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Hamilton Fish


HAMILTON FISH, the present Secretary of State, is a son of Colonel Nicholas Fish, and a native of the city of New York, where he was born in 1809. He is descended from one of what are called "the old families" of that city, not less on account of their lineage, than from their standing, wealth, and respectability. He was educated at Columbia College, from which he graduated in 1827, with an excellent reputation for ability and attainments. He embraced the profession of law; was admitted an attorney in the Superior Court in 1830, and, three years later was regularly enrolled among the counsellors of that court. As a lawyer, his business was large, and always attended to with a promptness, ability and diligence which would naturally have insured its increase, had not the management of his large estate occupied more of his time than was consistent with the attainment of the highest honors or the lucrative emoluments of the profession. Early in life he manifested a deep interest in politics, and it could scarcely have been otherwise with a young man of his social position and intelligence, when we consider the period of remarkable political activity in which he grew up to man's estate. Although then as now, rather conservative, he was generally associated with those of advanced opinions. In 1834 he was an unsuccessful candidate for the State Assembly; but, was more successful in 1837, and his course in that body afforded entire satisfaction to his party friends; for, while not particularly distinguished in debate, his consistency as a politician, business tact, and ability, gained him a prominent place on the Whig side of the House, and the favorable regard of those with whom he was particularly affiliated.

In 1842 he was elected to represent the Sixth Congressional District (embracing the six upper wards, except the 13th and 14th) over John McKeon (Democrat), by a small majority; which, however, was considered a great triumph, inasmuch as Governor Bouck's (Democrat.) majority over Seward (Whig) was about 1200 in the same district. Mr. Fish's success, however, was owing not so much to his personal popularity, as to his well-known approval of the principles and objects of the Native American party, who threw their influence in his favor. He served but one term, was Chairman of the Military Committee, and attained a creditable standing among the prominent Whigs of that day, which paved the way for future political preferment; so that, when he retired again to private life, his friends were unwilling to surrender their claims upon him, and he was nominated as the Whig candidate for Lieutenant-Governor of the State, at the State Convention of 1846, on the same ticket with John Young, which, however, was defeated by the "antirenters " adoption of the Democratic candidate. The next year, 1847, he was elected Lieutenant Governor in the place of Mr. Gardiner, who resigned (the opposition failing in consequence of division in the Democratic ranks), and presided over the deliberations of the Senate with dignity and acceptability.

In 1848, Governor Young declined re-nomination, and Mr. Fish, as Lieutenant Governor, naturally attracted the attention of his party to himself. In spite of the then existing division of the Whig party into "Conservatives" (afterwards National Whigs), with whom Mr. Fish sympathized, and "Radicals" (or Seward Whigs), he received the nomination for Governor, at the State Convention, on September 14th, with Geo. W. Patterson as Lieutenant-Governor. The Whigs, owing to divisions in the Democratic camp, succeeded, by a plurality vote, and Mr. Fish took the oath of office January 1st, 1849. The position being pretty well stripped of patronage by the Constitution of 1846, the new Governor found no difficulty in preserving that moderate, neutral course of conduct, which became the position, and which was so acceptable to his own tastes, and his administration passed harmoniously, although slavery was bitterly agitating the councils of the State, as well as of the nation. Mr. Fish was early committed to the Wilmot proviso, and in his annual message, took strong grounds against the extension of slave territory. His messages, like all public papers from his hand, are conspicuous for their style and the modesty with which his opinions are stated. Among his recommendations were the institution of a State Agricultural School; of a School for Instruction in the Mechanical Arts; the restoration of the office of County Superintendent of Schools; the revision and alteration of the laws authorizing taxes and assessments for local improvements; a more general and equable tax on personal property; the establishment of tribunals of conciliation, in accordance with provisions of the Constitution of 1846; and a modification of the criminal code.

After his retirement from the gubernatorial chair, he was sent to the United States Senate (in place of Daniel S. Dickinson), where he served from 1852 to 1857. During this time, including as it did the epoch of the Repeal of the Missouri Compromise, he became identified with the present Republican party. After leaving Congress, he spent several years in the enjoyment of travel in Europe. At the outbreak of the War of Secession be was boldly outspoken for the Union, and participated in the overwhelming demonstration at Union Square, New York, May 20th, 1861, where he made a short but stirring appeal.

In January 1862, he was appointed, together with Bishop Ames of the Methodist Episcopal Church, upon a Commission to relieve the Union prisoners in the Southern prisons, and although they were denied admission to the territory held by Southern arms, they nevertheless succeeded in negotiating a general exchange of prisoners of war. Later in the same year, Mr. Fish wrote a letter, in which he said: "We must conquer peace; we cannot buy it, and if we could, it would be valueless, as it would be disgraceful."

