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Significant Scots
James Hamilton


HAMILTON, JAMES, fourth duke of Hamilton, was the eldest son of William, earl of Selkirk, and Anne, duchess of Hamilton. He was born in 1657, educated in Scotland, being by the courtesy of his country entitled earl of Arran, and after spending some time in foreign travel, repaired to the court of England, where he mixed in the gallantries of the time. As it was with a duel that his life closed, so a duel is the first remarkable circumstance to be noticed in the account of his youthful years. In consequence of a quarrel with lord Mordaunt, afterwards earl of Peterborough, he met that nobleman on foot in Greenwich park, with sword and pistol. Arran fired first, and missed; his antagonist discharged his ball in the air, but nevertheless insisted that the combat should proceed. They accordingly engaged with their swords, and Mordaunt having first received a slight wound about the groin, pierced Arran’s thigh, and broke his own sword. The earl had now in turn an opportunity to display his generosity and sparing the life which was at his mercy, the two young noblemen parted good friends.

Arran enjoyed the favour of Charles II. who made him one of the knights of his bed-chamber, and sent him envoy extraordinary to the court of France, to offer congratulations on the birth of Philip, duke of Anjou, afterwards king of Spain. Whilst upon this embassy, he was one day hunting with the king, and taking offence at some part of the conduct of an ecclesiastical dignitary, who also rode in the company, he disregarded equally the profession of his opponent and the royal presence, and pulling the reverend gentleman from his horse, and grasping his sword, he was prevented from exacting a bloody vengeance only by the interposition of his majesty. The particulars of this affair are not related with that distinctness which would enable us to decide who was in the wrong; but the earl’s contemporaries, provided they saw a display of spirit, did not often stop to inquire whether it were borne out by prudence; and accordingly, a writer of the time tells us his lordship came off upon this occasion, in the opinion of the world, "with high commendations of his courage and audacity."

When James II. ascended the throne, the earl of Arran suffered no diminution of court favour. Indeed he seems to have earned it by readily yielding to James’s designs. He was one of the privy council who in 1687, signed the letter of the Scottish government, concurring with the proclamation to repeal the laws made against papists. In reward of his acquiescence, he was installed a knight of the thistle, when that order,—which, according to the king’s party, was instituted about the year of our Lord 809, by Achaius, king of Scots, and never disused till the intestine troubles, which happened in the reign of Mary, was "restored to its full lustre, glory, and magnificence." The writers, whose politics were different, maintain that, however honourable this badge might be, it was never worn as such before. Burnet says it was "set up in Scotland in imitation of the order of the garter in England;" and lord Dartmouth adds, that "all the pretence for antiquity is some old pictures of kings of Scotland, with medals of St Andrew hung in gold chains about their necks." Whether old or new, it was conferred as a mark of James’s esteem, and in farther proof of his confidence he entrusted the earl of Arran with the command of a regiment of horse, when the new levies took place on the descent of the duke of Monmouth. At a period of greater disaster to James’s fortunes, when lord Churchill, afterwards the great Marlborough, went over to the prince of Orange, the duke of Berwick was advanced to the station he had occupied as colonel of the 3d troop of horse guards, and in the room of his grace, Arran was made colonel of Oxford’s regiment. From the course which events took, however, the earl had no opportunity of signalizing his bravery in the cause of his master; but he carried his fidelity as far as any man in the kingdom, having been one of the four lords who accompanied James to Gravesend, when the fallen monarch repaired thither on his way into foreign exile. Returning to London, Arran complied with the general example, and waited on the prince of Orange; being one of the last that came, he offered an excuse which partook more of the bluntness of the soldier than of political or courtlike dexterity. "If the king had not withdrawn out of the country," he said, "he should not have come at all." The next day the prince intimated to him that he had bestowed his regiment upon its old colonel, the earl of Oxford.

Nor was Arran solicitous to appease by subsequent compliance the displeasure incurred in his first interview with the prince. On the 7th January, William assembled the Scottish nobles and gentlemen then in London, and told them that he wanted their advice "what was to be done for securing the protestant religion, and restoring their laws and liberties, according to his declaration." His highness withdrew after making this request, and the duke of Hamilton was chosen to preside. The politics of his grace were quite different from those of his son; and the fact of his being selected to preside over their deliberations was an intimation of the course which the assembly intended to pursue. But Arran either did not perceive, or did not regard this circumstance; he proposed, that as the prince had desired their advice, they should move him to invite the king to return, and call a free parliament, "which, in my humble opinion," he added, "will at last be found the best way to heal all our breaches." Nobody seconded this proposal; but it seems to have astounded the deliberators a good deal: they dispersed, and did not re-assemble till the second day after, when their resolution to stand by the prince of Orange and to exclude the exiled James, having been strengthened by some remarks from the duke of Hamilton, they recommended the measures which the emergency seemed to them to require.

