William Gerard Hamilton was the only son of William Hamilton, Esq. a younger son of Mr. Hamilton of Wishaw, in the shire of Lanerk in Scotland, by a daughter of Sir Charles Erskine of Alva, who was a younger brother of the Earls of Marr and Buchan. His mother was Hellen Hay, one of the sisters of David Bruce, of Kinnaird, Esq. who, relinquishing his family fame, assumed that of Bruce, for the estate of Kinnaird, and was father of the celebrated Abyssinian traveller.
Our author's father, who had for some time been an Advocate in the Court of Session in Scotland, in order to avail himself of the emoluments and advantages which were held out by the newly-created appellate jurisdiction, in consequence of the Union between that country and England in 1707, shortly after that event migrated to London; and having been admitted to the English Bar by the Society of Lincoln's Inn, he soon became eminent, and was employed in almost every appeal from Scotland to the House of Lords, for a great number of years. Hence the birth of his son in Lincoln's Inn, where he was born on the 28th of January 1728-9, O.S. and baptized on the 25th of the following month. He derived the name of Gerard from his godmother, Elizabeth, the only daughter and heir of Digby Lord Gerard of Bromley, and, at the time of her godson's birth, the widow of James the fourth Duke of Hamilton, who was unfortunately killed in a duel by Lord Mohun, in November, 1712. He was bred at Winchester school, then under the care of Dr. Burton; and from thence was removed to Oriel College in Oxford, where he was admitted a Gentleman-Commoner, March 1st, 1744-5, Dr. Bentham, being his tutor. That during his residence at Oxford he did not neglect those studies which he had commenced at Winchester, may be presumed from the poems introduced in this volume, which probably were written in 1748 or 1749, before he had attained his twenty-first year, and exhibit proofs of classical acquirements, and a correct and cultivated taste. They were originally printed in quarto in 1750, and appear to have been at first intended for publication; but it is believed, that from an unwillingness to encounter the shafts of criticism, he did not publish these early productions, contenting himself with distributing only a few copies for the gratification of a select number of his friends.
His father wishing that he should pursue the study of the law, on his leaving Oxford he became a Member of Lincoln's Inn, and probably for some time employed himself in acquiring the elements of law; a study of which he was all his life extremely fond, however little, at that time, he might relish those minute and laborious researches which are requisite for the practice of that profession. It is certain that he soon relinquished all thoughts of engaging in such a course; for his father dying on the 15th of January 1754, and having bequeathed to this his only son a very respectable fortune, he became at liberty to follow the bent of his inclinations, which were strongly directed to a political life. Hence in a few months after that event he came into Parliament, being chosen one of the Members for Petersfield in Hampshire, on the general election in May, 1754. His wish for political distinction must have been, even at that early period, extremely strong; for his manuscript collections, dispersed in many volumes, exhibit unquestionable proofs of a great desire to attain all such knowledge as might be useful in that department which he had chosen for himself. His researches respecting the English Constitution and municipal law, the charters of our great trading companies, the law of nations, and many branches of civil polity, are so multifarious, that it is believed, few students ever took more pains to become eminent advocates at the Bar, than he did to acquire such stores of political knowledge, as might give him an indisputable claim to the character of a wise and distinguished statesman.
Having sat in the House of Commons for a year, his first effort as a speaker was made on the opening of the session, November thirteenth, 1755; when, to use the words of Waller, respecting his contemporary, Denham, "he broke out, like the Irish rebellion, three-score thousand strong, when nobody was aware, or in the least suspected it." The debate arose on an Address to the Crown, in which the Minister took occasion to introduce an indirect approbation of the Treaties which recently before the meeting of Parliament had been concluded by his Britannick Majesty, with the Emperor of Russia, and the Landgrave of Hesse Cassel. This subject, on the first view, does not seem very favourable to a display of eloquence; but it is certain that no first speech in Parliament ever produced such an effect, or acquired such eulogies, both within and without the House of Commons; and perhaps few modern speeches of even veteran orators ever obtained a higher or more general reputation.