At the close of the war Mr. Fish again went to Europe, but soon after his return was nominated Secretary of State by President Grant, March 1st, 1869, in place of E. B. Washburne, resigned. In the administration of the duties devolving upon this office, which has come to be considered of late years the Premiership of the Cabinet, Mr. Fish's course has not always met the public approval. Like most men of reticent and conservative temper, he possesses a very strong will, and some notions which make him a difficult man to deal with. In his relations with our ministers to foreign courts, and the ministers of other powers to the United States, he has either been unfortunate or perverse. Mr. Motley, a gentleman and scholar of as high social position as Mr. Fish, a historian of whom the nation had a right to be proud, and a diplomatist of very considerable experience, was appointed Minister to the Court of St. James at the commencement of President Grant's administration; but within a year fell under Secretary Fish's displeasure, and after a correspondence, which was not specially creditable to either party, was dismissed. The unseemly quarrel with Mr. Catacazy, the Russian Minister, was not probably Mr. Fish's fault, for the Russian was not fit for his place; but the disgraceful wrangling over it, and the discourtesy to the son of the European monarch most friendly to us, was not an edifying spectacle.

In his diplomatic intercourse with other powers, notably with Spain, Denmark, and France, Mr. Fish has at times been rash and fretful. While not lacking the ability to handle a constitutional law point as adroitly as any of his predecessors, he has fallen below the generality of them in courteous style of statement. Yankee brusqueness may accord perfectly with our home dispositions, and may even be excused in private character abroad, but diplomatists have grown so used to suave methods of speech that a departure for any reason is well nigh inexcusable.

Secretary Fish has come in for a large share of censure in his method of conducting the Alabama claims controversy. But as most of that censure was predicated on the supposed entire failure of the treaty, it has been in a great measure withdrawn since the prospect of the treaty's ratification, in a modified form, has brightened.

We shall not discuss the preliminaries of the treaty, but simply state that the nation expected much from it, not only as a compensation for actual losses, and as a sedative to that rancorous feeling which was distracting two nearly allied countries, but as a harbinger of the era of amicable arbitration wherever national differences existed.

In order to reach the desired end both nations had to concede something. Mr. Fish's position was strongly taken. It accorded with the views of our greatest diplomatists, not even excepting those of his bitterest personal enemy, Mr. Sumner. When England recoiled from it, and took the position that she could not honorably admit our claim for indefinite consequential damages, perhaps Mr. Fish continued to be a little too stiff and exacting. At any rate it was not until a powerful sentiment grew up in the country against the advisability of adhering to such consequential claims that he showed signs of yielding. When he did yield it was evidently against his better judgment, and with a reluctance that proved a strong attachment to his original position. His conduct thus far only shows that native conviction was with difficulty overborne by considerations of policy, or that concessory spirit which so largely enters into successful diplomacy.

His enemies were, however, not slow to seize this opportunity for first driving home upon him the charge of obstinacy, and afterwards when he yielded, the charge of cowardice, which charge, on the other side of the water, took the shape of disingenuousness and trickery; for though he pressed at first the claims for indirect damages with all his ardor, he privately declared that it was not done with the expectation of recovering upon them. The fact is, he simply took a lawyer-like view of them, and regarded their presentation as necessary to show that some modification of the laws regulating the conduct of neutrals was needed. We cannot think that either cowardice or a desire to act unfairly is an ingredient of Mr. Fish's nature. We must credit him with a strong will and great professional pride, amounting at times, perhaps, to forgetfulness of those little refinements which unavoidably attach themselves to diplomacy, and to abhorrence of those compromises which in every day life are oftener evidences of weakness than strength. Instinctively he is a safe and true counsellor. His slowness may give rise to the impression that he is timid, but surely this is rebutted by that firmness, when his mind is once made up, which his so often thrown him open to the charge of willfulness and stubbornness. The forte of the diplomatist is tact. That he lacks the shrewdness and smoothness of diction, which have immortalized shallower men, must not go to discredit the integrity of his character the depth of his learning, or the soundness of his judgments.

Source: Source: Men of Our Day; or Biographical Sketches of Patriots, Orators, Statesmen, Generals, Reformers, Financiers and Merchants, Now on the state of Action: Including Those Who in Military, Political, Business and Social Life, are the Prominent Leaders of the Time in This Country, by L. P. Brockett, M. D., Published by Ziegler and McCurdy, Philadelphia Penna; Springfield, Mass; Cincinnati, Ohio; St. Louis, Mo., 1872  

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