His legal career was opened, like that of Cicero and Erskine, by a difficult case which attracted great attention and brought him into notice. In this case he rendered a political service as well as earned a legal fame. An action was brought by a poor woman, impoverished by the war, against a wealthy British merchant, to recover damages for the use of a house he enjoyed when the city was occupied by the enemy. The action was founded on a recent statute of the State of New York, which authorized proceedings for trespass by persons who had been driven from their homes by the invasion of the British. The plaintiff therefore had the laws of New York on her side, as well as popular sympathies; and her claim was ably supported by the attorney-general. But it involved a grave constitutional question, and conflicted with the articles of peace which the Confederation had made with England; for in the treaty with Great Britain an amnesty had been agreed to for all acts done during the war by military orders. The interests of the plaintiff were overlooked in the great question whether the authority of Congress and the law of nations, or the law of a State legislature, should have the ascendency. In other words, Congress and the State of New York were in conflict as to which should be paramount,--the law of Congress, or the law of a sovereign State,--in a matter which affected a national treaty. If the treaty were violated, new complications would arise with England, and the authority of Congress be treated with contempt. Hamilton grappled with the subject in the most comprehensive manner,--like a statesman rather than a lawyer,--made a magnificent argument in favor of the general government, and gained his case; although it would seem that natural justice was in favor of the poor woman, deprived of the use of her house by a wealthy alien, during the war. He rendered a service to centralized authority, to the power of Congress. It was the incipient contest between Federal and State authority. It was enlightened reason and patriotism gaining a victory over popular passions, over the assumptions of a State. It defined the respective rights of a State and of the Nation collectively. It was one of those cases which settled the great constitutional question that the authority of the Nation was greater than that of any State which composed it, in matters where Congress had a recognized jurisdiction.
It was about this time that Hamilton was brought in legal conflict with another young man of great abilities, ambition, and popularity; and this man was Aaron Burr, a grandson of Jonathan Edwards. Like Hamilton, he had gained great distinction in the war, and was one of the rising young men of the country. He was superior to Hamilton in personal popularity and bewitching conversation; his equal in grace of manner, in forensic eloquence and legal reputation, but his inferior in comprehensive intellect and force of character. Hamilton dwelt in the region of great ideas and principles; Burr loved to resort to legal technicalities, sophistries, and the dexterous use of dialectical weapons. In arguing a case he would descend to every form of annoyance and interruption, by quibbles, notices, and appeals. Both lawyers were rapid, logical, compact, and eloquent. Both seized the strong points of a case, like Mason and Webster. Hamilton was earnest and profound, and soared to elemental principles. Burr was acute, adroit, and appealed to passions. Both admired each other's talents and crossed each other's tracks,--rivals at the Bar and in political aspirations. The legal career of both was eclipsed by their political labors. The lawyer, in Hamilton's case, was lost in the statesman, and in Burr's in the politician. And how wide the distinction between a statesman and a politician! To be a great statesman a man must be conversant with history, finance, and science; he must know everything, like Gladstone, and he must have at heart the great interests of a nation; he must be a man of experience and wisdom and reason; he must be both enlightened and patriotic, merging his own personal ambition in the good of his country,--an oracle and sage whose utterances are received with attention and respect. To be a statesman demands the highest maturity of reason, far-reaching views, and the power of taking in the interests of a whole country rather than of a section. But to be a successful politician a man may be ignorant, narrow, and selfish; most probably he will be artful, dissembling, going in for the winning side, shaking hands with everybody, profuse in promises, bland, affable, ready to do anything for anybody, and seeking the interests and flattering the prejudices of his own constituency, indifferent to the great questions on which the welfare of a nation rests, if only his own private interests be advanced. All politicians are not so small and contemptible; many are honest, as far as they can see, but can see only petty details, and not broad effects. Mere politicians,--observe, I qualify what I say,--_mere_ politicians resemble statesmen, intellectually, as pedants resemble scholars of large culture, comprehensive intellects, and varied knowledge; they will consider a date, or a name, or a comma, of more importance than the great universe, which no one can ever fully and accurately explore.
