Hamilton, William Gerard (DNB00)

From Wikisource
 
Jump to: navigation, search

HAMILTON, WILLIAM GERARD (1729–1796), 'Single-speech Hamilton,' was born on 28 Jan. 1729, and baptised on the 25th of the following month in Lincoln's Inn Chapel. He was only son of William Hamilton, a bencher of Lincoln's Inn, and his wife Helen, daughter of David Hay of Woodcockdale, Linlithgowshire; his grandfather was William Hamilton (d. 1724) [q. v.] He was educated at Winchester College and Oriel College, Oxford, where he matriculated, at the age of sixteen, on 4 March 1745, but did not take any degree. He was admitted a student of Lincoln's Inn on 4 May 1744, but soon gave up all thoughts of following the legal profession.

His father, 'who had been the first Scot who ever pleaded at the English bar, and, as it was said of him, should have been the last' (Walpole, Memoirs of the Reign of George II, ii. 44), died on 15 Jan. 1754, leaving him a sufficient fortune to enable him to follow his own inclinations and enter political life. At the general election in April of that year Hamilton was returned to parliament as one of the members for Petersfield, Hampshire, and on 13 Nov. 1755 made his celebrated maiden speech during the great debate on the address, which lasted from two in the afternoon to a quarter to five the next morning. There is no report of this speech extant; but Walpole, in giving an account of the debate in a letter to Conway, records: 'Then there was a young Mr. Hamilton, who spoke for the first time, and was at once perfection. His speech was set, and full of antithesis; but those antitheses were full of argument. Indeed, his speech was the most argumentative of the whole day; and he broke through the regularity of his own composition, answered other people, and fell into his own track again with the greatest ease. His figure is advantageous, his voice strong and clear, his manner spirited, and the whole with an ease of an established speaker. You will ask, what could be beyond this? Nothing but what was beyond what ever was, and that was Pitt!' (Letters, ed. Cunningham, ii. 484). It was from this speech that he acquired the misleading nickname of 'Single-speech.' There can be no doubt that Hamilton made a second speech in the house, as Walpole, in a letter to Conway dated 4 March 1756, says : 'The young Hamilton has spoken and shone again' (ib. p. 510). Through the instrumentality of Fox, Hamilton was on 24 April 1756 appointed one of the commissioners for trade and plantations, George, earl of Halifax, being then at the head of the commission. Upon the appointment of Halifax as lord-lieutenant of Ireland, in March 1761, Hamilton resigned this office, and became chief secretary to the new lord-lieutenant, whom he accompanied to Dublin in October. At the general election in the spring of this year he was returned to the English parliament for the borough of Pontefract, and to the Irish parliament for the borough of Killebegs. During the session of the Irish parliament which began in October 1761, and lasted to the end of April of the following year, Hamilton made five speeches. They are said 'to have fully answered the expectations of his auditors, on whom so great was the impression of his eloquence that at the distance of near fifty years it is not quite effaced from the minds of such of them as are yet living' (Parliamentary Logick, Preface, p. xxii). Copies of the rough drafts of two of these speeches have been preserved (ib. pp. 139-60, 165-94). In April 1763 Hamilton was appointed chancellor of the ex- chequer in Ireland, on the resignation of Sir William Yorke. Hamilton served also as chief secretary to Hugh, duke of Northumberland, who succeeded Halifax as lord-lieutenant in this year. Through the influence of Archbishop Stone, however, Hamilton was dismissed from this office towards the close of the session of 1764. In the spring of 1763 Hamilton obtained a pension of 300l. for Edmund Burke [q. v.], who had for some four years past acted as a kind of private secretary to him, and in that capacity had accompanied Hamilton to Ireland. It is not altogether quite clear what brought about the rupture of this connection, but it would appear that Hamilton w r as anxious to secure Burke's undivided services for himself. These Burke refused to give, and 'to get rid of him completely,' writes Burke to Flood in a letter dated 18 May 1765, 'and not to carry a memorial of such a person about me, I offered to transfer it [the pension] to his attorney in trust for him. This offer he thought proper to accept' (Burke Correspondence, i. 78). In another letter on the same subject to John Hely Hutchinson, Burke asserts that 'six of the best years of my life he [Hamilton] took me from every pursuit of literary reputation or improvement of my fortune. In that time he made his own fortune (a very large one), and he has also taken to himself the very little one which I had made' (ib. p. 67). Soon after this quarrel Hamilton appears to have sought Johnson's assistance in political and literary matters. He did not sit in the Irish parliament again after the dissolution in 1768. At the general election in that year he was returned to the English parliament for Old Sarum, for Wareham in 1774, for Wilton in 1780, and for Haslemere in 1790. He refused Lord Shelburne's offer of the secretaryship at war in 1782 (Lord Auckland, Journal, 1861, i. 22), and resigned the office of chancellor of the exchequer in April 1784, receiving a pension of 2,000l. a year, and being succeeded by John Foster [q.v.] Hamilton was not returned to the new parliament of 1796. He died in Upper Brook Street, London, on 16 July 1796, in the sixty-eighth year of his age, and was buried on the 22nd in the chancel vault of St. Martin's-in-the-Fields. Hamilton never married. 'This Mr. Hamilton,' says Miss Burney, 'is extremely tall and handsome, has an air of haughty and fashion- able superiority, is intelligent, dry, sarcastic, and clever. I should have received much pleasure from his conversational powers had I not previously been prejudiced against him by hearing that he is infinitely artful, double, and crafty' (Madame D'Arblay, Diary, 1843, i. 293). Hamilton has left nothing behind him to warrant the brilliant reputation which he undoubtedly acquired during his life. Though he never spoke in the house after his return from Ireland, yet he contrived to retain his fame as an orator ; and so highly were his literary talents rated that many of his contemporaries attributed to him the authorship of the 'Letters of Junius' (Wraxall, Historical Memoirs, 1884, i. 344-5). Lord Charlemont described Hamilton as 'a man whose talents were equal to every undertaking ; and yet from indolence, or from too fastidious vanity, or from what other cause I know not, he has done nothing' (Prior, Life of Malone, p. 299). Johnson had a great esteem for him ; and on one occasion paid the following highly laboured compliment to his powers of conversation : 'I am very unwilling to be left alone, sir, and therefore I go with my company down the first pair of stairs, in some hopes that they may, perhaps, return again. I go with you, sir, as far as the street-door' (Boswell, Life of Johnson, ed. G. B. Hill, i. 490). Though it was probably true that he got the few speeches which he delivered by heart, and that he was always ready to use the brains of others instead of his own, there can be little doubt that he was a shrewd judge of men and things. As an example of the soundness of his judgment his letter to Calcraft, written in 1767 on the subject of American taxation, may be quoted. 'For my own part,' he writes, 'I think you have no right to tax them, and that every measure built upon this supposed right stands upon a rotten foundation, and must consequently tumble down, perhaps upon the heads of the workmen' (Chatham Correspondence, iii. 203). He was a member of the Irish privy council, and in 1763 was appointed a bencher of the King's Inns, Dublin. He is said to have printed a volume of 'Poems' (Oxford, 4to) in 1750 for private circulation, but there is no copy of this edition in the British Museum. Malone published Hamilton's works after his death under the title of 'Parliamentary Logick : to which are subjoined Two Speeches delivered in the House of Commons of Ireland, and other Pieces, by the Right Honourable William Gerard Hamilton. With an Appendix containing Considerations on the Corn Laws by Samuel Johnson, LL.D., never before printed' (London, 8vo). An engraving by W. Evans of a portrait of Hamilton by J. R. Smith, formerly in the Stowe Collection, forms the frontispiece to the book, which was severely criticised by Lord Jeffrey in the 'Edinburgh Review' (xv. 163-75). A number of Hamilton's letters, throwing a considerable light upon the political history of the period, and addressed to John Calcraft the elder and Earl Temple respectively, are printed in 'Chatham's Correspondence' and the 'Grenville Papers.' There are also several of Hamilton's letters among the 'Percy Correspondence,' in the possession of Lord Emly (Hist. MSS. Comm. 8th Rep. App. pt. i. pp. 174-208).

