William Baude's "Hamilton" Welcome to the Class of 2019

Law School Communications
October 4, 2016

The following remarks were delivered by William Baude, the Neubauer Family Assistant Professor of Law, at the Entering Students Dinner, September 22, 2016. To see more from the Class of 2019's introduction to the Law School, including their participation in the Kapnick Leadership Development Initiative, take a peek at this slideshow.

Welcome to Chicago.

Many of you are arriving in a new city, all of you are arriving at a new, challenging endeavor: Law School, at the University of Chicago.

Your timing is fortuitous. As it happens, next week is another arrival in Chicago for a new phase of a challenging endeavor—and of course I am thinking of Hamilton, the musical. (If you haven’t seen it or listened to it, by the way, you really should.) Indeed, I could keep spinning these themes even finer, since the musical’s opening number begins with Alexander Hamilton himself arriving in a new city to start a new challenging endeavor. . .

In the words of his nemesis, Aaron Burr:

Well, the word got around, they said, “This Kid is insane, man”
Took up a collection just to send him to the mainland
“Get your education, don’t forget from whence you came, and
The world is gonna know your name. What’s your name, man?”

I can see what you are thinking— oh god, Baude isn’t going to start rapping, is he?— don’t worry, I’m not. Not here anyway.

But I do want to talk to you briefly about Hamilton, and to offer you three ways that you might consider Hamilton’s advice for your own time in law school.

(And just to get it out of the way, definitely be careful with following the example of late-period Hamilton. Dueling is a bad idea.)

Lesson Number One: Take ideas seriously. Relentlessly question the conventional wisdom.         

Say what you will about Alexander Hamilton, but he had audacity. He “wrote financial systems into existence.” He came up with a complicated scheme for the federal government to voluntarily assume massive state debts as a vehicle to ultimately propel the national government to political dominance over the states and to propel the republic to commercial greatness. (And it worked.)

He fought for the ratification of the Constitution, apparently convinced that if he could just write enough essays about what the Constitution meant and what the system looked like, his enemies would succumb. (That worked too).

Before ratification, at the constitutional convention, he had proposed some radical alternatives to the constitutional structure. My favorite? He wanted the President to be elected for life. Yes, he wanted what he called an “elective Monarch,” arguing to the convention that the failure of such monarchs in the past, “had been taken rather from particular cases than from general principles.” In other words, it had failed in practice so far, but maybe it would work in theory!

(Now, to be fair to Hamilton he was pretty sure he was going to get George Washington as his elected King, which wouldn’t have been so bad. How would we fare under the same system today? I’ll let you do the math.)

Not all of Hamilton’s ideas were good. Not all of his ideas were popular. But some of his ideas, and usually the better ones, changed the nation’s fate. And Hamilton did not get there by taking everything as given, or doing only what he was taught.

My first suggestion is that you take a little bit of Hamilton’s … attitude with you into your classes. (Don’t worry, your 1L professors can’t get mad, I put you up to it.) Law is partly about learning the rules, but it is also about arguing: arguing against the rules, arguing for new rules, devising new schemes within the rules or transcending them. When you read a new case, don’t forget to read the dissent. (Frankly, I often start with the dissents, which may explain a lot about my views of the world.)  If there isn’t a dissent, write it! Or at least think about what it would say.

You will understand what work the rules are doing if you understand why people might disagree with them. You will understand your own arguments better if you understand what is wrong with them. Law school is the time to start asking those questions, and it is one of the things that this law school, in particular, excels at. Don’t be afraid to talk in class. Don’t be afraid if you find yourself trying out some crazy argument that questions the premise of some area of law, or even some premise of your own way of thinking. You can come back to your premises afterwards, if you still want to.

So follow Hamilton’s faith in the power of ideas, his willingness to question conventional wisdom.

But maybe … no Kings.

Number Two: Your professional lives start now. But what I really mean is that you are already making friends who will matter for the rest of your life as a lawyer.

For Alexander Hamilton, those early friends included Hercules Mulligan, the Marquis de Lafayette, and John Laurens, each of whom share with him the third song of Hamilton, My Shot!

