Book V. The Last Battle of the Giants and the End
Chapter VII
 

Hamilton was now free to devote himself to the practice of law, with but an occasional interruption. It hardly need be stated that he kept a sharp eye on Jefferson, but for the sake of the country he supported him when he could do so consistently with his principles. More than once the President found in him an invaluable ally; and as often, perhaps, he writhed as on a hot gridiron. Hamilton came forth in the pamphlet upon extreme occasions only, but he was still the first political philosopher and writer of his time, and the Federalists would have demanded his pen upon these occasions had he been disposed to retire it. Although out of the active field of politics, he kept the best of the demoralized Federalists together, warning them constantly that the day might come when they would be called upon to reorganize a disintegrated union, and responding to the demands of his followers in Congress for advice. In local politics he continued to make himself felt in spite of the fattening ranks of Democracy. His most powerful instrument was the New York Evening Post, which he founded for the purpose of keeping the Federalist cause alive, and holding the enemy in check. He selected an able man as editor, William Coleman of Massachusetts, but he directed the policy of the paper, dictating many of the editorials in the late hours of night. This journal took its position at once as the most respectable and brilliant in the country.

He also founded the Society for the Manumission of Slaves, securing as honorary member the name of Lafayette--now a nobleman at large once more. But all these duties weighed lightly. For the first time in his life he felt himself at liberty to devote himself almost wholly to his practice, and it was not long before he was making fifteen thousand dollars a year. It was an immense income to make in that time, and he could have doubled it had he been less erratic in the matter of fees. Upon one occasion he was sent eight thousand dollars for winning a suit, and returned seven. He invariably placed his own valuation upon a case, and frequently refused large fees that would have been paid with gratitude. If a case interested him and the man who asked his services were poorer than himself, he would accept nothing. If he were convinced that a man was in the wrong, he would not take his case at any price. He was delighted to be able to shower benefits upon his little family, and he would have ceased to be Alexander Hamilton had he been content to occupy a second place at the bar, or in any other pursuit which engaged his faculties; but for money itself, he had only contempt. Perhaps that is the reason why he is so out of tune with the present day, and unknown to the average American.

Washington, after the retirement of John Jay, had offered Hamilton the office of Chief Justice of the United States; but Hamilton felt that the bar was more suited to his activities than the bench, and declined the gift. His legal career was as brilliant and successful as his political, but although none is more familiar to ambitious lawyers, and his position as the highest authority on constitutional law has never been rivalled, his achievements of greater value to the Nation have reduced it in history to the position of an incident. There is little space left, and somewhat of his personal life still to tell, but no story of Hamilton would be complete without at least a glimpse of this particular shuttle in the tireless loom of his brain. Such glimpses have by no one been so sharply given as by his great contemporary, Chancellor Kent.

He never made any argument in court [Kent relates] without displaying his habits of thinking, resorting at once to some well-founded principle of law, and drawing his deductions logically from his premises. Law was always treated by him as a science, founded on established principles.... He rose at once to the loftiest heights of professional eminence, by his profound penetration, his power of analysis, the comprehensive grasp and strength of his understanding, and the firmness, frankness and integrity of his character.... His manners were affable, gentle and kind; and he appeared to be frank, liberal and courteous in all his professional intercourse. [Referring to a particular case the Chancellor continues.] Hamilton by means of his fine melodious voice, and dignified deportment, his reasoning powers and persuasive address, soared far above all competition. His preeminence was at once and universally conceded.... Hamilton returned to private life and to the practice of the law in '95. He was cordially welcomed and cheered on his return, by his fellow citizens. Between this year and 1798, he took his station as the leading counsel at the bar. He was employed in every important and every commercial case. He was a very great favourite with the merchants of New York and he most justly deserved to be, for he had shown himself to be one of the most enlightened, intrepid and persevering friends to the commercial prosperity of this country. Insurance questions, both upon the law and fact, constituted a large portion of the litigated business in the courts, and much of the intense study and discussion at the bar. Hamilton had an overwhelming share of this business.... His mighty mind would at times bear down all opposition by its comprehensive grasp and the strength of his reasoning powers. He taught us all how to probe deeply into the hidden recesses of the science, and to follow up principles to their far distant sources. He ransacked cases and precedents to their very foundations; and we learned from him to carry our inquiries into the commercial codes of the nations of the European continent; and in a special manner to illustrate the law of Insurance by the secure judgement of Emerigon and the luminous commentaries of Valin.... My judicial station in 1798 brought Hamilton before me in a new relation.... I was called to listen with lively interest and high admiration to the rapid exercise of his reasoning powers, the intensity and sagacity with which he pursued his investigations, his piercing criticisms, his masterly analysis, and the energy and fervour of his appeals to the judgement and conscience of the tribunal which he addressed. [In regard to the celebrated case of Croswell vs. the People, in the course of which Hamilton reversed the law of libel, declaring the British interpretation to be inconsistent with the genius of the American people, Kent remarks.] I have always considered General Hamilton's argument in this cause as the greatest forensic effort he ever made. He had come prepared to discuss the points of law with a perfect mastery of the subject. He believed that the rights and liberties of the people were essentially concerned.... There was an unusual solemnity and earnestness on his part in this discussion. He was at times highly impassioned and pathetic. His whole soul was enlisted in the cause, and in contending for the rights of the Jury and a free Press, he considered that he was establishing the surest refuge against oppression.... He never before in my hearing made any effort in which he commanded higher reverence for his principles, nor equal admiration of the power and pathos of his eloquence.... I have very little doubt that if General Hamilton had lived twenty years longer, he would have rivalled Socrates or Bacon, or any other of the sages of ancient or modern times, in researches after truth and in benevolence to mankind. The active and profound statesman, the learned and eloquent lawyer, would probably have disappeared in a great degree before the character of the sage and philosopher, instructing mankind by his wisdom, and elevating the country by his example.

[Ambrose Spencer, Attorney General of the State,--afterward Chief Justice,--who did not love him, having received the benefit of Hamilton's scathing sarcasm more than once, has this to say.] Alexander Hamilton was the greatest man this country ever produced. I knew him well. I was in situations to observe and study him. He argued cases before me while I sat as judge on the bench. Webster has done the same. In power of reasoning, Hamilton was the equal of Webster; and more than this can be said of no man. In creative power, Hamilton was infinitely Webster's superior, and in this respect he was endowed as God endows the most gifted of our race. If we call Shakspeare a genius or creator, because he evoked plays and character from the great chaos of thought, Hamilton merits the same appellation; for it was he, more than any other man, who thought out the Constitution of the United States and the details of the Government of the Union; and out of the chaos that existed after the Revolution, raised a fabric, every part of which is instinct with his thought. I can truly say that hundreds of politicians and statesmen of the day get both the web and woof of their thoughts from Hamilton's brains. He, more than any man, did the thinking of the time.

His fooling was as inimitable as his use of passion and logic, and on one occasion he treated Gouverneur Morris, who was his opposing counsel, to such a prolonged attack of raillery that his momentary rival sat with the perspiration pouring from his brow, and was acid for some time after. During his earlier years of practice, while listening to Chancellor Livingston summing up a case in which eloquence was made to disguise the poverty of the cause, Hamilton scribbled on the margin of his brief: "Recipe for obtaining good title for ejectment: two or three void patents, several ex parte surveys, one or two acts of usurpation acquiesced in for the time but afterwards proved such. Mix well with half a dozen scriptural allusions, some ghosts, fairies, elves, hobgoblins, and a quantum suff. of eloquence." Hamilton also originated the practice of preparing "Points," now in general use.