Jefferson's Real Estate Career & Hamilton's Hidden Life: April 2017 MRSEAH Double-Header


For the final 2016-17 meeting of the Missouri Regional Seminar on Early American History, participants gathered on April 21 in the Kinder Institute offices in Jesse Hall for our annual double header. After a lively discussion of the introduction to Washington University Professor of History David Konig’s book-in-progress, Nature’s Advocate: Thomas Jefferson and the Republic of Law  (see abstract below), attendees re-convened following a brief reception for a dinner lecture delivered by University of Oklahoma Assistant Professor of Classics & Letters Andrew Porwancher that was drawn from his current book project, under contract with Harvard University Press, The Jewish Founding Father: Alexander Hamilton’s Hidden Life (abstract also below).

“Thomas Jefferson: How a Real Estate Lawyer Became Philosopher of the American Revolution”: Abstract

Jefferson was born to privilege typical of the landholding elite that dominated Virginia society. His earliest memory—“his being lifted up and carried on a pillow by a mounted slave”—  remains a widely cited example of his elite status. Well before Jefferson entered politics, however, his seven-year legal practiced led him to a revolutionary repudiation of the laws that insulated the landed gentry from challenge and to a commitment to a reformist legal project that would replace it with “a system by which every fibre would be eradicated of antient or future aristocracy.” How did he come to doubt the long-held commanding vision of patrician imperatives passed on to him? Why did he ultimately choose to undertake a comprehensive revision of the law, in the process arousing the enmity of those he was expected to serve and the accusation of being a traitor to his class—producing what his first biographer called “the remarkable spectacle of a reputation more assailed by class and hereditary hate than any other, and all others, belonging to our early history”?

For a practicing lawyer who had been groomed to serve the landed elite and take his place among them, such a sharp reversal seemed unlikely at the time, and since then many historians have attempted to explain it by simply denying his sincerity—the “hypocrisy” indictment—and doubting his commitment to fundamental change.  His legal thought and practice, however, show otherwise.  In the hundreds of real estate matters that he handled from 1767 to 1774, and in the numerous opinions he provided of counsel to other lawyers, we see a practice that consisted largely of apparently prosaic real estate matters—quieting title, conveyancing, drafting and disputing wills— that give little outward indication of the radicalism it spawned. By the time he turned over his practice to Edmund Randolph in 1774, however, it had grown to well over a thousand cases and involved matters far beyond the interests of the elite he had been prepared to serve. His practice acquainted him with a broad array of Virginians, from the elite and would-be elite to the middling and struggling, the European and the African, men as well as women and children. His practice amply illustrates Oliver Wendell Holmes’s remark that “The life of the law has not been logic: it has been experience,” and from their experiences he gained an intimate understanding of the role law played in their lives and insight into the way that the role of law defined the rule of law.

“The Jewish Founding Father: Alexander Hamilton’s Hidden Life”: Abstract

Alexander Hamilton’s unlikely journey from West Indian orphan to American founding father has long captivated historians, and now, thanks to Broadway, the general public. Yet a crucial aspect of Hamilton’s life remains unknown: the historical record suggests that he was actually born Jewish. By the time Hamilton arrived in New York as a teenager, he discarded whatever Jewish identity he might have had in his childhood. Still, Hamilton never forgot his origins. His conspicuous aversion to Christianity in his adult life stood in marked contrast to his abiding advocacy for American Jews.

David Konig received his A.B. from New York University, his A.M. from Harvard University, and his Ph.D. from Harvard, and he currently serves as Professor of History and Law at Washington University in St. Louis. He is the author of Law and Society in Puritan Massachusetts (University of North Carolina Press, 1979), the author and editor of Devising Liberty: Creating and Preserving Freedom in the New American Republic (Stanford University Press, 1995), and the author and co-editor of The Dred Scott Case: Historical and Contemporary Perspectives on Race and Law (Ohio University Press, 2010). His chapter “John Adams, Constitution Monger” recently appeared in Constitutions and Classics: Patterns of Constitutional Thought from Fortescue to Bentham (Oxford University Press, 2015), and his scholarship has been widely published in venues including, The Cambridge History of American Law, Law and History Review, Northeastern Law Journal, and UCLA Law Review. He is currently at work on two projects, as editor of The Papers of Thomas Jefferson: The Legal Commonplace Book (Princeton University Press) and author of Nature’s Advocate: Thomas Jefferson and the Republic of Law.

Andrew Porwancher (Ph.D. Cambridge, A.M. Brown, B.A. Northwestern) is an Assistant Professor of Classics & Letters and a core faculty member of the Institute for the American Constitutional Heritage at University of Oklahoma. He is the author of The Devil Himself: A Tale of Honor, Insanity, and the Birth of Modern America (Oxford University Press, 2016) and John Henry Wigmore and the Rules of Evidence: The Hidden Origins of Modern Law (University of Missouri Press, 2016), which appeared as an inaugural title in the Kinder Institute and University of Missouri Press’ Studies in Constitutional Democracy book series and which recently received Honorable Mention from the American Society of Legal Writers’ Scribes Book Award Committee. Dr. Porwancher has published articles in the Journal of Supreme Court History, History of Education, Journalism History, Paedagogica Historica, and American Educational History Journal. He is currently at work on a book entitled, The Jewish Founding Father: Alexander Hamilton’s Hidden Life (under contract with Harvard University Press). In 2013-2014, he served as the Alistair Horne Fellow at the University of Oxford.