Archives of Maryland
(Biographical Series)

William T. Hamilton (1820-1888)
MSA SC 3520-1469

Governor of Maryland, 1880-1884 (Democrat)

"WILLIAM THOMAS HAMILTON, an outspoken advocate of administrative economy, lower taxes and incorruptible public service, was born in Hagerstown on September 8, 1820, the son of Henry and Anna Mary (Hess) Hamilton. Spending his early life in Boonsboro after his parents had died he was raised by his maternal bachelor uncles, Jacob, Henry and William Hess, who were engaged in farming, milling, and ran a general merchandise store, an association which caused Hamilton to come into contact with business men. He received his early education from James Brown, a tutor who was both a pedagogue and politician, following which he attended the Hagerstown Academy. He studied at Jefferson College between 1836 and 1840, and upon his return to Hagerstown, he studied law under John Thomas Mason. Thereafter in 1843, he was admitted to the Bar.

"In 1846, Hamilton was elected as a Democrat to the House of Delegates after a close and hard-fought contest. During the session which followed, he supported Governor Pratt’s efforts to secure the payment of the interest on the State’s debts. In 1847, he was renominated, but he was defeated because of the Whig Party victory in Washington County, though he was his party’s best vote-getter.

"In 1848, Hamilton was a candidate for Congress from his district. He was defeated but in 1849, he was elected after an animated contest. During his term, the tariff question was the important issue in his district. Hamilton had adopted as his campaign slogan 'tariff for revenue only' even though his district represented the mining and manufacturing interests in Allegany County. In 1851, he was re-elected. In 1853, he decided not to stand for re-election, but because prominent leaders in his district insisted, he changed his mind, facing his opponent Francis Thomas, who now ran as an Independent. Hamilton won a hard-fought campaign by a majority of over one thousand votes. During his third term, he served as the Chairman of the House Committee on the District of Columbia and in that capacity he supervised the building of the aqueduct to supply Washington with water from the Great Falls of the Potomac.

[p. 196] "In 1855, he again decided not to be a candidate for re-election. Again his friends urged him to reconsider his decision. As the 'Know-Nothing' Party was increasing its strength in Maryland, he was regarded as the strongest Democrat candidate, but unlike 1853, he was defeated. He resumed his law practice, forming a partnership with Richard H. Alvey, who later became the Chief Judge of the Court of Appeals.

"While he was a member of Congress, Hamilton was married on September 8, 1850 to Clara Jenness, the daughter of Richard Jenness of Portsmouth, N. H. They had four sons and two daughters.

"Between 1855 and 1868, Hamilton took no active part in politics. Instead, he devoted his attention to his law practice, becoming one of the leading trial lawyers in Western Maryland. He also became interested in farming and was regarded as one of the outstanding farmers of Washington County.

"On January 17, 1868, the General Assembly elected Hamilton to a six-year term in the United States Senate after several days of balloting. 'His election was made the cause of tremendous jubilation by his friends.' commented Frank Kent. 'Wine flowed like water at the Old City Hotel in Annapolis, and a champagne luncheon was given by Syester and other of Hamilton’s friends, at which speeches were made and congratulations showered upon the successful candidate.'1

"Hamilton’s effectiveness as a Senator was restricted by the Radical Republicans. Yet, he proved himself an able legislator by vehemently opposing the so-called 'salary grab' through which the Congress attempted to increase the salary of government officials. Even though Congress finally passed the bill, Hamilton refused to accept the salary to which he was entitled by the bill’s provisions. Because of his actions, Congress eventually had to repeal the bill because Hamilton’s stand created bitter public denunciation of Congress and its actions. Hamilton also favored the rapid resumption of the specie payments, supported the restoration of Southern States to the Union and their home rule, but he voted against the Fifteenth Amendment.

