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One-time legal hero's name dropped from bar benefit

Every school child knows, or perhaps once did, that the libel and sedition trial of colonial-era publisher John Peter Zenger in one stroke forged a foundational right of citizens to criticize government.

Every school child knows, or perhaps once did, that the libel and sedition trial of colonial-era publisher John Peter Zenger in one stroke forged a foundational right of citizens to criticize government.

The learned man who made the winning argument in that 1735 trial was Andrew Hamilton, a wealthy Philadelphian who was said to be the greatest lawyer of his day.

For a time, Hamilton's reputation was so lustrous he was the inspiration for the term, "Philadelphia lawyer," an advocate who deployed the very best legal reasoning and arguments, all with a dash of idealism and high principle.

But now, not so much.

It turns out that Hamilton also was a slaveowner, and apparently felt so comfortable with the practice he willed his slaves to his children. In recognition of that fact, the Philadelphia Bar Foundation, one of the city's best known legal organizations, has stripped his name from its annual fundraiser, which helps finance dozens of public interest legal groups.

"We had to go through a fair amount of dialogue about it," said Thomas Brophy, president and chief executive of the Marshall Dennehey law firm and incoming president of the bar foundation.

"Andrew Hamilton has been identified with the concept of the Philadelphia lawyer for a long time. He challenged the king and he did it without pay at great risk to himself and his client and you have to admire his willingness to do that."

An embodiment of moral contradiction, Hamilton had ample company in his day. Many of the founders owned slaves as did a number of early presidents; Washington himself had slaves when he served as chief executive and lived in Philadelphia, the nation's capital from 1790 through 1800.

The decision came after a months-long review during which the foundation weighed Hamilton's contributions as a lawyer and political leader against a practice that, while common in Philadelphia at the time, would be made illegal in Pennsylvania just a few decades after Hamilton's death in 1741.

The bar foundation lawyers who looked into the matter and recommended the name change said discussions were at times fraught.

Some lawyers on the panel that conducted the review said changing the name because of Hamilton's slave ownership would be judging him by modern standards that would have been inconceivable at the time. To do so, they said, would be giving in to political correctness.

Moreover, the loss to the bar in the name change would be significant. Hamilton's reputation as a paradigm of legal practice has become a kind of brand for the city bar.

Yet others on the committee said slave ownership disqualified Hamilton from the start, and wanted his name removed.

"There were members of the committee who were African American for whom this was a no-brainer," said Jessica Hilburn-Holmes, executive director of the foundation. "And there were members who were former chancellors who had a connection to the history of the foundation", who believed that while slavery was abhorrent, Hamilton should not be judged by modern standards.

The foundation had long been considering a name change of its annual fundraising dinner to better reflect its mission of providing financial support to upwards of 30 legal-services agencies that represent poor and disadvantaged persons in the city.

That initiative accelerated earlier this year when the foundation received a tip that Hamilton had owned slaves. A short while later, the foundation retrieved a crucial piece of evidence from an archive in Harrisburg, Hamilton's will, in which he left slaves to his children.

Details of Hamilton's life are sketchy but what is known created a portrait of an early American politician and lawyer who was both a thought leader and skilled at accumulating wealth.

He was born in Scotland in about 1676 and immigrated to Virginia. Some reports say he came to the colonies as an indentured servant. He was not related to Alexander Hamilto,

He was a friend and confidant of Benjamin Franklin, served as speaker of both the Pennsylvania and Delaware Assemblies, and had been Pennsylvania attorney general. His friendship with Franklin had practical benefits, and the two seemed to have engaged in an early form of political patronage.

It was Hamilton who arranged for Franklin to become the Assembly's printer, and later, Assembly clerk, which only added to Franklin's government printing work.

Franklin, for his part, was effusive in his praise.

"He steadily maintained the Cause of Liberty," Franklin wrote of his friend. "And the laws that were made during the time he was Speaker of the Assembly, which was many years, will be a lasting monument of his affection to the people, and of his Concern for the welfare of this Province.

He was no friend to power, as he had observed an ill use had frequently been made of it in the Colonies."

What captured the imagination of generations of lawyers in Philadelphia and beyond was not only Hamilton's legal skill, but his courage and idealism. He apparently had a thriving commercial practice, but also preached the virtues of democracy and argued that sound constitutional governance contributed to economic prosperity.

He took up the cause of New York publisher Peter Zenger without pay, an early example of pro bono representation, and faced long odds in springing Zenger from jail, where he had been held for breaching New York's libel and sedition laws.

Zenger's newspaper, the New York Weekly Journal, had published articles critical of Gov. William Cosby who packed the courts with loyalists as he pursued a pay dispute with his predecessor.

At the time, truth was no defense in a libel trial. Moreover, trial juries' powers were severely limited. Under the law, the most critical issues in the case would be decided by the trial judge, a Cosby loyalist.

In a daring gambit, Hamilton chose to appeal directly to the jury to decide the entire matter on its own while raising the specter of unchecked power trampling not only Zenger's rights, but those of all residents of the colonies.

"Power may be just compared to a great river, while kept within its due bounds, is both beautiful and useful, but when it overflows its banks, it is then too impetuous to be stemmed," Hamilton argued at trial.

"It bears down all before it and brings destruction and desolation wherever it comes. If then this is the nature of power, let us at least do our duty, and like wise men who value freedom use our utmost dare to support liberty, the only bulwark against lawless power. . .."

A short time later, the jury acquitted Zenger, and according to a foundation report on the matter, the verdict was "met with cheers from the crowd that attended the trial."

The bar foundation wasn't the only forum for this kind of debate. Princeton University confronted a similar issue earlier this year, after student protestors demanded the university remove former President Woodrow Wilson's name from its school of public and international affairs because of his segregationist views.

Princeton declined, saying Wilson had done much to improve academics at the university and that erasing Wilson's legacy would effectively sanitize unsavory aspects of his record.

In the case of Andrew Hamilton, the bar committee eventually agreed to recommend that Hamilton's name be removed from the gala.

In the end, the committee never reached on whether Hamilton's slave ownership was reason alone for a name. Instead, t found in its July 21 report that another name would better represent the foundation's core mission of raising funds for public interest legal groups whose clients overwhelmingly are the city's poor and disadvantaged.

On Nov. 5, after 38 years flying under the banner of the Andrew Hamilton Benefit, the foundation held its fundraiser under a new name, the Access to Justice Benefit and Hamilton shuffled off the benefit stage.

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