There’s this musical on Broadway. It’s called Hamilton. You might have heard of it. It’s causing legal scholars to say things like “I admired Hamilton since before he could rap,” and “My Shot has a pretty good lyric but have you tried Federalist no. 6?”
Anyway, a short note on A. Ham. and the law of nations seems in order. For the following, I am particularly indebted to Mark Janis’ book America and the Law of Nations 1776-1939 (Oxford 2010), David Bederman’s volume The Classical Foundations of the American Constitution: Prevailing Wisdom (Cambridge 2008) and Hamilton’s Republic (The New Press 1997), a compilation of writings by Alexander Hamilton and later “Hamiltonian” writers edited and introduced by Michael Lind. These authors and others writing about Hamilton do not necessarily come to the same conclusions regarding his views on what we now call international law, but rather provide varying perspectives on a complex man.
By way of background, the views of the founders were in part shaped by their education in classical history as well as Enlightenment philosophy. David Bederman, in his study of classical thought and the U.S. Constitution, wrote that “[s]tarting first with classical writers in Greek, the Framing generation particularly prized the works of Plato, Aristotle, Thucydides, Polybius, and Plutarch, in that rising order of esteem.” (Bederman, 15.) Thucydides’ international realism and Polybius’ conception of a “mixed constitution” combining monarchy, oligarchy, and democracy were especially influential on the founding generation. Hamilton was particularly fond of quoting Plutarch, whose biographies combine issues of public policy and state building with individual moral choice. (Bederman,16-17; 22.) Hamilton and other founders may have used “instrumental classicism,” to support their political arguments, but they also did a “reputable job in trying to make sense of antiquity,” with Hamilton among the “best” classicists. (Bederman, 228.)
Beyond classical history and philosophy, the founders were also influenced by Enlightenment philosophy and, as a group, were well-versed in the 18th century law of nations and often referred to it in their writings. Mark Janis, in the first volume of his history of the United States and international law, argued that “[n]o group of America’s leaders have ever been more mindful of the discipline[of international law] than were the Founding Fathers.” (Janis, 24.)
In relation to studies in natural law at Kings College (later, Columbia University), Alexander Hamilton suggested in 1775 a reading list of “Grotius, Pufendorf, Locke, Montesquieu, and Burlemaqui.” (Janis, 24-25.) This shows, at least, his exposure to foundational texts of international law. However, suggesting a reading list on natural law and actual application of the law of nations in practice are two different things. So, how concerned was Alexander Hamilton with the application of the law of nations to the “young, scrappy, and hungry” republic?
Here we can see some divergence in interpretation by scholars. Janis notes that in 1795 Hamilton (more…)