HAMILTON, William Gerard (1729-96), of Hampton Court, Mdx.
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Family and Education
b. 28 Jan. 1729, 1st surv. s. of William Hamilton, barrister, of Lincoln’s Inn, by his 1st w. Helen, da. of David Hay of Woodcockdale, West Lothian. educ. Harrow 1742-5; Oriel, Oxf. 1745; L. Inn. suc. fa. 1754. unm.
M.P. [I] 1761-8.
Ld. of Trade 1756-61; chief sec. to ld. lt. [I] 1761-1764; chancellor of the Exchequer [I] 1763-84 when he exchanged the office for pension of £2,000 p.a.
Hamilton sat at Petersfield on the Jolliffe interest, and was counted by Dupplin in April 1754 as a supporter of Administration. In the spring of 1755, ‘with a frank abruptness’, he ‘offered his service to Mr. Fox, telling him that he foresaw he must one day be very considerable; that his own fortune was easy and not pressing; he did not disclaim ambition, but was willing to wait’.1 When Fox joined Newcastle, he included Hamilton among those for whom he wanted places. In the debate on the Address, 13 Nov. 1755, Hamilton made his maiden speech and ‘succeeded admirably’: ‘his voice, manner, and language were most advantageous; his arguments sound though pointed; and his command of himself easy and undaunted.’2 ‘His figure is advantageous’, wrote Walpole,3 ‘his voice strong and clear, his manner spirited, and the whole with the ease of an established speaker.’ And on 4 Mar. 1756: ‘The young Hamilton has spoken and shone again.’ In December 1755, disappointed of preferment, he had threatened to leave Fox and join Pitt;4 and in April 1756 he was made a lord of Trade.
On 11 Jan. 1761 Lord Fitzmaurice wrote to Bute:5
As to the affair of Hamilton ’twas thus. Mr. Fox I believe made him lord of Trade—Hamilton finding himself much pushed about getting into Parliament consulted him, whether it would be right to apply to your Lordship ... He [Fox] told him his sentiments of your Lordship, and further advised him to it as the most advantageous way certainly he could compass it, as it would be at the same time probably securing your protection in his place.
Possibly Bute recommended him to Lord Galway, patron of Pontefract. In March 1761 Lord Halifax, Hamilton’s chief at the Board of Trade, was appointed lord lieutenant of Ireland and took him as his secretary.
As in the English Parliament, so in the Irish, he soon made a reputation as a speaker. George Montagu, Halifax’s cousin, wrote to Walpole on 6 Feb. 1762: ‘Hamilton’s speech for an augmentation of forces was the best he ever made’; and Walpole himself adds that the motion was carried ‘by the sole power of his eloquence’.6 When Halifax was appointed first lord of the Admiralty, Hamilton wrote to his friend, John Hely Hutchinson, prime serjeant in Ireland, 2 Aug. 1762: ‘Nothing I think is more probable than that my being secretary will be imposed as a condition upon any one who applies for the lord lieutenancy, and in that nomination it is also likely that I should be consulted.’ And on 9 Aug. 1762: ‘Nothing is more evident to me than that my continuance in Ireland, instead of retarding, will very essentially promote my progress in England; and that these two situations will assist each other, and will enable me to assist my friends.’ With Hutchinson’s help, he had visions of great influence in Ireland:
Nothing is more evident to me [he wrote to Hutchinson on 10 Nov. 1762] than, that if I was to return to you again as secretary, I might continue in possession of that employment so long as we pleased; and I am clear that advantages more extensive and on a much wider plan might be obtained in Ireland, than has hitherto been projected by anyone in your situation or mine. It has often struck me that such a body of friends might be made in Parliament, and attached particularly to ourselves ... as would form, with the power inseparable from Government, a body which under our conduct would be very respectable ... Let me know your opinion as soon as you have formed it. I can only say I am willing to risk anything, and to embark in anything.