I have given but a short notice of Hamilton as a lawyer, because his services as a statesman are of so much greater importance, especially to the student of history. His sphere became greatly enlarged when he entered into those public questions on which the political destiny of a nation rests. He was called to give a direction to the policy of the young government that had arisen out of the storms of revolution,--a policy which must be carried out when the nation should become powerful and draw upon itself the eyes of the civilized world. "Just as the twig is bent, the tree's inclined." It was the privilege and glory of Hamilton to be one of the most influential of all the men of his day in bending the twig which has now become so great a tree. We can see his hand in the distinctive features of our Constitution, and especially in that financial policy which extricated the nation from the poverty and embarrassments bequeathed by the war, and which, on the whole, has been the policy of the Government from his day to ours. Greater statesmen may arise than he, but no future statesman will ever be able to shape a national policy as he has done. He is one of the great fathers of the Republic, and was as efficient in founding a government and a financial policy, as Saint Augustine was in giving shape to the doctrines of the Church in his age, and in mediaeval ages. Hamilton was therefore a benefactor to the State, as Augustine was to the Church.
But before Hamilton could be of signal service to the country as an organizer and legislator, it was necessary to have a national government which the country would accept, and which would be lasting and efficient. There was a political chaos for years after the war. Congress had no generally recognized authority; it was merely a board of delegates, whose decisions were disregarded, representing a league of States, not an independent authority. There was no chief executive officer, no court of national judges, no defined legislature. We were a league of emancipated colonies drifting into anarchy. There was really no central government; only an autonomy of States like the ancient Grecian republics, and the lesser States were jealous of the greater. The great questions pertaining to slavery were unsettled,--how far it should extend, and how far it could be interfered with. We had ships and commerce, but no commercial treaties with other nations. We imported goods and merchandise, but there were no laws of tariff or of revenue. If one State came into collision with another State, there was no tribunal to settle the difficulty. No particular industries were protected. Of all things the most needed was a national government superior to State governments, taking into its own hands exclusively the army and navy, tariffs, revenues, the post-office, the regulation of commerce, and intercourse with foreign States. Oh, what times those were! What need of statesmanship and patriotism and wisdom! I have alluded to various evils of the day. I will not repeat them. Why, our condition at the end of the War of the Rebellion, when we had a national debt of three thousand millions, and general derangement and demoralization, was an Elysium compared with that of our fathers at the close of the Revolutionary War,--no central power, no constitution, no government, with poverty, agricultural distress, and uncertainty, and the prostration of all business; no national credit, no national Ã©clat,--a mass of rude, unconnected, and anarchic forces threatening to engulf us in worse evils than those from which we had fled.
The thinking and sober men of the country were at last aroused, and the conviction became general that the Confederacy was unable to cope with the difficulties which arose on every side. So, through the influence of Hamilton, a convention of five States assembled at Annapolis to provide a remedy for the public evils. But it did not fully represent the varied opinions and interests of the whole country. All it could do was to prepare the way for a general convention of States; and twelve States sent delegates to Philadelphia, who met in the year 1787. The great public career of Hamilton began as a delegate from the State of New York to this illustrious assembly. He was not the most distinguished member, for he was still a young man; nor the most popular, for he had too much respect for the British constitution, and was too aristocratic in his sympathies, and perhaps in his manners, to be a favorite. But he was probably the ablest man of the convention, the most original and creative in his genius, the most comprehensive and far-seeing in his views,--a man who inspired confidence and respect for his integrity and patriotism, combining intellectual with moral force. He would have been a great man in any age or country, or in any legislative assembly,--a man who had great influence over superior minds, as he had over that of Washington, whose confidence he had from first to last.
I am inclined to think that no such an assembly of statesmen has since been seen in this country as that which met to give a constitution to the American Republic. Of course, I cannot enumerate all the distinguished men. They were all distinguished,--men of experience, patriotism, and enlightened minds. There were fifty-four of these illustrious men,--the picked men of the land, of whom the nation was proud. Franklin, now in his eightieth year, was the Nestor of the assembly, covered with honors from home and abroad for his science and his political experience and sagacity,--a man who received more flattering attentions in France than any American who ever visited it; one of the great savants of the age, dignified, affable, courteous, whom everybody admired and honored. Washington, too, was there,--the Ulysses of the war, brave in battle and wise in council, of transcendent dignity of character, whose influence was patriarchal, the synonym of moral greatness, to be revered through all ages and countries; a truly immortal man whose fame has been steadily increasing. Adams, Jefferson, and Jay, three very great lights, were absent on missions to Europe; but Rufus King, Roger Sherman, Oliver Ellsworth, Livingston, Dickinson, Rutledge, Randolph, Pinckney, Madison, were men of great ability and reputation, independent in their views, but all disposed to unite in the common good. Some had been delegates to the Stamp Act Congress of 1765; some, members of the Continental Congress of 1774; some, signers of the Declaration of Independence. There were no political partisans then, as we now understand the word, for the division lines of parties were not then drawn. All were animated with the desire of conciliation and union. All felt the necessity of concessions. They differed in their opinions as to State rights, representation, and slavery. Some were more democratic, and some more aristocratic than the majority, but all were united in maintaining the independence of the country and in distrust of monarchies.
