William Gerard Hamilton

James Prior, in Life of Edmund Malone (1860) 296-97.

He was clever; and no ordinary judge of cleverness in others. He sought out those who possessed it, and aimed to draw around and secure such as might be employed for his own special uses. Accession to office in the Board of Trade about 1755, after a popular speech or two, kept him for five years afterwards silent. An Irish sinecure kept him equally tongue-tied after his return from office in that country above thirty years more. Though mute, he contrived to retain fame as an orator. Unknown to the press, he obtained the character of a first-rate writer even so far as to be considered "Junius" — no one could tell precisely why, — yet comparison with that writer he deemed injurious to his own powers. He claimed to be a statesman, but did nothing and attempted nothing common to the character. In private life, none more freely discussed public affairs. In the Senate he said nothing. None more narrowly watched there the conduct of public men, their sentiments, speeches, and modes of speaking, yet never gave the country the benefit of his opinions on the momentous proceedings of one American and two French wars — not even the small contribution of a set speech once or twice in a session. He saw a former friend of whom he had hoped to make a tool, ascend equally by his tongue and his pen, step by step, and day by day, to unrivalled celebrity throughout Europe, yet never once attempted a struggle for former eminence as a speaker, or attempted to do anything as a writer. He appeared to live upon the past, yet is said to have kept a lively eye upon the future. Office — after his sinecure had been exchanged for a pension — he did not for a long time deem beyond his grasp; and had Richard, earl Temple, constructed a ministry he would have probably become his Chancellor of the Exchequer.

The chief incident of his life was in becoming the first official patron of Edmund Burke. From voluntary studies at the Board of Trade — for Burke had no appointment — he carried him to Dublin; profited by his large capacity; procured him a pension "after six years of laborious attendance" in both countries; exacted its resignation when he refused to become permanently subservient; and the quarrel ceased in what Burke, writing to Flood at the moment, said should be an "eternal separation." The demand made upon him was unprecedented — in fact, to sell himself for life — for three hundred a year. He, however, felt confident in his own powers to ensure distinction whenever an appropriate stage should open for their exhibition. The "patron" may have thought the same; but presuming on the adhesive power of the pension to keep its holder in his train, carried his demand farther than a man of spirit could brook. Hamilton thus lost the services and friendship of the most accomplished intellect in Europe. With such an ally and counsellor, added to his own influence and talents, he may have lost much fame and honour in public life. He could not indeed have had the remotest conception that the rise of that luminary should prefigure his own decadence, nay prove, from whatever cause, the extinction of his eloquence and consequent political importance in the country.

In the esteem of the Grenvilles, he took a high place. No guest was more frequent at Stowe. Many eminent men of the day spoke of his talents as first-rate. Select circles of good society made him an oracle. Dr. Johnson admired his conversation and encouraged his visits. He left behind several volumes of Adversaria, none of which but that mentioned here found its way into the press.

Of such a man, who spoke little in public while living, and has left nothing behind to earn reputation, what shall we say? Probably that he was overrated. Critical justice can scarcely award celebrity where there is nothing of moment to warrant it.