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HAMILTON, HENRY, army officer and colonial administrator; b. c. 1734, probably in Dublin (Republic of Ireland), younger of two sons of Henry Hamilton, member of the Irish parliament for Donegal and collector of the port of Cork, and Mary Dawson; m. 19 March 1795 Elizabeth Lee, and they had at least one daughter; d. 29 Sept. 1796 on Antigua.
Commissioned ensign in the 15th Foot in 1755 and promoted lieutenant in September of the following year, Henry Hamilton saw service in the Seven Years’ War at Louisbourg, Île Royale (Cape Breton Island), Quebec, and in the Caribbean; he received his captaincy at Havana, Cuba, in 1762. In early 1766 Hamilton was in garrison at Trois-Rivières, and was placed in command later that year at Crown Point (N.Y.). In 1767 he became a brigade major with Lieutenant Governor Guy Carleton*, who recommended him highly. Hamilton left North America with his regiment in 1768, but by 1775 was back and stationed in Montreal. In that year he was sent by Carleton to quell an uprising by the habitants of Terrebonne against their seigneur, and managed to accomplish the task through diplomacy. Later in 1775 he sold his commission. According to his reminiscences, a military career was not traditional in his family; moreover, his education had been classical and his interests were political. Indeed, his later career, especially in Quebec, seems to bear out Alfred Leroy Burt’s judgement that he “had a thoroughly civilian mind, a thoroughly civilian conception of government.”
When the boundaries of Quebec were extended by the Quebec Act of 1774 to include the triangle of land between the Ohio and Mississippi rivers, it became necessary to invest some officials with the symbols of British power to govern the area. In retrospect, it was easy to argue that these officials should have held high military rank, but in 1775 it was decided to create civil governorships, and Hamilton, Edward Abbott, and Mathew Johnson were appointed to the posts at Detroit, Vincennes (Ind.), and Kaskaskia (Ill.) respectively. Hamilton’s appointment, made by Carleton, was probably suggested by Lord Dartmouth, secretary of state for the American Colonies, to whom Hamilton had been recommended by the chief justice of Quebec, William Hey.
Understandably, Hamilton was much concerned about the nature of his office and the extent of his powers, but most of his questions were never answered by officials in Quebec and London. Part of the problem lay in the fact that American armies were already in Canada by the time Hamilton undertook his journey westward in the autumn of 1775, and communication between Detroit and the St Lawrence region remained more than ordinarily difficult. His first problem was the administration of justice. New judicial arrangements were postponed because of the war, and Hamilton resorted to a most unsatisfactory and irregular method of settling property disputes, while Philippe Dejean*, whose authority as a temporary judge had ended with the Quebec Act, continued to hand down judgements in criminal cases. In 1778 the grand jurors of the District of Montreal indicted Hamilton for tolerating illegal actions by Dejean. Predictably, Governor Haldimand excused any high-handed actions on the grounds that the paramount need was security in the midst of war, and the British government, unsure how to deal with Hamilton given the novelty of his office and the wartime conditions, took the same view.
Hamilton’s position at Detroit in the early years of the American revolution was far from enviable. The British had not yet established any suitable government or firm policy for the upper Great Lakes-Illinois region, so that neither the Indians nor the Canadian settlers had much confidence in the new rulers. Moreover, since Hamilton’s commission was a civil one, the limits of his authority in a wartime situation were not clear. As early as 1776 his dispatches urged military action, but at first his superiors were reluctant to agree to such a move. Early in 1778, however, the situation changed with the arrival of George Rogers Clark and his Virginia militia in the Illinois country. Philippe-François Rastel de Rocheblave surrendered Kaskaskia to them in July, and the inhabitants of Vincennes declared for Virginia the same month, Abbott having left for Detroit in February. Hamilton asked for instructions but the possibility of recapturing Vincennes was still under discussion in Quebec when he decided to act. With about 60 Indians [see Egushwa] and 175 white troops, mostly Canadian militia with about 30 British regulars from Detroit, he set out on 8 Oct. 1778 to cut off American trade at Vincennes, and, it has been suggested, to escape from the intolerable position in which he had been placed at Detroit for the past three years.
