Richard Nisley

The ‘“Why” of American Exceptionalism: “Rutgers v. Waddington”
History - American Released - May 17, 2018

What is American Exceptionalism? According to President Ronald Reagan, who used the term often while campaigning for president, it was America’s divine chosen-ness and moral superiority. The term, however, originated with a French visitor to America, Alexis de Tocqueville, who coined the term in his 1835 travel account, writing that “The position of the Americans is therefore quite exceptional, and it may be believed no democratic people will ever be placed in a similar one.” Sociologist Seymour Martin Lipset, took this idea a step further when he wrote in 1997: “Being an American is an ideological commitment . . .” a commitment in which “law is the only sovereign.”

What does American Exceptionalism have to do with a court case that was decided before creation of the U.S. Constitution? A great deal, actually. The case is “Rutgers v. Waddington.”

In Peter Charles Hoffer’s compelling book about the case, the better part of American Exceptionalism is the legal forgiveness of one’s former enemies.

At the center of Rutgers v. Waddington is Alexander Hamilton, who argued for the defendant in 1784. The war with Britain was over by then, but the infant Republic was embroiled in something of a cold war between Patriots and Loyalists, in what the author calls “the first American civil war.” At issue was property, property that had been abandoned during the war. Much of it was in upstate New York and owned by Loyalists who had fled the country. Now that the war was over, they wanted it back.

In the case of Joshua Waddington it was the opposite. He was a Loyalist who during the war had rented a brewery house in New York City from Elizabeth Rutgers, a Patriot who had fled the city. New York City was occupied by the British up to their departure in 1783, and Waddington had paid his rent to the British, who in turn donated the money to various charities throughout the city. Now that the war was over, Anthony Rutgers, acting on behalf of his mother, wanted back payment for the rent. A dispute ensued over the exact amount to be paid. The dispute turned ugly during negotiations when the brewery house mysteriously burned down. Suspecting the worst, Rutgers upped the amount to what today would be one million dollars, and turned to the courts for redress.

Prior to this, the New York state legislature had passed the Trespass Act, which tilted the advantage heavily in favor of the Patriots. Nonetheless, Hamilton saw an opportunity for himself and took up the study of law. Many of the Loyalists seeking redress were wealthy and able to pay healthy legal fees to regain possession of their property, which was considerable. In the immediate postwar years, where tensions still ran high, taking sides with the Loyalists was not the most popular thing for a Patriot to do, but Hamilton had a motive. He wished to create a lucrative law practice while redressing Loyalists’ grievances caused by The Trespass Act. Many were wealthy merchants with overseas business connections with ample investment capital that Hamilton believed was critical to jumpstarting the nation’s ailing economy. Rutgers v. Waddington was Hamilton’s first big case, and something of a test case at that. Should he win, it would set a legal precedent in the courts that favored Loyalists’ return to their former place in the American business world, and generate considerable new business for Hamilton’s law practice.

The odds of winning were stacked against Hamilton. The terms of the Peace Treaty were vague concerning the welfare of Loyalists, and the Trespass Act outright hostile. Hamilton turned to the writings of Blackstone and Vattel to buttress his case while arguing that the sovereignty of the people was not in the state legislature or the state constitution, but in Congress under the Articles of Confederation. “The first act of our government adopts it as fundamental law . . . these reflections teach us to respect the sovereignty of the union and to consider its constitutional powers as not controllable by any state.” This was heady stuff Hamilton was proclaiming, at a time when state power was considered equal if not greater than that of the Confederation Congress. Fortunately for Hamilton, he had a friend in the Mayor’s Court which tried the case, in whom he may or may not have shared his legal brief prior to the court’s judgement. Whatever actually did occur (the author is uncertain), Hamilton’s legal arguments were persuasive and carried the day for his client. Waddington paid a significantly reduced rental fee.

The case has since been considered an early milestone in developing the American doctrine of judicial review. Yet, there was more to the case than meets the eye. It set the tone for what it means to be an American—what “American Exceptionalism” is really about. Writes the author: “(Rutgers v. Waddington) stood for a commitment to resolve differences, even the most violent of differences, under the rule of law. It stood for the autonomy of the judicial branch in a system of checks and balances. It stood for basic fair play. In 1784 and 1865, the sense of fair play had been severely tested by civil warfare. But Rutgers and its legacy envisioned a polity in which former enemies could find neutral forums to resolve disputes and then willingly accept the decisions of these forums. To load all of this on one case in New York’s Mayor’s Court may seem overreaching, but at the time, contemporaries thought the case of great importance. If, in the course of nearly two and a half centuries of legal and political change, Rutgers’s significance has diminished, it is surely long past time to restore its place in the canon.”

Final note: there is more to Hamilton’s legal arguments than can be summarized in a review, which, to say the least, are fascinating and insightful in how Hamilton reasoned out his arguments—reason enough to read to this book.

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