Of this celebrated speech there is reason to believe that no copy remains; but of its extraordinary vigour and excellence, as well as of the great impression, which it made, when it was delivered, we have abundant proof in one of the Letters of Mr. Horace Walpole, (many years afterwards Earl of Orford,) who was himself in Parliament at that time; and writing to his friend Mr. Conway, then Secretary to the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, two days after the debate, (November 15, 1755,) has left the following eulogy on our author's eloquence:
"The engagement was not more decisive than long. We sat till within a quarter of five in the morning; an uninterrupted, serious debate from before two. Lord Hillsborough moved the Address, and very injudiciously supposed an opposition. Martin, Legge's secretary, moved to omit in the Address the indirect approbation of the treaties, and the direct assurances of protection to Hanover. These questions were at length divided; and against Pitt's inclination, the last, which was the least unpopular, was first decided by a majority of 311, against 105. Many went away and on the next division the numbers were 290 to 89. These are the general outlines. The detail of the speeches, which were very long, and some extremely fine, it would be impossible to give you in any compass." — The writer then proceeds to enumerate the speakers in the debate; the principal of whom, on the side of the Opposition, were Mr. Doddington, Mr. George Grenville, Mr. Beckford, Mr. Legge, Mr. Potter, Lord Egmont, and Mr. Pitt: on the part of the Administration, Lord Hillsborough, Sir George Lyttelton, Mr. Hamilton, Mr. Nugent, Mr. Murray, the elder Horace Walpole, and Mr. Fox. After giving his opinion of several of these gentlemen's speeches on that day, Mr. Walpole proceeds thus:
"Mr. Fox was fatigued, and did little; George Grenville was very fine, and much beyond himself, and very pathetick. The Attorney General [Murray] in the same style, and very artful, was still finer. — 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 antitheses; but those antitheses were full of argument: indeed his speech was the most full of argument 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 the ease of an established speaker."
When the Treaties came regularly before the House in February, 1756, Mr. Hamilton took, part in the debate, and according to Mr. Walpole's account, "shone again;" but probably with somewhat less lustre than on the former occasion. So great and general, however, was the admiration of his talents, that Mr. Fox, then one of the principal Secretaries of State, not long after the delivery of his celebrated speech, offered him a respectable situation under the Administration of which he was himself one of the principal supporters; and on the 24th of the following April, Mr. Hamilton, then only in his twenty-eighth year, was appointed one of the Lords of Trade. Having sat about five years at that Board, by which means he became intimately acquainted with George Earl of Halifax, its President, on that nobleman's being appointed Lord Lieutenant of Ireland in March, 1761, Mr. Hamilton accepted the office of his Principal Secretary, and accompanied him to Dublin in the latter end of that year.
Whether from an unwillingness to hazard the high reputation which he had acquired by the two speeches delivered in the British House of Commons, or prevented by that nervousness of frame which repressed his parliamentary exertions for a long period in his more advanced years, and finally ended in a paralytick disorder, Mr. Hamilton had never taken any part in the various debates which arose there, after he had acquired a seat at the Board of Trade. He was now, however, in a situation where it was absolutely necessary for him to exert those excellent talents which he possessed, and to overcome those feelings, whether of indolence or timidity, which had kept him silent for some years. As Principal Secretary to the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, he was the chief Minister of the Crown in the Irish House of Commons; and consequently was expected on all great occasions to support such measures as should be propounded by the Administration. He accordingly entered on his new office with the same ardour and energy which had marked his first efforts in the British Senate; and in the course of the session, which began in November 1761, and ended in the middle of the following year; made five speeches on various occasions, which 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. The subject of his first speech was a money-bill originating in the Privy-Council of Ireland, and sent by them to the House of Commons; on which it is not necessary to enlarge, the speech itself, with an explanatory introduction, being printed in this volume. Doubtless, however, in the delivery, he made many valuable additions to what is here preserved. The other subjects on which he spoke in Ireland, were, — the Commons' Address to the Lord Lieutenant; — the Message from the Crown for raising additional forces, in consequence of Spain's having joined with France in the war against England; — a proposition made by a gentleman in opposition, to lay a tax on pensions held by persons who did not reside in Ireland six months in every year; — and a motion for raising five new regiments, entirely composed of Roman Catholicks.
The fame that he had acquired in England, followed him into the Irish House of Commons, and excited an opinion of his parliamentary abilities, which it certainly not easy to satisfy: but he rather exceeded than disappointed, the high expectations that had been formed of his rhetorical talents. — Lord Orford's delineation of his eloquence is so particular, and so conformable to the accounts of other persons of those times, that little need be added to it. However, it may not be improper to observe, that his manner was so vivid and energetick, that he seemed to be urged on by an irresistible impulse and to be almost unable to stop, or to take breath: he never hesitated for a moment; and though his voice was somewhat too thin and sharp, yet even that circumstance, and the great precision and accuracy of his enunciation, aided by the elegance of his language and the vigour of his argument, enforced a constant attention; and so highly were his hearers gratified, that from the commencement to the end of each of his several speeches, such a profound silence was preserved, that not a word seemed to be uttered by any of the Members, nor could a murmer be heard in the spacious galleries of the Irish House of Commons, which were completely filled with auditors on those occasions. Such is the account of this celebrated orator, given by persons of unquestionable taste and judgment, who were witnesses of the extraordinary effects produced by his eloquence, during the time that Lord Halifax continued in the government of Ireland. Mr. Hamilton attended his successor in the Lieutenancy, Hugh Earl of Northumberland, in the same office, in 1763; but it is believed, his exertions in that session were less splendid and less frequent; and before it concluded, on some disgust he resigned his office.
