Last Saturday was the 216th anniversary of the famous duel that Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr fought on the dueling grounds in Weehawken, New Jersey; the duel that led to Hamilton’s death. With that anniversary in mind – and since Hamilton is in the news again – we thought it would be fun to highlight a Hamilton-related item that the Law Library recently acquired for its rare books collection.
The item is four manuscript pages on which Alexander Hamilton hand-copied a 1784 special verdict delivered by New York’s Supreme Court of Judicature presided over by John S. Hobart. Hamilton represented the plaintiff in the case, a man named James Leonard. Leonard sought to recover a New York City property that he purchased but that the state of New York had confiscated under that state’s Forfeiture Act of 1779.
In the years after 1776, all of the states, except South Carolina, enacted legislation that permitted the confiscation of property belonging to loyalists. New York, which endured a prolonged British occupation during the war, enacted the most substantial confiscation regime. Confiscation began under New York’s provisional government in March of 1777 with the appointment of “Committees of Sequestration” that took possession of properties from which loyalists had fled and auctioned them off to raise funds in support of the patriot cause (Pashman, p. 593). The New York legislature enacted the Forfeiture Act in October of 1779, with the following full title: “An Act for the Forfeiture and Sale of the Estates of Persons who have adhered to the Enemies of this State, and for declaring the Sovereignty of the People of this State, in respect to all Property within the same” (New York Laws, 3rd session, Ch. 25). The act empowered the state to seize and sell the property – both real and moveable – of people who adhered to the British side of the conflict. The act also included a list of known loyalists who, on account of their support for Great Britain, faced both confiscation of their property and banishment from the State of New York. Any additional people that the state chose to indict under the law faced only confiscation of property (Boonshoft).
Under that law, voluntarily entering and remaining in British-occupied areas demonstrated loyalty to the British cause. The plaintiff in this case, James Leonard, was a loyalist and like many people who opposed the movement for Independence, he fled his home in upstate New York to take refuge in British-occupied New York City. The state appointed “Commissioners of Forfeiture” to administer the law. Three commissioners served in each of four districts in New York (Boonshoft). Leonard faced charges in the middle district which included Dutchess, Orange, and Ulster counties. On May 5, 1780, a jury in Ulster County, New York, indicted Leonard under the Forfeiture Act. The court entered a judgment against Leonard when he failed to contest the indictment and his property was deemed forfeited. The judgment is dated November 9, 1782.
On May 13, 1781, Leonard bought a house and a lot in British-occupied New York City. After the occupation came to an end, on May 15, 1784, New York State Commissioners of Forfeiture seized the property that Leonard purchased in New York City and sold it to a carpenter named Anthony Post. The seizure was carried out on grounds of the indictment that had been made against Leonard in Ulster county in 1780. In July of the same year, Leonard filed suit to recover his property and hired Alexander Hamilton to represent him in the case. The trial took place in December of 1784. In the special verdict that appears in this document, the jury found that both Leonard’s title to the New York City property and the judgment against him in Ulster county were valid, but the court postponed judgment on the question of whether the state’s seizure of Leonard’s New York City property was justified.
Ultimately, in January 1786, Hamilton won the case for Leonard, arguing that property acquired by a loyalist after a judgment of forfeiture was not subject to confiscation. The court agreed, awarding Leonard both the seized New York City property and damages in the amount of about thirty-one pounds.
Hamilton made defense of the property interests of loyalists who were subject to the state’s confiscatory policies both an important part of his legal practice and his presence in the New York Assembly (Zeichner, p. 288). He believed, like others who pursued loyalist reintegration, that putting an end to confiscation and banishment was crucial for the social stability of the nation and for the restoration of the rule of law (Palfreyman, p. 462). When the Constitutional Convention met in 1787, that body chose with very little discussion to incorporate into the Constitution a prohibition against bills of attainder – a category of laws that includes acts of forfeiture aimed at punishing political dissent, one of the few instances of a right built into the body of the Constitution.
Palfreyman, Brett. “The Loyalists and the Federal Constitution The Origins of the Bill of Attainder Clause,” Journal of the Early Republic, Vol. 35, no. 3 (Fall 2015): 451-473.
Pashman, Howard. “The People’s Property Law: A Step Toward Building a New Legal Order in Revolutionary New York,” Law and History Review Vol. 31, no. 3 (August 2013): 587-626.
Zeichner, Oscar. “The Loyalist Problem in New York after the Revolution.” New York History, July 1940, Vol. 21, No. 3 (July 1940), pp. 284-302.