Hamilton, Walton H.

views updated

Hamilton, Walton H.


Walton Hale Hamilton (1881-1958), economist and lawyer, was born in Madisonville, Tennessee. He was educated at the University of Texas and later taught in the economics department there. He then taught economics at the University of Michigan and the University of Chicago. In 1915 he went to Amherst College and remained at Amherst until 1923. During this period there occurred the celebrated intrafaculty dispute over the resig nation of the president of Amherst, Alexander Meiklejohn, who was allegedly compelled to resign because the trustees of Amherst objected to his progressive educational views. Hamilton was the leader of a group among the faculty that protested against what they considered interference by con servative businessmen in the educational policies of the college. Subsequently, the entire group resigned, and Hamilton was immediately appointed to the Brookings School of Economics and Political Science in Washington, D.C. (now the Brookings Institution). He was entirely in sympathy with the liberal economic and political views that prevailed at the Brookings School.

In 1928 Hamilton shifted from teaching economics to teaching law. Although he had no previ ous legal training, he was selected by Robert Hutchins, then dean of the Yale Law School, as one of a new group of professors who would teach the law as a part of a larger social, political, and economic system. Hamilton remained at Yale for 20 years.

While at Yale, Hamilton also served the federal government. He was one of the brain trusters of Roosevelt’s New Deal, and he held important posts in the National Recovery Administration. He worked with the antitrust division of the Department of Justice in connection with the economic problems involved in the administration of the antitrust laws. He served on the staff of the Temporary National Economic Committee, which was appointed by President Roosevelt to study and report on the economic structure of the United States during the depression, especially with regard to the operation of the free competitive market and the sources of its failure to achieve economic equilibrium.

In 1948, Hamilton retired as professor of law at Yale, and at age 67 he began a new career as a practicing lawyer. Joining the newly organized firm of Arnold, Fortas & Porter, he brought to the practice of law and the writing of legal briefs a fresh economic outlook, and he was very successful in actual litigation before courts and administrative bodies.

The dominant theme of Hamilton’s academic thought and of his legal arguments was the essential unity of law, economics, political science, and social science. He maintained that all of the social sciences deal with precisely the same problems and that only their points of reference with regard to social phenomena differ. This orientation was most noticeable in Hamilton’s contribution to the reform of legal education that was undertaken at Yale.

Hamilton and his colleagues at the Yale Law School, William O. Douglas, Wesley A. Sturges, Charles E. Clark (who succeeded Hutchins as dean), Myres S. McDougal, George H. Dession, Fleming James, Jr., Thurman W. Arnold, and others, criticized the conservative method of legal analysis, epitomized by the Harvard Law School, for its fragmentation of subject matter and its rigid classification and separation of the traditional fields of law—contracts, torts, conflicts of law, etc. Instead, they adopted an entirely new philosophical attitude toward the law, based on the premise that the only laws to have any practical impact on society are the rules of procedure. Procedure, therefore, became the center of the Yale curriculum, and this required a complete reorganization of the so-called substantive law courses.

What was involved here was not a debunking of the law to show that legal principles are simply horses which judges and attorneys ride to get wherever they choose to go; rather, the legal realists at Yale held that reverence for the immutable logic of the substantive law is essential to the maintenance of social institutions. Although the function of this logic is purely symbolic, it has con siderable importance in that it is part of the process by which we form images of social institutions. Widely as this approach to the law is accepted to day, it was revolutionary when Hamilton and his colleagues first advocated it.

What Hamilton mainly taught at Yale was called “public control of business,” which in fact covered a sizable part of public and constitutional law. He had initially tackled law untutored, out of the realization that no one could understand the nation’s economy without knowing the legal rules-upon-rules that had made Adam Smith’s and Herbert Spencer’s theories obsolete, and without an understanding of the ways and workings, the facts and folklore of the U.S. Supreme Court, where so many of the final decisions affecting business, industry, commerce, and agriculture seemed to be made. This concern with the noneconomic factors in economics had as a by-product an important impact on the development of American sociology: Talcott Parsons was a student at Amherst when Hamilton was teaching there; Hamilton’s approach aroused his interest in the study of the institutional bases of economics, which led ultimately to his study of sociology.

Throughout his life Hamilton combined keen observation and commentary on the American political, legal, and economic scene with active par ticipation in the cause of social justice.

Thurman Arnold

[See also Public law.]


(1915) 1925 Current Economic Problems: A Series of Readings in the Control of Industrial Development. 3d ed. Univ. of Chicago Press.

1923 Hamilton, Walton H.; and may, stacyThe Control of Wages. New York: Doran.

(1925) 1926 Hamilton, Walton H.; and Wright, Helen R. The Case of Bituminous Coal. New York: Mac-millan.

1932 Institution. Volume 8, pages 84-89 in Encyclopaedia of the Social Sciences. New York: Macmillan. → Ham ilton contributed 16 other articles to the Encyclopaedia of the Social Sciences.

1940 The Pattern of Competition. New York: Columbia Univ. Press.

1941 …Patents and Free Enterprise. U.S. Temporary National Economic Committee, Monograph No. 31. Washington: Government Printing Office.

1957 The Politics of Industry: Five Lectures Delivered on the William W. Cook Foundation at the University of Michigan, February-March, 1955. New York: Knopf.