[Malone's preface to Parliamentary Logick, which contains a short sketch of Hamilton's life (1808); Walpole's Memoirs of the Reign of George II (1847), ii. 44-5, 51, 140, iii. 3; Walpole's Memoirs of the Reign of George 111 (1845), i. 141-2, 418, iii. 142, 401-2; Boswell's Life of Johnson (G. B. Hill); Burke Correspondence (1844), i. 46-51, 56-78; Hardy's Memoirs of the Earl of Charlemont (1810), pp. 60-1, 66, 71, 73, 81, 83, 87,99, 102-4, 143; Sir J. Prior's Life of Burke (1854), pp. 67-8, 70-4, 76, 85-6, 309, 484; Sir J. Prior's Life of Edmund Malone (1860), pp. 294-9, 341-3; Memoirs of Richard Cumberland (1807), i. 208, 217-19, 225-6; Douglas's Peerage of Scotland (1813), i. 207-8; Alumni Oxon. pt. ii. p. 595; Gent. Mag. 1796, vol. lxvi. pt. ii. pp. 702-3; Notes and Queries, 1st ser. vi. 429, 577, vii. 285, 333, xii. 306, 413, 521, 2nd ser. vi. 44, 6th ser. iv. 425, v. 19; Official Return of Lists of Members of Parliament, pp. 116, 133, 145, 151, 170, 183, 194, 664; Haydn's Book of Dignities,1851; Lincoln's Inn Registers; Watt's Bibl. Brit.; Brit. Mus. Cat.]

G. F. R. B.