Kate Brown is Assistant Professor of Political Science at Huntington University. This interview is based on her new book, Alexander Hamilton and the Development of American Law (University Press of Kansas, 2017).
JF: What led you to write Alexander Hamilton and the Development of American Law?\
KB: I have been fascinated with Alexander Hamilton since high school—long before Hamilton, the musical, made him a household name—so it was pretty much guaranteed that Hamilton would be a primary subject for my first book. When I realized in graduate school that historians virtually ignore the legal side of Alexander Hamilton’s career—that is, Hamilton as legal and constitutional theorist, Hamilton as an in-demand lawyer, Hamilton’s thriving New York legal practice—I knew that I wanted to explore his accomplishments through the lens of the law. This book does just that.
JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of Alexander Hamilton and the Development of American Law?
KB: 1) We are familiar with Hamilton’s political efforts to shape policy in the young republic; my research demonstrates how Hamilton used common law and constitutional law, more so than politics, to successfully accomplish his policy goals and statecraft. (Each chapter details a particular Hamiltonian policy goal and the legal toolbox Hamilton used to accomplish it.)
2) Alexander Hamilton’s legal legacy—that is, his influence on the jurisprudence of federalism, individual rights, judicial and executive power—is far-reaching and foundational, extending well into the nineteenth and occasionally the twentieth centuries. For these reasons, Hamilton should be considered a true founding father of American law.
JF: Why do we need to read Alexander Hamilton and the Development of American Law?
KB: My insights into the ways Hamilton used law to accomplish his policy goals—achieving unity through union, creating economic prosperity and public creditworthiness, encouraging commerce and manufacturing, and developing judicial and executive authority, to name a few—offer a wholly novel perspective on Hamilton. Scholars and biographers before me had largely ignored or written off Hamilton’s legal career, yet I demonstrate that not only was his legal practice influential, but Hamilton’s legal legacy lasted for decades after his death. By writing this analytical biography through the lens of law, I offer a completely unique perspective and analysis of an otherwise well-known founding statesman.
(A quick note: you do not have to be familiar with law or be a lawyer to understand Hamilton’s legal arguments and the legal history I’m writing here. I minimize jargon, I explain my arguments in terms that do not require legalese, and I always emphasize the big, important points about Hamilton’s legal legacy over any legal minutiae.)
JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?
KB: I caught the early-republic bug in high school, when I found Hamilton to be so remarkable (and seemingly uncelebrated, as compared to his contemporaries like Washington and Jefferson). I did not formally decide to make history my profession, however, until I decided to go back to graduate school after a first career in corporate America. But once I decided to become a historian, there was no doubt that I would study American history, with a sub-specialty in legal history. Not only is American history fascinating, but its continued relevance for our informed understanding of twenty-first century politics and current events makes the study of history an indispensable public service.
JF: What is your next project?
KB: When researching Alexander Hamilton and the Development of American Law, I noticed that Hamilton kept making appearances in this important, and really unique, appellate court in New York state: the Court for the Correction of Errors. This court was so distinctive because it was the highest court in the state—trumping New York’s Supreme Court, and deciding hugely important cases dealing with matters relating to commerce, marine insurance, federalism, and individual rights—and yet it was consciously modelled after England’s House of Lords. The Court of Errors (as contemporaries called it) mixed the judicial and legislative powers inextricably—both the highest judges in the state and the state senators presided over the Court of Errors making judicial decisions. And so, for almost 70 years, this court shattered norms about the separation of powers—and that is one reason I am so intrigued by it—but it also attracted the best legal talent in the early republic (including, of course, Hamilton). The Court of Errors was a unique venue for lawyerly talent, as well as a recruiting ground of sorts for the U.S. Supreme Court. Despite all of this, scholars have ignored the court and its influence on judicial power in the early republic. I intend to change that by writing an institutional biography of the court, the legal professionals arguing in and presiding over it, and its formidable impact on early-republic jurisprudence.
JF: Thanks, Kate!