Vincennes was taken in December, and Hamilton decided to wait for spring before making any further moves, relying on leniency to keep the 500 residents of the town on the British side. He believed that the arrival of Clark with the news of the Franco-American alliance of February 1778 had eroded whatever support the British had among Indians and Canadians. In any case, when Clark attacked without warning, the entire garrison was forced to surrender unconditionally on 25 Feb. 1779. Hamilton and a number of his associates, including Jehu Hay, were sent off to Virginia, and British power in the old northwest received a serious setback. Hamilton blamed the disaster on the defection of Canadian volunteers and the continuing correspondence of the residents of Vincennes with the Americans. “The conduct of the canadians in general has shown that no ties that have force upon enlightened and generous minds, can bind them, and that they prefer any subjection, to the freedom of Englishmen,” he lamented to Haldimand in an account written in 1781 of the Vincennes expedition. Once news of the defeat reached him, Haldimand was prompt to explain that the expedition had been undertaken without his specific authorization, although in obedience to his general instructions to Hamilton. The farthest that he went in criticizing the lieutenant governor personally was to suggest, in strict confidence to a fellow general, that the mission might have been successful if Hamilton had had the prudence to retire from Vincennes in time.
If there was any thought of censure, it seems to have been obliterated by news of the treatment Hamilton received in Virginia. Held in Williamsburg and Chesterfield for 18 months, during many of them in irons, he was denied any consideration as a prisoner of war and was treated as the common criminal his captors believed him to be. Efforts to secure his parole and eventual exchange succeeded at last through the intervention of George Washington, but only after the Virginia authorities, Governor Thomas Jefferson in particular, had resisted all appeals for many months.
The explanation for the Americans’ treatment of Hamilton lies in their fear of Indian attacks on their western settlements and the conviction that he typified a brutal and relentless British policy in using Indians; the “hair-buyer general,” Clark dubbed him. So intense was the hatred of Hamilton that a century and a half passed before American historians conceded that there was no positive proof that he had ever offered rewards for scalps. The judgment of Milo Milton Quaife that Hamilton was “a brave and high-minded soldier” exemplifying an old tradition that was beginning to be seen as inhumane betrays more of Quaife’s belief in the progress of moral perceptions and of American leadership in that progress than it does knowledge of events in the old northwest in the 1770s. Any effort to exonerate Hamilton from responsibility for Indian raids on the grounds that he was simply carrying out orders from his superiors is unconvincing. As early as 1776 he had apparently proposed employing Indians against the Americans, and in March 1777 he was authorized to assemble as many Indians as possible and to use them in “making a Diversion and exciting an alarm upon the frontiers of Virginia and Pennsylvania.” He was, however, to restrain them from any acts of violence against “well-affected and inoffensive inhabitants.” Hamilton undoubtedly realized the contradiction in these orders – if Indians were used, settlers, whatever their political stance, would become victims – but he saw alliance with the Indians as the only means of retaining British power in the old northwest. There is no indication that revulsion against the policy caused the Americans to refrain from using similar tactics throughout the war.
Early in 1781 Hamilton was at last free to go to England, and there he received word that on Haldimand’s recommendation he had been appointed lieutenant governor of Quebec, succeeding Hector Theophilus Cramahé. When Haldimand had first been appointed governor in 1777, Hamilton had told the Indians at Detroit: “I shall rise up, or sit down, as he orders me.” Almost from the moment of his arrival in Quebec in June 1782, however, relations with his superior were strained. Haldimand and his supporters in the French party had created a set of policies that they justified as long as the war continued, and at the same time they had come to regard any opposition as fundamentally disloyal. Yet as early as December Hamilton supported the opposition group in the Legislative Council, led by George Allsopp*, in a motion critical of past decisions. It would appear that from this point on Haldimand lost confidence in the man he had recommended and could not immediately have dismissed.
