Some Alexander Hamilton, But Not So Much Hamilton, in the New Supreme Court

Posted: 6 Nov 2020 Last revised: 10 Nov 2020

See all articles by John Q. Barrett

John Q. Barrett

St. John's University School of Law; Robert H. Jackson Center

Date Written: November 6, 2020

Abstract

This essay is one of thirty-five in the book Hamilton and the Law: Reading Today’s Most Contentious Legal Issues Through the Hit Musical(Cornell University Press, Lisa A. Tucker, ed., Oct. 2020).

This essay considers the possibility that Hamilton: An American Musical, the sensation that has captivated so many, plus its soundtrack that plays on in our heads and on our devices, will stir and influence United States Supreme Court justices as they interpret the U.S. Constitution.

Our Supreme Court justices have always been interested in the lives and the words of the Founding Fathers. For example, The Federalist essays of 1787-1788, most of them penned by Alexander Hamilton, have been cited in hundreds of Court decisions. So have other Founding-era materials, including many words from James Madison, the so-called Father of the Constitution. But as Justice Robert H. Jackson wrote in the 1952 Steel Seizure Case (Youngstown Sheet & Tube Co. v. Sawyer), this judicial enterprise often is not illuminating—“a Hamilton may be matched against a Madison”; “Just what our forefathers did envision, or would have envisioned had they foreseen modern conditions, must be divined from materials almost as enigmatic as the dreams Joseph was called upon to interpret for Pharaoh.”

When the musical Hamilton opened on Broadway in 2016, Hillary Clinton was on her way to being elected president. It was predictable that she would get to appoint new Supreme Court justices, and that they would be, as she is, inclined to read expansively the Constitution’s provisions defining national government powers. These newcomers would constitute a Supreme Court in the Hamilton era. They would see the musical, hear the songs, be stirred, and perhaps even quote from and cite to Hamilton.

U.S. politics took a different path. Yes, many of the justices have seen Hamilton. More liberal, nationalistic, Alexander Hamilton-admiring justices have praised it. More conservative justices have had less to say about it. In Supreme Court decisions through June 2019, there is not much trace of Hamiltonian—forefather or modern musical—influence.

Keywords: Alexander Hamilton, The Federalist, Supreme Court, Justice Jackson, Robert H. Jackson, Originalism

Suggested Citation

Barrett, John Q., Some Alexander Hamilton, But Not So Much Hamilton, in the New Supreme Court (November 6, 2020). St. John's Legal Studies Research Paper No. 20-0014, Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=3726249

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