When we think of Alexander Hamilton, we think of him as George Washington’s aide-de-camp, as the writer of the majority of the Federalist Papers, as this country’s first Secretary of the Treasury, and the founder of the New York Post. Less well known is Hamilton’s career as an attorney and the lasting impact that he had as a practicing lawyer, a practicing estates lawyer.
After leaving public service, Hamilton established his law practice in New York. Well-known for his pro bono work with destitute women and orphans, Hamilton was also an astute corporate and trusts and estates attorney. Because of his brilliance in these domains, he wrote a Last Will and Testament that not only created the wealthiest and most successful charitable bequest in New York history, the Sailors’ Snug Harbor for aging sailors, but the trust he created would later establish the right of the State to create corporations in response to charitable bequests in Wills. An ardent advocate of individual property rights, Hamilton drafted a Will that not only withstood legislative debate but also a legal challenge by an heir of the testator that would end up in the US Supreme Court.
What made this trust and estates practice unique was that Hamilton was carving out new legal ground when it came to estates. Prior to the revolution, all lands had been the property of the Crown. The original grantee would then sell off parcels of land under his original grant. The Treaty of Paris (1783) that ended the Revolutionary War also put an end of any residuary rights held by the Crown, but this only meant that a landowner in the United States no longer had any allegiance to the British Crown. Land ownership per se was not addressed by the Treaty.
During the colonial period in New York City, the merchant class under both the Dutch and the English held land by occupying it and forcibly holding it. Some of the large estates were owned by Loyalists (or Tories) who remained loyal to the British Crown during the Revolution. After the Revolution, under the leadership of New York’s first governor (and future vice president under both Thomas Jefferson and James Madison) George Clinton, the legislature passed three laws that effectively confiscated the property of the former Loyalists and forfeited their rights to their land: the Confiscation Act (1779), the Citation Act (1782), and the Trespass Act (1783). Hamilton opposed these laws as flouting fundamental democratic property rights, and he defended Loyalists against these takings by the State. All the while, he was looking for a way to the State to legitimately transfer land without the use of confiscation or eminent domain. The opportunity presented itself with the drafting of the Last Will and Testament of Robert Richard Randall.
The story will continue in Part 2 of this story…