Andrew Hamilton, early American attorney and political figure, most famous for defending John Peter Zenger in a seditious libel suit, was most likely born in Scotland and probably attended the University of St. Andrews. Records are sparse regarding Hamilton’s early life; the name of his parents and his place and exact date of birth are unknown. It is suspected that Hamilton arrived in Virginia in 1697, but there is no conclusive evidence. His name first appeared in colonial records in 1700. Since he did not open his law practice until 1703, it is highly probable that Hamilton learned law from self-study or through an office of an established attorney. Hamilton became a man of prominence; he inherited a substantial estate from friends and his practice grew in Accomac and Northampton Counties, Virginia. On March 6, 1706 or 1707, Hamilton and Ann Brown Preeson married. The couple had three children.
Around 1709, the Hamiltons moved from the eastern shore of Virginia to Kent County, Maryland, where his law practice grew slowly. Hamilton’s work took him to Philadelphia, where he met William Penn’s proprietary agent, James Logan. Soon after, he managed the Penn family’s legal concerns. In representing the Penn family, the attorney helped settle a famous dispute. The conflict arose when the Penn family and Lord Baltimore disagreed over the boundary of Maryland. In 1713, Hamilton traveled to England to gain more professional prestige. While overseas, he was admitted to Gray’s Inn of Courts and the English bar. When Hamilton returned to the colonies, he was elected to Maryland’s House of Delegates, but settled in Philadelphia in either late 1715 or early 1716. Although business kept him in London in 1724 and 1725, Hamilton’s permanent residence was in Philadelphia until his death.
Throughout Hamilton’s lifetime, the prominent lawyer stayed in the public eye. In 1717, Hamilton was appointed attorney general of Pennsylvania, and in 1720 became a member of the provincial council. Some of the other positions Hamilton held were master of the rolls, prothonotary of Philadelphia, recorder for Philadelphia, Bucks County representative in the Pennsylvania assembly, Kent County representative in the Delaware assembly, and Speaker of both assemblies. Hamilton also designed and oversaw the construction of the Pennsylvania assembly’s Independence Hall.
Andrew Hamilton’s legacy lies in his 1735 defense of John Peter Zenger, with his argument that truth could be a defense against libel. New York Governor William Cosby’s administration accused Zenger, a German immigrant and publisher of the New York Weekly Journal, of seditious libel. At the time, a jury’s only duty was to decide whether the accused was guilty of printing the material. It was the judge who determined whether the questionable writing was libelous. Chief Justice James DeLancey and Second Judge Frederic Philipse disbarred Zenger’s attorneys, James Alexander and William Smith, after they questioned the authority of the judges. The defendant’s lawyers accused the judges of being improperly commissioned. Although after the incident a local attorney was appointed, Zenger’s supporters wanted Andrew Hamilton for counsel, who was known as the best lawyer in the colonies.
Hamilton chose to defend Zenger and won the famous suit. He asked the jury to disregard the law and acquit his client, since the statements that Zenger made were factual. The bold attorney also argued that in order for free government to prosper, the civil liberty of freedom of the press must be ensured. The jury found the defendant not guilty, and Zenger was welcomed back into the community as a free man. Had there been a guilty verdict, Zenger would have been at the mercy of the judges who were strongly influenced by Governor Cosby.
Following the New York court case, Hamilton returned to Philadelphia and continued to be speaker of the Pennsylvania assembly until his retirement in 1739. Although no longer in the assembly, he held other positions that were chiefly administrative in nature. Hamilton, who was preceded in death by his wife, died August 4, 1741. His son, James Hamilton, later become governor of Pennsylvania. There is difficulty assessing Hamilton’s career without bias since many documents and records are lost or incomplete. Nevertheless, contemporaries viewed Hamilton as the most powerful trial attorney in the colonies, and he has the legacy of defending the freedom of the press.
HEIDI SCOTT GIUSTO
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