On his return to England, and for a long time afterwards, he certainly meditated taking an active part in the political warfare of the House of Commons; having, as has been already observed, made many preparatory collections on the various subjects which were agitated there for several years. But he never again addressed the Chair, though he was chosen into every new Parliament that was summoned from that time to May 1796, when he was nearly the father of the House of Commons. In this period, the only office that he filled was that of Chancellor of the Exchequer in Ireland, which he held from September 1763, to April 1784, when he resigned it to Mr. Foster, in order to accommodate the Government of Ireland, from whom he received an equivalent compensation.
In the earlier part of this interval, (from January 1769, to January 1772,) some persons, unwilling to believe that he was wholly idle, have supposed him to have been the author of the celebrated Letters of JUNIUS; an opinion which it may he safely asserted, never could be entertained for a moment by any competent judge, who was personally and intimately acquainted with Mr. Hamilton. — On this subject it is not necessary to be diffuse. It is manifest that the writer of Junius was a warm partisan, strongly attached to some one of the various parties subsisting at the time when he wrote, probably to that of the Marquis of Rockingham; notwithstanding its being thrown out by way of blind, in one of those papers, that the administration of that Nobleman "dissolved in its own weakness." Now (not to insist on his own solemn asseveration near the time of his death, that he was not the author of JUNIUS,) Mr. Hamilton was so far from being an ardent party-man, that during the long period above mentioned, he never closely connected himself with any party whatsoever. If indeed, Richard Earl Temple had ever attained the situation of First Lord of the Treasury, by the favour of that Nobleman he would probably have filled the office of Chancellor of the Exchequer; but this single circumstance is surely not a sufficient ground to denominate him a party-man. Notwithstanding his extreme love of political discussion, he never, it is believed, was heard to speak of any Administration or any opposition with vehemence either of censure or of praise; a character so opposite to the fervent and sometimes coarse acrimony of Junius, that this consideration alone is sufficient to settle the point, as far as relates to our author, for ever.
Many other circumstances will occur to those who were personally acquainted with Mr. Hamilton, which are utterly incompatible with his being the author of that work. On the question, — who was the author, — he was as free to talk as any other person, and often did express his opinion concerning it to the writer of this short memoir; an opinion nearly coinciding with that of those persons who appear to have had the best means of information on the subject. — In a conversation on this much-agitated point, he once said to an intimate friend, in a tone between seriousness and pleasantry, — "You know, H********n, I could have written better papers than those of JUNIUS:" and so the gentleman whom he addressed, who was himself distinguished for his rhetorical powers, and a very competent judge, as well as many other persons, thought.
It may he added, that his style of compositions, as entirely different from that of this writer; as may eminently appear from the answer to the Address of the Irish House of Commons, which he drew up for Lord Halifax, in 1762; a short composition indeed, but in elegance, and felicity of expression, surpassed by few pieces of the same length in our language:—
That he had none of that minute and commissarial knowledge of petty military matters, which is displayed in some of the earlier papers of JUNIUS:—
That he never would have advanced any questionable legal doctrine, as JUNIUS has done; for delighting in such disquisitions, he would have made himself perfectly master of the subject on which he was to write, by his own investigation, or by the aid of those high characters in the law department with whom he lived in great intimacy; whose opinions he might without any danger of detection have elicited in conversation, the points to which I allude being then topicks of ordinary and frequent discussion:—
That having been educated at the University of Oxford, he never would have used the term COLLEGIAN, for an academick or gownsman:—
That he never would have spoken of the merit of Oliver Cromwell in conducting Charles the First to the block; nor would he ever have denonimated the brutal President of the illegal and sanguinary Court by which that Monarch was murdered, — "the ACCOMPLISHED Bradshaw." — (This observation may also serve clearly to shew that another great orator, and statesman, whose transcendent talents were equal to much higher productions, but who was no favourer of regicides, was not himself the author of these Letters; however they may have emanated from his or may have been occasionally decorated, without his knowledge or any communication for that purpose, by some of those images and illustrations with which his mind was so abundantly stored, that they overflowed even in his common conversation.)