Hamilton lived with Hercules Mulligan when he moved to New York, and Mulligan helped sway Hamilton to supporting the Revolution. Later on, thanks to their friendship, Mulligan went on to perform acts of espionage for the Revolution that saved General Washington from being captured, even from being killed, by British forces. Alexander Hamilton’s friendship with Hercules Mulligan saved George Washington’s life.

Hamilton spoke French and quickly befriended the Marquis de Lafayett. They (along with Laurens) were later described as being like Alexander Dumas’s Three Musketeers. And Lafayette in turn fought with revolutionary forces, helped bring French military support to the Americans and worked with Hamilton to rally state aid to the cause and later to break through British fortifications at Yorktown. Hamilton’s work with Lafayette may have won the war.

John Laurens may have been Hamilton’s closest friend. He fought in the revolutionary war from his home state of South Carolina, where he wanted to arm and free the slaves if they would help fight the revolution. He was brave, but maybe too brave, and he was eventually captured and tragically killed toward the end of the war. But even so their relationship seems to have shaped Hamilton’s public and private conduct for the rest of his life.

Hopefully we won’t be fighting another American Revolution any time soon, but I think you see my basic point. Your classmates today will be your co-workers, clients, and confidantes tomorrow. Much of what you learn will be from each other, and much of the emotional and personal support you need will come from each other as well. Of course you all come to law school with relationships outside the law school that are equally or even more important, but you aren’t done.

So start now to be the kind of lawyer you want to be, and to have the kind of professional relationships you want to have. Be patient when your classmates flub their first cold calls. (It will happen to you too, and you want them to return the favor.) Be civil when your classmates say things you think are wrong or wrongheaded. Be good to each other. Don’t be so caught up in keeping your heads down or focusing on the path ahead that you forget to see who is beside you.

Number Three: Try, at least sometimes, to focus on the law on its own terms.

Now this one may be a bit abstract, but bear with me, because it’s actually the most important thing I have to say to you tonight.

My lesson here doesn’t actually come from Alexander Hamilton, but from Hamilton’s creator, Lin-Manuel Miranda.

Lin-Manuel Miranda didn’t just write a musical. He wrote a great musical. A musical that made a ton of money, for himself and for others; that gave huge opportunities to performers of color; that changed the conversation around race and theater; that showed how Americans today can recover founding-era history for their own purposes; that kept Alexander Hamilton on the ten-dollar bill; that won eleven Tony awards, a Grammy award, a Pulitzer Prize, and, for good measure, a MacArthur “Genius Grant.”

But here’s the funny thing.

To accomplish those things, Miranda had to focus on writing the best musical, qua musical, that he could. If he had focused, all the time, on writing whatever would be most profitable, or most likely to win all those prizes, I don’t think he would have succeeded. If he had focused, all the time, on the political message he wanted to convey, I don’t think he would have succeeded. I’m not saying he didn’t want all those things—didn’t “Burn” with desire for those things—I’m sure he did. But to get there, he had to write the best musical, on the musical’s own terms.

Now think about law school. All of you are here for a reason. You have ambitions—whether to make money, change the world, serve the just, or “prove that you’re worth more than anyone bargained for.” But to do that, as lawyers, let me suggest it will help if you immerse yourself into the law qua law.  Don’t be too focused on only learning the legal rules that will help you make money or serve the just. Don’t be too focused on making sure every legal argument is on message.

The law has its own rules, its own language, its own way of thinking, and to master that you need to focus on law. When you graduate, you’ll see that some other lawyers have this sixth sense for legal argument. It’s not just about being able to remember the statutory phrases from the internal revenue code or some obscure embargo case about quasi-War with France, or the four-part test for federal question jurisdiction. They can get what it really means and how it fits into the rest of the law and when it’s a red herring, in a way that outsiders can rarely understand. This is your chance to start developing that sixth sense, and you can if you practice it.

But law is easiest to understand—maybe this is the only way to understand it, but I’m not sure— if you think of it as its own thing, not as an elaborate way to do something else.

Now I’m not saying you should each forget why you are here—if you know. Not for a minute. But I am saying this: You will be better lawyers, and therefore better at making money, changing the world, serving the just, if you’ve figured out how to get inside the head of a lawyer.

Try taking the law seriously on its own terms. Get into it.

I think it will be fun too.

Thank you all, and welcome to Chicago.

William Baude