With the signing of the treaty of Paris in September 1783, pressure for change in Quebec, particularly from the British merchants, mounted; at the very least, there would have to be some steps toward the implementation of instructions to the governor left in abeyance through nearly a decade of war. Much of the debate that, raged in council was over the introduction of habeas corpus and the extension of English law to commercial cases. The French party urged the least possible change and defended its charter theory in which the Quebec Act (isolated from the instructions accompanying it) was seen as a sacred document enshrining the inalienable rights of the Canadians. Hamilton from the beginning challenged this worshipful attitude, desiring free discussion of individual clauses of the act. The territorial provisions had been made obsolete by the peace treaty and, he argued, Quebec society had altered sufficiently within the past decade that other clauses also deserved re-examination. Whenever this charter theory formed part of a motion before council, Hamilton felt impelled to record his dissent, although it might have been wiser to refrain from doing so on the motion congratulating George III on the conclusion of peace! Prominent among Hamilton’s supporters during the 1784 session was Hugh Finlay*, the deputy postmaster general. Although the council passed an ordinance granting habeas corpus, the two other ordinances approved were renewals of previous ones, and both men claimed that the measures passed fell short of what they believed to be “His Majesty’s gracious intention toward his Canadian subjects” to introduce a greater measure of English institutions into the province.
The French party, with the governor’s support, was able to win most of the battles at that session, but during the summer its members were alarmed when it became known that Haldimand was about to depart for England, reluctantly leaving the administration of the colony in the hands of the lieutenant governor. Repeatedly Hamilton begged for orders, instructions, copies of dispatches, and other documents in time to examine them carefully and discuss problem areas with his superior. But Haldimand chose to have documents delivered to Hamilton on the day of his departure and even then did not include copies of his own dispatches to London. Again, Hamilton was entrusted only with civil powers, and Haldimand made an effort to confine that authority as much as possible. Military command was assumed by Barrimore Matthew St Leger, the ranking army officer after Haldimand, and to him and others the governor entrusted much of the business dealing with the loyalists and Indians. The governor’s rather meagre instructions did include a statement of his own support for the Quebec Act as a charter and his conviction that all petitions against it were the work of designing men. It has been suggested that he hoped to force Hamilton into consultation with Adam Mabane and the French party. But Hamilton had already had occasion to quarrel with the favouritism Haldimand had shown towards Mabane. “He gave the helm into another person’s hand, but would not entrust me with the management of an Oar,” Hamilton complained in November 1784. No mayor of the palace would be tolerated during the Hamilton administration. Instead, he resolved to open up the council to free discussion, and his attitude encouraged various groups of citizens to present petitions in favour of an elected assembly and against certain ordinances currently in force. When these petitions appeared, Hamilton, whether or not he was in agreement with their contents, resolved that they must be transmitted to the king. It soon became evident that, whatever the reasons for his actions, Haldimand had set the stage for a stormy legislative session in 1785.
During that session Hugh Finlay presided over a council that was almost equally divided on each issue brought before it. Hamilton’s supporters were able to push through an ordinance introducing jury trials in some civil cases, but the strength of the French party was sufficient to postpone for one more year any amendments to the militia ordinance which had re-established the corvée. Its victory came about in the midst of furious debate throughout the colony. There had been a petition against this ordinance (which Hamilton duly transmitted to London) and certain of its statements were regarded by military men in the colony as unfair attacks on their past conduct. Colonel Henry Hope published a denial of these statements in the Quebec Gazette, and another petition was then circulated protesting Hope’s remarks. Hamilton’s desire that public opinion should have free expression was fulfilled with a vengeance.