And finally it may be observed, that the figures and allusions of JUNIUS are often of so different a race from those which our author would have used, that he never spoke of some of them without the strongest disapprobation; and particularly when a friend, for the purpose of drawing him out, affected to think him the writer of these papers; and, bantering him on the subject, taxed him with that passage in which a Nobleman, then in a high office, is said to have "travelled through every sign in the political Zodiac, from the SCORPION, in which he stung Lord Chatham, to the hopes of a VIRGIN," &c. — as if this imagery were much in his style, — Mr. Hamilton with great vehemence exclaimed, "Had I written such a sentence as that, I should have thought I had forfeited all pretensions to good taste in composition for ever."
But without dwelling further on these circumstances, it is sufficient to say, that he was so far from being the political zealot which Junius assuredly was, that he had no very strong attachment to any Party whatsoever. He indeed considered politicks as a kind of game, of which the stake or prize was the Administration of the country. Hence he thought, that those who conceived that one Party were possessed of greater abilities than their Opponents, and were therefore fitter to fill the first offices in the State, might with great propriety adopt such measures (consistent with the Constitution) as should tend to bring their friends into the administration of affairs, or to support them when invested with such power; without weighing in golden scales the particular parliamentary questions which should be brought forward for this purpose: as, on the other hand, they who had formed a higher estimate of the opposite Party, might with equal propriety adopt a similar conduct, and shape various questions for the purpose of shewing the imbecility of those in power, and substituting an abler Ministry, or one whom they consider abler, in their room looking on such occasions: rather to the object of each motion, than to the questions itself. And in support of these positions, which, however short they may be of theoretical perfection, do not perhaps very widely deviate from the actual state of things, he used to observe, that if any one would carefully examine all the questions which have been agitated in Parliament from the time of the Revolution, he would be surprised to find how few could be pointed out, in which an honest man might not conscientiously have voted on either side; however by the force of rhetorical aggravation, and the fervour of the times, they may have been represented to be of such importance, that the very existence of the State depended on the result of the deliberation. Some questions, indeed, he acknowledged to be of a vital nature; of such magnitude, and so intimately connected with the safety and welfare of the whole community, that no inducement or friendly disposition to any Party ought to have the smallest weight in the decision. One of these in his opinion was, the proposition for a PARLIAMENTARY REFORM, or, in other words, for new modelling the constitution of Parliament; a measure which he considered of such moment, and of so dangerous a tendency, that he once said to a friend now living, that he would sooner suffer his right hand to be cut off, than vote for it.
Mr. Hamilton's talents were of the first rate. He possessed, a very acute understanding; the quickest conception, and the clearest discernment and judgment. The facility, elegance, and precision with which he expressed his sentiments, were unrivalled. In conversation his style was generally compressed, sententious, and energetick; but perhaps somewhat too much abounded in points and antitheses. His wit was of a peculiar kind, rather acute and shrewd, than, lively and brilliant; yet it was often playful, particularly in improving on a fanciful idea suggested by another. He saw through characters by an intuitive glance, and portrayed them with uncommon felicity, by a few bold and masterly touches. His sensibility was exquisite. Hence among strangers he was reserved; and to those whose manners were vulgar and boisterous, or whose talk denoted a shallowness of intellect he was somewhat fastidious, and could not easily conceal his dislike. But in a select company, and among his particular friends, he was frank, easy, and communicative; yet ever in his freest hours, his conversation, though unstudied, was animated and elegant, and strongly marked by that curiosity of expression which very happily suited the conceptions of his mind. In argument he was ingenious, acute, and candid. His criticism on books was almost always just, and seldom obvious. He had read many of the most celebrated authors of the seventeenth century, with a particular view to their language; and in forming his style on the best models, made it a rule in writing, though not in Parliamentary debate, to reject all weak and unnecessary words, and to render his composition as compressed and energetick as he could make it. — On the first view of any complicated question, his opinion was almost always right; but on reflection, his ingenuity sometimes led him astray: hence he was apt to dwell too minutely on some collateral circumstance or subordinate matter; and deceived by his own refinement, and, viewing the point under consideration in a great variety of lights, he doubted, hesitated, and perhaps decided erroneously at last. Those therefore who knew him well, always endeavoured to obtain his first thoughts on any question, and rarely consulted him twice on the same subject.
