A Lawyer Prepares for the Constitution

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Detail from p. 10 of Hamilton's brief, prepared for Rutgers v. Waddington, 1784.

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Hamilton's personal copy of the legal text Practice Common-Placed by George Crompton (1783).

A New Lawyer in New York City

In 1782, Hamilton was appointed Receiver of Continental Taxes for the state of New York. In the same year, he passed the New York bar exam and served as a New York delegate to the Confederation Congress in Philadelphia. 

In 1783, Hamilton established a law practice on Wall Street and was among very few lawyers to protect the rights of former Loyalists. In this capacity in 1784, Hamilton argued in the Rutgers v. Waddington case that the New York Trespass Act had violated the 1783 Paris Peace Treaty, which represented a step toward developing the concept of judicial review in America.

In early 1784, Hamilton played a leading role in the creation of the Bank of New York, the first of many city banks. In 1785, Hamilton helped found the New York Society for the Manumission of Slaves. Hamilton also realized that America would not last long under the Articles of Confederation, a government so weak that it had failed to properly equip American troops during the Revolutionary War or to manage the nation’s finances after it.

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1777-1780 Inflation of Continental Currency.

Not Worth a Continental

The currency in circulation had been badly managed by Congress and resulted in dreadful inflation. The Continental Currency was practically worthless, and only various coins of other countries which circulated had any value. Inflation is a terrible problem, and governments typically do not know what to do about it.

Hamilton had been studying economics during the war, especially the developments in London, Paris, and Amsterdam. He had learned a great deal from books such as Malachy Postlethwayt's The Universal Dictionary of Trade and Commerce, Adam Smith's The Wealth of Nations, as well as from the French finance authority Jacques Necker and international law and commerce expert Emer de Vattel. Hamilton corresponded regularly with Robert Morris, Financier of the Revolution.

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Three Bank of New York Specimens

Hamilton founded The Bank of New York in 1784. These beautiful banknote specimens were printed in the 19th century.

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Painting of Mann's Tavern.

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The Annapolis Convention 1786

The meeting in Annapolis was called by the Virginia legislature with the intention to remedy commercial issues between the states under the Articles of Confederation. It took place on September 11-14 in Mann’s Tavern in the center of town. Out of thirteen states, only twelve delegates from five states were present. Hamilton was one of two representatives from New York. The delegates realized quickly that the issues extended far beyond commerce. The final report of the convention, drafted by Hamilton, was adopted unanimously. It suggested that a convention be held in Philadelphia in 1787 to address broader issues between the states.

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The Constitution of the United States, "The Signing," by Howard Chandler Christy, 1937.

The Constitutional Convention 1787

Hamilton was one of three delegates from New York to the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia. The deliberations were held at the Pennsylvania State House during the hot summer months in secret, behind closed doors, with the intention to encourage free exchange of thoughts and ideas from all the delegates. It soon became clear that the Articles of Confederation were too weak and no longer adequate for preserving the union and providing for the urgent needs of the federal government and the member states. Hamilton advocated passionately for the new Constitution, delivering a major speech that helped break an impasse that could have deadlocked the Convention. New York’s other two delegates, both of whom were strongly against adoption of a new constitution, opposed him at every step, but Hamilton made sure he was one of the signers of the Constitution on September 17th.

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The first edition of The Federalist, printed by J. and A. McLean in New York, 1788.

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Federalist Papers, 1787-1788

The Federalist was conceived by Alexander Hamilton as a series of essays, addressed to the people of the State of New York, to explain the proposed U.S. Constitution and encourage its ratification. Hamilton wrote the first essay at the end of October 1787, while on a boat ride from Albany to New York. Newspapers eagerly reprinted it up and down the coast, and it quickly reached every corner of the thirteen states. Hamilton solicited the help of James Madison and John Jay in the project. By the spring of 1788, 85 essays were written, of which Hamilton is credited with writing 51, James Madison 29, and John Jay 5. The Federalist remains a crucial guide to present-day scholars, lawmakers, and the U.S. Supreme Court.


Poughkeepsie Post Office mural of the New York Ratification Convention.

New York State Ratifies the U.S. Constitution

Powerful forces in New York State strongly opposed the new Constitution. Delegates met in Poughkeepsie, halfway between New York and Albany, to decide the State's position. Hamilton attended this meeting, spoke frequently, and convinced the attendees that it was right to ratify the Constitution. With New York's ratification, the country's adoption of the Constitution was guaranteed, thus ending a contentious moment in our early history. In 2013, the AHA Society celebrated the 225th anniversary of the Ratification in Poughkeepsie. The Poughkeepsie Post Office at 55 Mansion Street has some marvelous murals depicting scenes of the period. 

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Procession in Honor of the Federal Constitution.

"Federal Ship Hamilton"

As the originator and major contributor to the Federalist Papers, and a leading delegate to New York’s ratifying convention in Poughkeepsie, Hamilton did a great deal to ensure that the new Constitution would be adopted. Contemporary New Yorkers well understood his contributions and thanked him with a parade boat called "Federal Ship Hamilton," representing the ship of state.

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First issue of the Gazette of the United States, April 15, 1789, p. 2. 

First Presidential Election

The Gazette of the United States, founded by John Fenno, a former school teacher from Massachusetts, became the leading newspaper in support of the Federalist cause under the Constitution. The results of the presidential election, showing George Washington in first place with 69 electoral votes, appeared in its first issue.

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Inauguration of George Washington, 1789.

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Inauguration Day at Old City Hall.

Washington Takes the Oath

An exciting day indeed for downtown New York as George Washington took the Oath of Office as first President of the United States on the balcony of City Hall on April 30th, 1789. Enthusiastic crowds gathered to watch as the new nation came into formal existence. The original building burned years later, and is replaced by Federal Hall, which is today a National Park site and well worth a visit.

Washington's trust in Hamilton dated back to the Revolutionary War, and it continued when he became President. The new Constitution provided the young nation with a general frame of government that has since proven itself both robust and flexible. The document remained silent on numerous issues, and Washington often turned to Hamilton for advice. For example, he asked Hamilton for recommendations on how the president should interact with the public. In his letter of response, dated May 5, 1789, Hamilton suggested that the president should strike a balance between maintaining contact with the public and protecting the dignity of the office.