With Haldimand in London representing the French party’s view on each issue, Hamilton was finding it difficult to retain the confidence of His Majesty’s government. Just after the legislative session ended in May he took the decision that made his recall certain. He had asked Haldimand about the matter of a new lease for the king’s posts, a question that would likely have to be decided during his administration of the colony. He had been told that the matter had been laid before the British government and that nothing was to be done until His Majesty’s pleasure was known. The first mail packet in 1785 contained a number of letters to citizens of Quebec announcing that Alexander and George Davison and François Baby*, friends of the French party, had been chosen as the new lessees, but the official letter informing Hamilton of the decision did not arrive for several days. During this period, although the decision was common knowledge in Quebec, Hamilton chose to reconfirm the lease of a different group, Thomas Dunn* and his associates William Grant* and Peter Stuart. Hamilton seems to have been convinced that an injustice was being planned to the Dunn group which it was in his power to remedy, and the purity of his motives does not seem to have been seriously questioned, even though Dunn and Grant had been his supporters in crucial debates in the council over the past two years. It was his political wisdom, not his probity, that came under attack. If he hoped for a last minute change of heart in Britain, he had miscalculated. In August a curt letter of dismissal ordered him to hand over authority to Hope, who also assumed the military command on St Leger’s departure, and to return to England at once.
Hamilton sailed for England on 2 Nov. 1785, the same day on which he handed the seals of office to his successor. For more than two years humiliated and financially embarrassed, he awaited vindication. But during those two years, events in Quebec made it possible to see Hamilton’s actions in perspective. He left behind at least two measures that his enemies sought to set aside as illegal. In both cases they failed. The lease he had granted to the Dunn group for the king’s posts was to be reviewed on 1 Oct. 1786, and the government clearly recognized its legality by granting the posts to the Davisons and Baby only from that date. The conclusion would seem to be inescapable: Hamilton’s actions had cost him his position, but he had acted within his power. The second illustration revealed even more about the animosity of his opponents and aroused new sympathy for him. In the council session of 1786 Mabane led an attempt to refuse payment of accounts authorized by Hamilton in the previous year, a move which would have made Hamilton liable for the charges. Even Hope, Mabane’s friend, refused to accept his argument; in his report accompanying the minutes of council, Hope left no doubt of his support for Hamilton’s conduct. With the arrival of Governor General Lord Dorchester [Carleton] and the new chief justice, William Smith, in October 1786 the balance of power within Quebec altered. Their views of the situation in the colony, which seemed to echo some of Hamilton’s judgements, had placed the British government by 1788 in a position to evaluate some of the problems which Hamilton had faced, and a new appointment for him followed. For six years he served as governor of Bermuda and the new capital, founded during his term of office, was named for him. These were years of political calm in the colony. In 1794 he became governor of Dominica, and he died in office two years later.
Twice in his lifetime, opponents in their fury made Hamilton a symbol of what they hated and feared. The French party in Quebec saw him as an innovator who pandered to the wishes of the lower classes, and as an enemy of the kind of social order set up by Murray, Carleton, and Haldimand. Its denunciations of Hamilton’s conduct at Quebec were, in their way, as extreme as Clark’s description of “the hair-buyer” of the war years. Yet when this group of detractors charged that Hamilton’s actions were preparing the way for an American expansion into Canada, they had, perhaps wilfully, forgotten what he had suffered at American hands. In Quebec he represented change at a time when fears for the future dominated the ruling party, and even those such as Hope, who admired his qualities, or Finlay and Evan Nepean, under-secretary of state for the Home Department, who also sympathized with his aspirations, sometimes questioned his political judgement. It was his misfortune that the American revolution and its aftermath created circumstances that doomed his missions not only at Detroit but also at Quebec.
© 1979–2023 University of Toronto/Université Laval
Cite This Article
Elizabeth Arthur, “HAMILTON, HENRY,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 4, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed June 6, 2023, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/hamilton_henry_4E.html.
The citation above shows the format for footnotes and endnotes according to the Chicago manual of style (16th edition). Information to be used in other citation formats:
|Author of Article:||Elizabeth Arthur|
|Title of Article:||HAMILTON, HENRY|
|Publication Name:||Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 4|
|Publisher:||University of Toronto/Université Laval|
|Year of publication:||1979|
|Year of revision:||1979|
|Access Date:||June 6, 2023|