Though in his earlier and more advanced years he was certainly a diligent student, in the latter part of his life he read very little; and it may be mentioned as an extraordinary circumstance, that at this period one of his few books of amusement was Sir James Burrow's Reports of Lord Mansfield's Decisions in the King's Bench.
About the year 1760, it is believed, his acquaintance with Dr. Johnson commenced; with whom he lived in intimacy from that period to the time of Johnson's death. His liberal offers of assistance to that great and excellent man have been recorded by Mr. Boswell and by Johnson himself; nor should the very favourable opinion which he entertained of Mr. Hamilton pass ever over in silence. "To his conversation (says Mr. Boswell) Johnson once paid this high compliment: 'I am very unwilling to be left alone, 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.'" — To the same purpose may be cited the conclusion of Johnson's letter to him from Lichfield, written about six weeks before his death, which in a few words shews with what pleasure he reflected, on their long and intimate friendship, and evinces his high regard and esteem for our author: — "I will not prolong my complaints, I hope still to see you in a happier hour, to talk over what we have often talked, or perhaps to find new topicks, of merriment, or new incitements to curiosity."
Mr. Hamilton having early lost his parents, and never having had either wife, brother, or sister, can be viewed in domestick life in one relation only in which he appeared in a very pleasing light: he was a most kind and indulgent master, and consequently much beloved by his servants. Of his benevolence and charity many instances have been discovered, which he studiously concealed; and some uncommon acts of splendid liberality to particular persons whom he highly esteemed, might be mentioned, on indisputable authority, were it proper or necessary here to enter into such minute details. Indeed, where he professed an attachment, he was a most warm, zealous, and generous friend. Of the kindness and constancy of his disposition in this respect, a stronger proof cannot be given, than his long and unremitting exertions for his friend, Mr. Jephson, the author of several excellent and admired tragedies, and of many other ingenious productions. In the year 1763 he became acquainted with that gentleman, whose liveliness of fancy and uncommon talents rendered him one of the most pleasing companions of those, or perhaps any other times; and for about five years they lived together in the greatest and most unreserved intimacy; Mr. Jephson, who, when their acquaintance commenced, was in his twenty-seventh year, usually spending the summer with Mr. Hamilton, at his house at Hampton-Court, and also giving him much of his company in town during the winter. In 1767 he married one of the daughters of Sir Edward Barry, Baronet, a celebrated physician, and was obliged to bid a long farewell to his friends in London, (comprising some of the most distinguished characters of those days, for their wit, learning, and various talents, — Dr. Johnson, Mr. Burke, Mr. Charles Townshend, Mr. Garrick, Dr. Goldsmith, Sir Joshua Reynolds, Dr. Burney, &c.) in consequence of having accepted the office of Master of the Horse to Lord Viscount Townshend, then appointed Lord Lieutenant of Ireland; and from that time to Mr. Hamilton's death, a period of near thirty years, they never met but for a few days in 1788; Mr. Jephson in this long interval never having visited London but once. Yet such was the warmth of his friend's feelings, and with such constant pleasure did he reflect on the many happy days which they had spent together, that he not only in the first instance obtained for him a permanent provision on the establishment of Ireland, but in addition to this proof of his regard and esteem, he never ceased, without any kind of solicitation, to watch over his interest with the most lively solicitude; constantly applying in person, in his behalf, to every new Lord Lieutenant, if he were acquainted with him; or, if that were not the case, contriving by some circuitous means to procure Mr. Jephson's re-appointment to the office, originally conferred by Lord Townshend: and by these means chiefly he was continued for a long series of years, under twelve successive Governors of Ireland, in the same station, which always before had been considered a temporary office.
In the year 1792 Mr. Hamilton's constitution, which never had been very strong, was considerably shaken by a paralytick stroke, not however attended by any alarming or dangerous symptoms; nor, after his recovery from the first attack of that disorder, was his understanding impaired by it; his acuteness of intellect and energy of expression remaining the same as they had ever been, though he was somewhat slower in his articulation, and less disposed to mental exertion than he had been in a preceding period: but by slow degrees this grievous malady so weakened and undermined his frame, that he died at his house in Upper Brook-street, on the 16th of July 1796, in the sixty-eighth year of his age, and was buried on the 22d in the chancel vault of the church of St. Martin in the Fields. Mr. Hamilton having never married, on his death his paternal estate devolved on his cousin-german, William Hamilton, of Lincoln's-Inn Fields, Esq.; and in default of his issue will descend to his brother, the reverend and learned Dr. Hamilton, Arch-deacon of Colchester, Vicar of St. Martin's in the Fields, and Rector of Hadham, in the county of Herts.