP p. 13).  So  his main task in early 1782 was to become familiar with New York State’s convoluted laws: a mish-mash of a vast body of English precedents with an array of local statutes and court rulings.

Hamilton’s Practical Proceedings

As part of his self-designed crash course for the bar exam, Hamilton wrote out his own handbook for legal studies. The original is lost, but  early two manuscript copies survive.

How, you ask, do we know this is Hamilton’s work?

  1. Hamilton’s friend Robert Troup, another aspiring lawyer, recalled (in the 1820s): “The General [Hamilton] invited me to spend the ensuing summer with him, in his family, with the double view of pursuing my legal studies, and instructing him in the practice. I accepted the General’s invitation, and domesticated myself with him for three months; during which period, he acquired a thorough knowledge of the practice, and wrote a Treatise on it; which served as an instructive grammar to future students, and has been the ground work of subsequent practical treatises by others on a larger scale.” (Nathan Schachner, “Alexander Hamilton Viewed by His Friends: The Narratives of Robert Troup and Hercules Mulligan,” The William and Mary Quartery 4:2 [April 1947], p. 215.) Hamilton’s son, John Church Hamilton, quoted Troup and added, in 1834: “There are men, now living, who copied this manual as their guide.” (J.C. Hamilton. Life of Hamilton, 1834; in the 1840 edition, see v. I, p. 398, note.)
  2. Practical Proceedings exists in at least two manuscript copies. The earliest one, probably copied by Abraham Van Vechten at Albany during the 1780s, has “Hamilton’s Proceedings” written in manuscript on the back cover, and “by Alex. Hamilton” on the first page. The latest statute referred to in its text dates to 1781. That fits the time Hamilton was studying for the bar.
  3. William Wyche’s Supreme Court Practice, 1794, was the first law handbook printed in New York State. In its preface, Wyche refers to “Some practical sketches in manuscript, one passing under the name of a personage of high respectability” (quoted in Goebel, PP p. 5). Hamilton, as Secretary of the Treasury, would certainly qualify.
  4. Practical Proceedings appears to be the work of a novice at the law. The writer often makes conjectures rather than statements: for example, “I suppose the rule is …” (PP p. 30), “The most accurate Rule with respect to holding the Defendant to special Bail seems to be …” (PP p. 43). Goebel, in his introduction to the first printed edition of Practical Proceedings, states:

Thus, by circumstances, Hamilton’s manual was a thing of his own making. It bears all the earmarks of student work, not that of a a practitioner seasoned in New York law. Indeed, the cursory fashion in which Hamilton deals with some of the thirty-eight topics into which the work is divided bears a striking resemblance to the sort of synthesis which a law student might devise today if interested in procedural aspects of law for a particular examination. Furthermore, the lack of any orderly sequence in the arrangement of the topics suggests that the writing on a particular subject was done after reading some book and searching out cases or statutes, and the heading next following might well derive from a second source. (PP p. 16)

I’m withholding judgment on that “lack of orderly sequence.” By 1782, Hamilton had a reputation as a writer and a soldier. If he had wanted this work to appear in print, he would have had no problem finding a publisher. Since he didn’t publish Practical Proceedings, we don’t know to what extent he edited it, and what organization he would have used. He might have just shared with Vechten or someone else a pile of notes on separate pages.

Practical Proceedings: first page of the Vechten manuscript.

Practical Proceedings: first page of the Vechten manuscript.

So what’s in Practical Proceedings? The first part has short summaries of actions such as bail, warrants of attorneys, profert in curia, habeas corpus, and certoriari. The second part is a series of “exhibits,” which includes copies of standard forms used by lawyers at this period: capias, latitat, distringas, plea of nil debet, and more. Goebel states that this two-part arrangement makes Practical Proceedings “a link between old ways of remembrancing and the new era of the printed practice books, of which Wyche’s [1794] work was the first” (PP p. 10).

I don’t recommend you run out and buy a copy of Practical Proceedings, even if you adore Alexander Hamilton. Unless the history of law is your specialty, PP will make your eyes roll. Here’s a sample passage, under the heading “Judgment & Execution”:

If the Party has Confessed Judgment with a cessat Executio entered on the Roll, no Sci: fa: will be necessary, and the Court will Oblige the Party to Confirm to the Record, and will compel him to make Restitution, if Contrary thereto he takes out Execution, before the Cassat is expired: but if there be an agreement for a Stay of Execution extraneous to the Record, the Court will take no Notice of it. (PP pp. 68-69)

In the midst of all those profert in curia, habeas corpus, and capias … yes, there is something uniquely Hamiltonian in the Practical Proceedings. But it’s in the concept and the methodology rather than the content. Hamilton is a big-picture guy, a forest-and-trees guy, a man who can accurately remember a vast amount of detail, but who always pulls back to set it in a broader context: national, international, political, ethical, or historical. We’ve seen that in the Vindication, 1774, in the Continentalist essays of 1781, and in the long letter on public finances that he sent to Robert Morris in April 1781. In Practical Proceedings, he compares present to past laws:

It has been held till lately, that no Person can be made Defendant but he who was, or had at the Time been in Possession … but this in a late Case reported in Burrows seems to have been over ruled … (PP p. 102)

He also considers the overall purpose of the law as well as specific laws:

[T]he Court … having lately acquired a more liberal Cast begin to have 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. (PP p. 49)

Rather than memorizing forms and actions by rote, Hamilton is trying to integrate his knowledge so that it becomes a logical whole – and hence easier to remember. It’s an uncommon breadth of vision for a 25-year-old. (Thanks to lawyer Pooja Nair of It’s Hamiltime for her feedback on my comments on Hamilton’s approach to studying law, and to Rand Scholet of the Alexander Hamilton Awareness Society for introducing me to Pooja.)

Morris appoints Hamilton tax receiver in New York

Hamilton’s letter to George Washington of March 1, 1782, in which he kept his military rank but refused further pay, must have been spurred partly by Hamilton’s sudden need to immerse himself in legal studies. He said as much a few months later in a letter to Robert Morris, U.S. superintendent of Finance. Morris had asked if Hamilton would accept the position of receiver of taxes for New York State. Here’s Hamilton’s response (May 18, 1782):

My military situation has indeed become so negative that I have no motive to continue in it; and if my services could be of importance to the public in any civil line I should chearfully obey its command. But the plan which I have marked out to myself is the profession of the law; and I am now engaged in a course of studies for that purpose. Time is so precious to me that I could not put myself in the way of any interruptions unless for an object of consequence to the public or to myself. The present [tax receiver position] is not of this nature. (More here)

Hamilton is admitted to the bar

In July 1782, Hamilton was admitted to the bar as an attorney qualified to practice before the Supreme Court of the State of New York. Three months later he was admitted as counsel. By October 1783, he was qualified as a solicitor and counsel in Chancery (Goebels in PP, p. 13, citing 2 PAH 684, 3 PAH 122 and 3 PAH 189).

I will chearfully admit that I don’t grasp the distinctions between those levels: anyone want to enlighten me? (DuranteDianne@gmail.com).


  • On Sunday November 6, 2016, I’ll be giving my talk “Hamilton: Man & Musical” in New York City ($35 at door, $30 in advance). It combines excerpts from Hamilton’s writings with the chance to burst into song. Space is limited. Details here.
  • The manuscript of the Practical Proceedings published in 2004 was owned by the New York Law Journal. In 2014, they auctioned it off via Doyle Galleries for a whopping $43,750. Details here. The hardcover of Practical Proceedings is listed on Amazon at $1,941.21. I’ll be happy to sell you my copy (slight wear to d.j., a few light pencil annotations in margin) for a mere $1,841.21 … Or you could try ViaLibri.
  • And you thought our jury duty was inconvenient. From Practical Proceedings: “When the Jurors are sworn they must have no Conversation or Intercourse with any Person whatever, they must not leave the Bar without Leave of the Court or without the Attendance of a Constable. When they Leave the Bar they must have Communication with no one except to say whether they have or have not agreed upon their Verdict; they may Neither eat nor drink nor have Fire or Candle without Leave of the Court. If they eat or drink at their own Expence this is fineable; If at the Expence of the Party for whom they find it vitiates their Verdict. If they Cast Lots or throw Dice or by any other Hazard determine the Cause, the Verdict is bad.” (PP pp. 89-90)
  • I’ve started adding comments based on these blog posts to the Genius.com pages on the Hamilton Musical: a fantastic resource. Follow me @DianneDurante.
  • The usual disclaimer: This is the fourtieth (woohoo!) in a series of posts on Hamilton: An American Musical My intro to this series is here. Other posts are available via the tag cloud at lower right. If you’ve read this far and enjoyed it, why not sign up to hear about future installments? Follow me on Twitter @NYCsculpture, friend the Forgotten Delights page on Facebook, or ask to be added to my mailing list (email DuranteDianne@gmail.com), which will get you a weekly email with some bonus comments. Bottom line: these are unofficial musings, and you do not need them to enjoy the musical or the soundtrack.
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About Dianne L. Durante

I constantly seek out art that's inspiring, thought-provoking, skillfully executed, and/or beautiful so I can share it (in jargon-free language) with others who need and enjoy such art, but don't have time to search for it themselves. As an independent scholar, writer, and lecturer, I focus on art history and history, with forays into food, history, politics, and publishing. My most recent projects are three volumes on Alexander Hamilton, Central Park: The Early Years, Innovators in Sculpture (a survey of 5,000 years of art in 2 hours), and two videoguide apps by Guides Who Know. Click on the Books & Essays tab for a list of all books. For upcoming projects, see my Patreon page.

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