It is impossible within my narrow limits to describe the deliberations of these patriots, until their work was consummated in the glorious Constitution which is our marvel and our pride. The discussions first turned on the respective powers to be exercised by the executive, judicial, and legislative branches of the proposed central government, and the duration of the terms of service. Hamilton's views favored a more efficient executive than was popular with the States or delegates; but it cannot be doubted that his powerful arguments, and clear enunciation of fundamental principles of government had great weight with men more eager for truth than victory. There were animated discussions as to the ratio of representation, and the equality of States, which gave rise to the political parties which first divided the nation, and which were allied with those serious questions pertaining to State rights which gave rise, in part, to our late war. But the root of the dissensions, and the subject of most animated debates, was slavery,--that awful curse and difficult question, which was not settled until the sword finally cut that Gordian knot. But so far as compromises could settle the question, they were made in the spirit of patriotism,--not on principles of abstract justice, but of expediency and common-sense. It was evident from the first that there could be no federal, united government, no nation, only a league of States, unless compromises were made in reference to slavery, whose evils were as apparent then as they were afterwards. For the sake of nationality and union and peace, slavery was tolerated by the Constitution. To some this may appear to have been a grave error, but to the makers of the Constitution it seemed to be a less evil to tolerate slavery than have no Constitution at all, which would unite all the States. Harmony and national unity seemed to be the paramount consideration.
So a compromise was made. We are apt to forget how great institutions are often based on compromise,--not a mean and craven sentiment, as some think, but a spirit of conciliation and magnanimity, without which there can be no union or stability. Take the English Church, which has survived the revolutions of human thought for three centuries, which has been a great bulwark against infidelity, and has proved itself to be dear to the heart of the nation, and the source of boundless blessings and proud recollections,--it was a compromise, half-way indeed between Rome and Geneva, but nevertheless a great and beneficent organization on the whole. Take the English constitution itself, one of the grandest triumphs of human reason and experience,--it was only gradually formed by a series of bloodless concessions. Take the Roman constitution, under which the whole civilized world was brought into allegiance,--it was a series of concessions granted by the aristocratic classes. Most revolutions and wars end in compromise after the means of fighting are expended. Most governments are based on expediency rather than abstract principles. The actions of governments are necessarily expedients,--the wisest policy in view of all the circumstances. Even such an uncompromising logician as Saint Paul accepted some customs which we think were antagonistic to the spirit of his general doctrines. He was a great temperance man, but recommended a little wine to Timothy for the stomach's sake. And Moses, too, the great founder of the Jewish polity, permitted polygamy because of the hardness of men's hearts. So the fathers of the Constitution preferred a constitution with slavery to no constitution at all. Had each of those illustrious men persisted in his own views, we should have had only an autonomy of States instead of the glorious Union, which in spite of storms stands unshaken to-day.