His immediate aim was much less grandiose: to secure for himself the rich sinecure of chancellor of the Exchequer of Ireland. But as time passed, and no lord lieutenant was appointed, he no longer felt so certain of remaining chief secretary. Then on 30 July 1763, after Lord Northumberland had been named, and he had at last obtained the Exchequer, he wrote to Hutchinson: ‘There may be an appearance of vanity in the declaration, but it is literally fact that by my own personal friends I obtained the government both for Lord Halifax and Lord Northumberland, as much as ever I procured ... the chancellorship of the Exchequer for myself.’ Yet he begged Hutchinson
to convey to each of the [lord] justices separately an idea how great an obligation I shall consider it, if upon their first interview with my lord lieutenant ... they would express strongly their approbation of my returning in my present situation, and their opinion of the utility which would arise from it to his Excellency’s Administration ... Would Malone, the attorney, the solicitor, and Patterson, as servants of the Crown (and with whom perhaps by that time I may be friends) declare their particular satisfaction at being able to act in conjunction with me ... I will tell you the use I propose to make of this, and the benefit which I think must arise from it. Lord Northumberland will write a letter to the secretary of state to be laid before the King, stating the prodigious satisfaction which everybody expresses (and which nobody but you and one more will feel) upon my returning in the office I now hold. When this is once done, it will be impossible to ascribe any part of the miscarriages of Government to a person whom they just before approved of.7
He was too clever by half. ‘Mr. Hamilton’, wrote Montagu to Walpole on 15 Nov. 1763, ‘always treated the great people of Ireland with contempt ... and the primate could never endure him.’ On 15 Mar. 1764 Northumberland complained to Bedford ‘of the uneasiness that Mr. Hamilton’s conduct brought upon me, on the first opening of the session here, and of my entire disappointment in the hopes I had conceived from his assistance to me’.8 Halifax, now secretary of state, did not protect Hamilton, and in May he was dismissed.
His dismissal hurt; he felt isolated and ill at ease in the English Parliament; and professed contempt for English politicians. On 7 Mar. 1765 he wrote to Edmund Pery, later Speaker of the Irish House of Commons:
You judge perfectly right in thinking that it requires but little fortitude to deliver any opinion in the English House of Commons. There are a few, and but a very few, men of extraordinary talents. The herd are wretched beyond conception, and parliamentary abilities were upon the whole, I believe, never at a lower ebb. And I sometimes wish you would take a view of our Parliament, you would return so very highly satisfied with your own.
However little fortitude it may have required, Hamilton never again spoke in the House of Commons, though he sat there for another thirty years.
He claimed to have received ‘proposals from the Administration, and professions, the only thing they had to offer, from the Opposition’. He had confidence in neither, and believed that Bute was still the power behind the throne.
I am neither for accepting an employment under every Administration [he wrote9] or for refusing one under all. Till I can unite the influence, the rank, and the emolument of office with public character and public good opinion, I will take no situation—and when I can do that, it will be indifferent to me what situation I take.
He attached himself politically to Lord Temple, and on 22 Feb. 1766 voted against the repeal of the Stamp Act. In 1766 and 1767 he sent Temple frequent and detailed reports of political events—‘Your Lordship may rely upon it’, he wrote on 22 July 1767, ‘that in these active and interesting times the Bee will be even more industrious than usual.’ Intelligent and searching analysis is mingled with gullibility and gush: in July 1767 he realized that the King had no wish to change his Administration and that Rockingham ‘was applied to, not to be the successor, but the auxiliary of the Duke of Grafton’, yet professed to believe that Bute still had power and would eventually recommend Temple to the King.10
At the same time he was sending John Calcraft similar accounts and reports of debates in Parliament. To Calcraft he slighted George Grenville, professed not to desire office, and took a line on America the direct opposite to Temple’s (and to his own vote on the repeal of the Stamp Act).
For my own part [he wrote about the Americans11] 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.
He voted against Chatham’s Administration on the land tax, 27 Feb. 1767, and the nullum tempus bill, 17 Feb. 1768; and in 1768 was returned for Old Sarum by Thomas Pitt, a close friend of Grenville.
In 1769 and 1770 Hamilton voted against Administration in every known division, and attended the Opposition dinners at the Thatched House Tavern in May 1769 and January 1770. He voted with Opposition on the Spanish convention, 13 Feb. 1771, and Grenville’s Election Act, 25 Feb. 1774. In 1774 he was returned for Wareham on the Calcraft interest, and until 1779 voted regularly with Opposition.