"By 1871, the Democratic Party in Maryland split into several factions. Hamilton, as leader of one of these, was instrumental in securing the gubernatorial nomination for William Pinkney Whyte who 'would use his office as a stepping stone.' Hamilton, however, became the victim of political bickering with the result that his name was not even mentioned in 1874 when his Senatorial term ended. 'Hamilton,' says Kent, 'was greatly aggrieved at Whyte’s course after his election as Governor and was his unrelenting and bitter foe from that time forth.'2

"In 1875, Hamilton was a candidate for the gubernatorial nomination, but he failed to secure it. Instead, John Lee Carroll received it after a bitter convention fight, but the stage was set for a party revolt which [p. 197] nearly resulted in Carroll’s defeat. Once again Hamilton retired from public life and resumed his law practice, but he 'began a campaign for the Governorship and kept it up unremittingly before he finally landed it.'3

"Four years later, Hamilton, as the result of his persistent efforts, finally received the Democratic nomination for Governor. He went on to defeat his Republican opponent, James A. Gary, later President McKinley’s Postmaster General by a majority of about 22,000 votes, and was inaugurated on January 14, 1880. Hamilton’s administration, commented The Sun, 'will always be a memorable one in the political history of the State, owing to [his] outspoken course in opposition to the managers of his party who, in his opinion, had not kept their pledges to the people for the reformation of certain abuses.'4

"The keynotes of Governor Hamilton’s administration were reform, retrenchment and economy. These beliefs brought him into conflict with members of the Legislature, who he believed, were extravagant and did nothing to practice economy in government. Hamilton felt that certain useless offices should be abolished to accomplish savings to the treasury and the diminution of patronage. He recommended, for example, the abolition of Tax Commissioner, the Insurance Commissioner, the Land Office, and the Weighers of Grain and Hay, but the Legislature refused to concur in his recommendations. He also cited the rising costs of Legislative expenses, as well as those of public printing and indexing by directing the Legislature’s attention to 'the prominent details of our financial condition . . . in the earnest desire to remedy if possible, the material and wrongful departures in the management of our finances from the line of policy enjoyed by the Constitution, sanctioned by law and approved by a wise financial economy.'5 He further requested the General Assembly to provide it with a sinking fund for the repayment of the State’s debts, but again that body blocked his proposals. By the time his term had ended, he faced an openly hostile party organization.

"Hamilton retired from the gubernatorial office on January 8, 1884, supported by the people hut opposed by his party. As a reformer, his efforts probably had good results in the elevation of party methods. His belief in economy had its keynote as an economical administration of the people’s affairs on a business basis by capable and honest men. In his final message to the Legislature in 1884, he said 'In a few short days the great authority vested in me by the good people of the State as their Chief Magistrate will be laid down. When assuming the important obligations of this honorable position, and before taking the oath of office in the presence of the General Assembly and of the assembled people, I declared it to be my determination that everything done should be directed and directed solely in the interests of good government, and that my cordial cooperation should be had with the other departments of the government in promoting wise and unselfish legislation; in assuring fair, [p. 198]
pure and peaceful elections; in enforcing a rigid economy in all branches of the public service; in reducing taxation to the lowest point compatible with economical administration; in correcting all abuses, whether great or small, and wherever existing; in limiting official employment to the absolute necessities of the State, and in maintaining an elevated standard of official probity, capacity and application. In returning to the private walks of life I shall bear with me the consciousness of having fairly, honestly and faithfully endeavored to discharge the important and imposing obligations then assumed, and of having faithfully endeavored to meet the just expectations of the people.'6

"At the close of his term, Hamilton returned to his home in Hagerstown, where he resumed his law practice and only occasionally participated in politics. In Washington County, he never lost his prestige and at the time of his death, he was deeply mourned. To him, Hagerstown was indebted for many improvements among which were a new charter, improved streets, electric lights, a hotel and the waterworks. When he died he was President of the Hagerstown Bank, Washington County Water Works, the Board of Street Commissioners, the Hagerstown Board of Trade, the Rose Hill Cemetery Company and others. For nearly a year, Hamilton had been in declining health, until his death on October 26, 1888. He was buried in Rose Hill Cemetery in that city."

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