I cannot dwell on those protracted debates, which lasted four months, or on the minor questions which demanded attention,--all centering in the great question whether the government should be federative or national. But the ablest debater of the convention was Hamilton, and his speeches were impressive and convincing. He endeavored to impress upon the minds of the members that liberty was found neither in the rule of a few aristocrats, nor in extreme democracy; that democracies had proved more short-lived than aristocracies, as illustrated in Greece, Rome, and England. He showed that extreme democracies, especially in cities, would be governed by demagogues; that universal suffrage was a dangerous experiment when the people had neither intelligence nor virtue; that no government could last which was not just and enlightened; that all governments should be administered by men of experience and integrity; that any central government should have complete control over commerce, tariffs, revenues, post-offices, patents, foreign relations, the army and navy, peace or war; and that in all these functions of national interest the central government should be independent of State legislatures, so that the State and National legislatures should not clash. Many of his views were not adopted, but it is remarkable that the subsequent changes and modifications of the Constitution have been in the direction of his policy; that wars and great necessities have gradually brought about what he advocated with so much calmness and wisdom. Guizot asserts that "he must ever be classed among the men who have best understood the vital principles and elemental conditions of government; and that there is not in the Constitution of the United States an element of order, or force, or duration which he did not powerfully contribute to secure." This is the tribute of that great and learned statesman and historian to the genius and services of Hamilton. What an exalted praise! To be the maker of a constitution requires the highest maturity of reason. It was the peculiar glory of Moses,--the ablest man ever born among the Jews, and the greatest benefactor his nation ever had. How much prouder the fame of a beneficent and enlightened legislator than that of a conqueror! The code which Napoleon gave to France partially rescues his name from the infamy that his injuries inflicted on mankind. Who are the greatest men of the present day, and the most beneficent? Such men as Gladstone and Bright, who are seeking by wise legislation to remove or meliorate the evils of centuries of injustice. Who have earned the proudest national fame in the history of America since the Constitution was made? Such men as Webster, Clay, Seward, Sumner, who devoted their genius to the elucidation of fundamental principles of government and political economy. The sphere of a great lawyer may bring more personal gains, but it is comparatively narrow to that of a legislator who originates important measures for the relief or prosperity of a whole country.
The Constitution when completed was not altogether such as Hamilton would have made, but he accepted it cordially as the best which could be had. It was not perfect, but probably the best ever devised by human genius, with its checks and balances, "like one of those rocking-stones reared by the Druids," as Winthrop beautifully said, "which the finger of a child may vibrate to its centre, yet which the might of an army cannot move from its place."
The next thing to be done was to secure its ratification by the several States,--a more difficult thing than at first sight would be supposed; for the State legislatures were mainly composed of mere politicians, without experience or broad views, and animated by popular passions. So the States were tardy in accepting it, especially the larger ones, like Virginia, New York, and Massachusetts. And it may reasonably be doubted whether it would have been accepted at all, had it not been for the able papers which Hamilton, Madison, and Jay wrote and published in a leading New York paper,--essays which go under the name of "The Federalist," long a text-book in our colleges, and which is the best interpreter of the Constitution itself. It is everywhere quoted; and if those able papers may have been surpassed in eloquence by some of the speeches of our political orators, they have never been equalled in calm reasoning. They appealed to the intelligence of the age,--an age which loved to read Butler's "Analogy," and Edwards "On the Will;" an age not yet engrossed in business and pleasure, when people had time to ponder on what is profound and lofty; an age not so brilliant as our own in mechanical inventions and scientific researches, but more contemplative, and more impressible by grand sentiments. I do not say that the former times were better than these, as old men have talked for two thousand years, for those times were hard, and the struggles of life were great,--without facilities of travel, without luxuries, without even comforts, as they seem to us; but there was doubtless then a loftier spiritual life, and fewer distractions in the pursuit of solid knowledge; people then could live in the country all the year round without complaint, or that restless craving for novelties which demoralizes and undermines the moral health. Hamilton wrote sixty-three of the eighty-five (more than half) of these celebrated papers which had a great influence on public opinion,--clear, logical, concise, masterly in statement, and in the elucidation of fundamental principles of government. Probably no series of political essays has done so much to mould the opinions of American statesmen as those of "The Federalist,"--a thesaurus of political wisdom, as much admired in Europe as in America. It was translated into most of the European languages, and in France placed side by side with Montesquieu's "Spirit of Laws" in genius and ability. It was not written for money or fame, but from patriotism, to enlighten the minds of the people, and prepare them for the reception of the Constitution.
In this great work Hamilton rendered a mighty service to his country. Nothing but the conclusive arguments which he made, assisted by Jay and Madison, aroused the people fully to a sense of the danger attending an imperfect union of States. By the efforts of Hamilton outside the convention, more even than in the convention, the Constitution was finally adopted,--first by Delaware and last by Rhode Island, in 1790, and then only by one majority in the legislature. So difficult was the work of construction. We forget the obstacles and the anxieties and labors of our early statesmen, in the enjoyment of our present liberties.