Patents & Hamilton: Cabinet battle #3?

Patents & Hamilton: Cabinet Battle #3?

We know from Lin Manuel Miranda’s musical masterpiece that Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson rarely saw eye to eye. So, what did they think about patents?

Although Hamilton primarily focuses on frenemies Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr, the musical also showcases the tense relationship between the protagonist and fellow Founding Father, Thomas Jefferson.  As far as politics go, the two could not be more different.  Alexander Hamilton was a Federalist (favored a strong central government) and Thomas Jefferson was a Democratic Republican (favored strong state governments).

In Act II, the two go head-to-head in epic Cabinet Battles.  In “Cabinet Battle #1,” they fight over establishing a national bank.  In “Cabinet Battle #2,” they squabble over whether their nascent nation should get involved in the French Revolution.  Had Lin Manuel Miranda included a third cabinet battle, an interesting topic (at least for any IP enthusiasts in the audience) would have been their conflicting views on patents.  Let’s imagine what that battle could have been like, shall we?

Patent rights have roots in the Constitution

Legal philosopher John Locke was hugely influential in the development of the United States Constitution.  Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson were both subscribers to Lockean ideas (there, at least something they agreed on).  John Locke held that an individual could make something personal property via labor.  The influence of his theory on property is evidenced in the so-called “Intellectual Property Clause.” Article I Section 8 Clause 8 gives Congress the power “to promote the progress of science and useful arts, by securing for limited times to authors and inventors the exclusive right to their respective writings and discoveries.”

In other words, the clause gives Congress the power to grant patents.  It does so through the United States Patent and Trademark Office, the federal agency responsible for evaluating patent applications.  Interestingly enough, there is no record of debate from the Constitutional Convention over Clause 8, meaning that its inclusion was not contested among the attendants.  This does not necessarily mean everyone agreed.  Initially, Thomas Jefferson opposed any kind of intellectual property right in America (though his ideas later evolved).  From the outset, however, Hamilton thought patents might be a useful tool in industrializing the new nation.  Their opposing views of the national economy might explain this stark contrast.

Hamilton’s Possible Patent Perspective

Hamilton favored industrialization and believed focusing on manufacturing would form a stable, robust national economy.  He thought granting patents of importation might aid in this endeavor.  This idea was met with great adversity, mainly on the still widely held principle that patents should only be granted for truly “new” technologies and not for technologies simply imported into the States.  Although this idea was never put into practice, it shows Hamilton’s desire to utilize patents to incentivize technological growth and innovation.

Jefferson’s Patent Perspective

On the other hand, Jefferson advocated for a more agrarian economy and was very hesitant to industrialize.  Though Jefferson himself is a prolific inventor and is regarded today as a father of American patent law, he was not sure the Lockean property theory would stick in practice, especially when it came to “works of the mind.”  He wanted to limit the federal government’s power over the states and saw a large, central economy as a threat.

“And well, in Summary”

Seemingly, it all comes down to money.  Hamilton wanted a strong central economy and believed patents could help realize that goal.  Jefferson was skeptical of overindustrializing and wanted to limit the federal government in the interest of the states.  One thing’s for sure: neither Founding Father – even Hamilton with his impressive and unrivaled forethought – could have predicted the kinds of technology the American patent system rewards and protects today.  Sung to the tune of the final song of Act I, American innovation is “just non-stop!”


This delightful blog was written by our summer legal novice (what we call our interns at Wilson Dutra!) Amanda Vaughan.  If you enjoyed this, please let us know!