About 1697, Hamilton came to Accomac County, Virginia, where he studied law.
Two years after his marriage Andrew Hamilton bought an estate of 6, 000 acres on the Chester River in Maryland. Here he lived for some years, built up a law practice, and served as deputy from Kent County in the Maryland Assembly. In 1712-1713 he visited England, was admitted to Gray’s Inn, January 27, 1713, and two weeks later was called “per favor” to the bar. Shortly after his return to America he moved to Philadelphia, and in 1717 he was appointed attorney-general of Pennsylvania. He took an important part in public affairs and his legal services were sought more and more by the proprietors. From 1724 to 1726 he was again in England as their agent. On his return to America the proprietors granted him an estate of 153 acres in what is now the heart of Philadelphia, and in 1727 he was appointed recorder of that city and prothonotary of the supreme court, very profitable offices.
For twelve years, beginning in 1727, Hamilton represented Bucks County in the Assembly and after 1729 was speaker, except for the session of 1733. The Assembly seems to have found his legal and other abilities indispensable, but his course in politics was singularly independent. He was vigorous in opposition to “encroachments” by governors, but he did not ally himself with the so called anti-proprietary party and throughout his career retained the confidence and esteem of the proprietary family and interests.
Hamilton's is title to fame is his successful defense of John Peter Zenger, publisher of the New York Weekly Journal, against a charge of seditious libel. Circumstances combined to make this occasion momentous and dramatic. For several years prior to 1735 the conflict between popular and governmental parties in New York had been working toward a crisis. The popular party, led by Morris, Alexander, and Smith, using what was a new weapon in New York politics, an opposition newspaper, seemed to the governmental clique to be making alarming headway. Failing to secure support from the city government and from the grand jury, the provincial government had recourse to a prosecution by the attorney general “on information” for seditious libel.
In April 1735 Zenger’s counsel, Alexander and Smith, leaders of the New York bar, attacked the validity of the judges’ commissions and were promptly disbarred. Zenger was thus left practically defenseless, for the few remaining New York lawyers were either attached to the court party or too intimidated to be helpful. The issue at stake was, in a very real sense, the freedom of the press as the only orderly means of resistance to an arbitrary and unscrupulous executive.
The popular leaders secretly invited Hamilton to undertake Zenger’s defense, and his appearance in the case in August 1735 was a surprise to the excited populace and to the hitherto triumphant court. The law of libel and the regular court procedure in such cases at the time confined the functions of the jury to determination of the mere fact of publication, the libelous character of the words being left as a question of law to the judges. The only hope of success lay in persuading the jury, at peril to themselves, to render a “general verdict” on both law and facts. This Hamilton succeeded in doing by a masterly command of the technique of advocacy and by a speech which has been characterized as the “greatest oratorical triumph won in the colonies prior to the speech of James Otis against writs of assistance. ” This outcome naturally excited great local enthusiasm; Hamilton was presented with the freedom of the city in a gold box. It attracted attention in England also, four editions of the London reprint being required in three months. From the strictly legal standpoint it is probably true that the points for which Hamilton contended were not “good law” at the time in America or England. Precisely these points, however, were embodied fifty-six years later in Fox’s Libel Act. A different result of the trial would probably have throttled, for a time at least, the political press of America.
Hamilton died in August 1741 and was buried first at his estate, “Bush Hill, ” and afterward in the graveyard of Christ Church, Philadelphia.
Hamilton's independence, versatility, and self-confidence are illustrated by his connection with the erection of the Pennsylvania State House, afterward known as Independence Hall. Its site and main architectural features are due to him.
On March 6, 1706, Hamilton married Anne (Brown) Preeson, who assisted him to valuable connections in Maryland. His son James was later lieutenant-governor and acting governor of Pennsylvania.