In 1780 he was returned for Wilton by Lord Pembroke. His name does not appear in any division list between 1779 and 1781; he voted with Opposition on 20 Feb. 1782; and paired with a Government supporter on 27 Feb. and 15 Mar.
In July I782 he refused Shelburne’s offer of the secretaryship at war. ‘Mr. Hamilton’s view goes to no active employment whatever’, wrote Shelburne to the King on 9 July,12 ‘but looks to some sinecure situation.’ And William Eden wrote to Loughborough about Hamilton on 8 Aug.:13 ‘I do not believe ... that he would refuse the vice-treasurership of Ireland, if it were offered to him; but he is as decided as we can be, in his opinion that the present frame of Government will not do.’ He did not vote in the division on Shelburne’s peace preliminaries, and in Robinson’s list of March 1783 is classed among ‘Mr. Fox’s connexions’. He did not vote on Fox’s East India bill but in Stockdale’s list of 19 Mar. 1784 is classed as a supporter of Pitt, and William Adam after the general election of 1784 counted him with Government. His name appears in no division list between 1784 and the Regency question.
In December 1788 he voted against Pitt on the Regency, and shortly after approached Lord Herbert about his seat at Wilton in case of a dissolution. Pembroke, who was in Venice and behindhand with English news, informed Hamilton he would be returned again, but Herbert protested:
I am very sorry you have written to Hamilton, and I still trust that you cannot intend to bring him in, if his intention is to support Opposition against the present Government, nor can I conceive that he expects you to bring him in in that case.
‘I had not ... the least idea’, replied Pembroke on 6 Apr. 1789, ‘of his being in Opposition, as whatever he has ever dropped to me confirmed me in the idea that he was not only a political, but a personal friend of Mr. Pitt’s ... and I am much vexed at it; for I have wrote him yes.’
Here is the account Herbert sent to his father on 3 May of a conversation with Hamilton:
He allowed that at the time the agreement was made between you, he was both a political and personal friend of Pitt’s, but that he never bound himself to vote this way or that way, that he is not bound now to vote with any party, but probably shall with the present Opposition, of which he has indeed given pretty good proof. He was very sore and rounded with me respecting my motives for urging you not to bring him into Parliament which I told him I should continue to do with all my might and power, in answer to which he said he should write to counteract as much as possible what I wrote ... I cannot fully give credit to what Hamilton seemed to insinuate, that there was no period fixed for the termination of the agreement, for if so, it can be broke but by the death of one or the other.
Hamilton persuaded the Prince of Wales to write to Pembroke on his behalf, but Pembroke refused to return him again.14
‘My attachment to nobody’, Hamilton wrote to Eden on 17 Nov. 1781, ‘lays open to me the society of everybody.’15 Few men had such a wide social and political acquaintance and made so little of it. He was Burke’s first patron and Johnson’s lifelong friend; he began in politics as a protégé of Henry Fox, was connected with both Grenville and Chatham when they were at odds with each other, had links with both Opposition and Government during the American war, was offered office by Shelburne in 1782, was a friend of Pitt in 1788, and in 1789 of the Prince of Wales. He sat for six constituencies, each under a different patron. This wide circle of friends indicates social charm and political ambitions, but also inability to take a straight political line. He had too many powerful friends, and could not become too closely attuned to one for fear of offending the others. The political ambitions of the 60’s had by 1782 turned into a wish for sinecure office only, and the nickname ‘Single Speech’ Hamilton reflects talents, ambition, and ultimate failure.
He died 16 July 1796.
Ref Volumes: 1754-1790
Author: John Brooke
- 1. Walpole, Mems. Geo. II, ii. 44.
- 2. Ibid. 51.
- 3. To Conway, 15 Nov. 1755.
- 4. Add. 32861, ff. 334, 336.
- 5. Bute mss.
- 6. Mems. Geo. III, i. 111-112.
- 7. HMC Donoughmore, 233-52.
- 8. Bedford mss 49, f. 78.
- 9. HMC 8th Rep. pt. 1, 191.
- 10. Grenville Pprs. iv. 37, 92.
- 11. Chatham Corresp. iii. 203.
- 12. Fortescue, vi. 77.
- 13. Jnls. Corresp. i. 22.
- 14. Pembroke Pprs. ed. Herbert, ii. 405, 408, 421-2.
- 15. Add. 34418, f. 174.