Walk down Allentown’s Hamilton Street these days and you will find yourself in the heart of a changing cityscape.
Stand at the southwest corner at Center Square and gaze past the Soldiers and Sailors Monument and you will see Allentown’s new skyscraper- home of National Penn Bank- known as Two City Center. At its base, above a spiffy new restaurant and in bold lights is a sign that reads “THE HAMILTON.” Officially known as the Hamilton Kitchen, its name and location on Hamilton Street, Allentown’s main street, just makes sense.
Many people assume that Hamilton Street was named for Founding Father Alexander Hamilton. But, in fact, in 1762, when William Allen gave that name to the main street of his new town, that Hamilton was a 7 year old child living on an island in the Caribbean.
Allen was actually honoring his brother-in-law James Hamilton, (1710-1783) the several times colonial governor of Pennsylvania whose sister, Margaret, he had married and by whom he had 9 children, 6 of which survived into adulthood.
It also may have been Allen’s way of honoring attorney Andrew Hamilton, (1676-1741) James Hamilton’s father who was Allen’s mentor in politics, and the designer of what we know as Independence Hall, and also a participant in one of the first and most important legal cases in American history.
When Andrew Hamilton arrived in Virginia in 1697 he was already educating himself as an attorney. Other than that he was from Scotland, there is little known about his life in the Old World. In 1712 he went to London where he finished his education at Gray’s Inn, one of the leading law institutions in Britain, and was admitted to the bar. Shortly thereafter he met William Penn, who hired him.
Hamilton represented Penn in many cases. This connection helped him gain clients, many of them wealthy and influential. His formal portrait at the time shows him in the long “full bottom” wig which was popular with the upper class in both England and America.
It is said that Hamilton was so skilled in his profession that the term “Philadelphia lawyer,” meaning an attorney who is particularly adept at winning difficult cases, was first applied to him. Hamilton used most of his income buying and speculating in land.
The case that gave Andrew Hamilton his place as the first significant figure in American legal history came in 1735. Hamilton went to New York to defend John Peter Zenger, the publisher of a New York newspaper who had been arrested and put in jail for libeling governor William Colby.
At that time the libel law was understood to mean that even if what was printed was true it could still lead to arrest for libel. Hamilton, taking the case without a fee, argued before the jury that truth is a defense in accusation for libel. The press, Hamilton told the jury, “has a liberty both of exposing an opposing tyrannical power by speaking and writing the truth.”
The jury found Zenger not guilty. Although it would be many years before his argument about libel was completely accepted as settled law, it shaped the thinking of the Founding Fathers when they put the concept of freedom of the press in the Bill of Rights.
Andrew Hamilton’s links with William Allen began in the 1720s. Allen had just been elected to Philadelphia’s city council. He decided that the council, which up until that time had been meeting largely in the second floor room of taverns, should have a permanent home, one that reflected the growing city’s status.
Allen went to Hamilton, who used his influence with the city fathers to get them to agree to such a building. He even drew up the plans for it himself. Although arguments over money were to delay its completion until long after Hamilton was dead, eventually it gave Philadelphia a handsome structure that became the place where the United States of America was born.
By the time Andrew Hamilton was placed in his tomb in Philadelphia’s Christ Church Cemetery on August 4, 1741, James Hamilton had already established himself as a member of the city’s elite. His income came from land, although collecting rents was sometimes difficult.
Among his social links, the younger Hamilton was a prominent philanthropist who gave to many charities. He also sat on the board of what became the University of Pennsylvania.
He and Benjamin Franklin were the first and second subscribers to policies issued by the Philadelphia Contributionship, America’s first home insurance company.
Hamilton served two terms, 1748-54 and 1759-63, as the de facto governor of Pennsylvania. Like all colonial governors, Hamilton had his good and bad moments with the Quaker dominated colonial legislature over a number of issues, particularly taxes. Frustrated by politics he retired from it in 1763.
Because of his position, by the start of the Revolution Hamilton found himself torn. He felt the colonists had a great deal of justice on their side but, as a wealthy landowner who had sworn an oath to support King George, he feared the chaos a final break with Britain might bring.
Unlike others he never fled to England, and when the British Army occupied Philadelphia from 1777-78, like the Liberty Bell, he found refuge in Allentown at his nephew James Allen’s home at Trout Hall.
Ill and aging by 1783, Hamilton had lost a great deal. But unlike the Allens, most of his property was not confiscated by the state. At his death on August 13, 1783, as he never married, most of Hamilton’s land went to his nephew William Hamilton, who had cared for him in final illness. And over 200 years later his family name is up in lights on Hamilton St.