A short time after the settlement of the throne upon William and Mary, as the earl of Arran was passing along the streets in a chair, about eleven at night, he was set upon by four or five people with drawn swords. He defended himself courageously, and being vigorously seconded by his footman and chairmen, came off with only a few slight hurts in the hand. This incident was charged against the new monarch, as if he had sought to rid himself by assassination of one who had so very coolly, if not resolutely, opposed his reception in England. But there was neither any disposition nor any necessity for resorting to such means for weakening the ranks of the adherents of James. The attack upon the earl is believed to have proceeded, from another cause; namely, the involvement of his lordship’s pecuniary affairs, and to have been the act of an exasperated creditor. The earl, however, certainly was obnoxious to government at this period. He was shortly after committed to the Tower, with Sir Robert Hamilton and two others of his countrymen; but was soon liberated upon bail; upon which he judged it prudent, both on account of the suspicion to which his political opinions exposed him, and of embarrassments in his private fortune, to retire to Scotland. There his father enjoyed the full confidence of government; his services in the convention of the states, of which he was president, having mainly contributed to the settlement of the crown upon William. Here Arran lived in retirement, the progress of affairs and the paternal authority tending to reconcile him to the revolution. At his father’s death in 1695, the earl of Arran was not advanced in rank and not very much in fortune. The title of duke had been conferred upon its late possessor to be held during his lifetime, by consent of the heiress, whom he had married; and at his death it remained with her, together with the bulk of the estate. It was not till the marriage of Arran in 1698, with lord Gerrard of Bromley’s daughter, that his mother consented that her eldest son should assume the honours of the family. Upon this William, willing to gratify the family, signed a patent, creating him duke of Hamilton, with precedency in the same manner as if he had succeeded to the title by the decease of his mother.

The events hitherto recorded in this nobleman’s life were not of great moment: he was a young man, acting in a great measure from personal bias, and his opinions had little weight or influence beyond the sphere of the private friends with whom he associated. We now approach a period when his conduct in the legislative assembly of his country, determined more than that of any other of its members the fate of the two most momentous political measures that ever were debated in it—the act of security and the act of union. The events of William’s reign had been highly exasperating to the Scottish nation. Not only had commercial enterprise been repressed, but this had been done in the most base and most cruel manner. The same monarch who sanctioned the massacre of Glencoe, first granted a charter to the Darien company, and then exerted his influence with foreign nations in order to withhold from their colony the necessary supplies, and sent instructions to the governor of the English colonies to the same effect. Many perished of famine, "murdered," says Sir Walter Scott, "by king William’s government, no less than if they had been shot in the snows of Glencoe." The spirit of an ancient people, never tolerant of contumely, far less of cruelties so atrocious as these, did not burst out into immediate and open defiance of their more powerful neighbour, but reserved itself for a period more favourable for the vindication of its insulted rights. During the rest of his life, William could draw no subsidies from Scotland, nor a single recruit for his continental wars. The instability of a new reign afforded a fitting opportunity for the assertion of independence. An act had been passed in the time of king William, empowering the parliament in being at his death to continue, and take the steps necessary for securing the protestant succession. In virtue of this act queen Anne thought proper not to call a new parliament; but a party, at the head of whom was the duke of Hamilton, maintained that the purposes contemplated by that provision were sufficiently satisfied by the settlement of her majesty on the throne. Accordingly, before the royal commission was read, the duke took a protest against it, and retiring with twenty-nine who adhered to him, their retreat was greeted with shouts of applause by the people assembled without. This proceeding may be considered the germ of that opposition which ripened in the two following years into the formidable act of security.

The parliament of 1703, instead of proceeding in conformity with the wishes of government, to settle the crown of Scotland on the same person for whom that of England was destined, resolved that this was the time to obtain an equality of commercial privileges, and to rescue the country from the state of a degraded and oppressed province of England. They accordingly passed an act stipulating that the two crowns should not be held by the same monarch, unless the Scottish people were admitted by the English to the full benefit of trade and navigation: to make good the separation of the countries if it should be necessary, every man capable of bearing arms was to be regularly drilled, and all commissions, civil and military, were to lose effect at the moment of the queen’s demise, in order that the states of Scotland might then appoint an entirely new set of magistrates and officers, faithful maintainers of the independence of the kingdom. The duke of Hamilton and the marquis of Tweeddale headed the country party, by whom this measure was passed. It was debated with the utmost fierceness by the speakers on both sides, with their hands on their swords. The queen’s commissioner refused his assent, and was obliged to dismiss the assembly without obtaining supplies, every demand of that kind being answered with shouts of "Liberty before subsidy!"

At this time the duke was involved in the accusations of Fraser of Lovat, who detailed to the government a plot, in which he alleged that he had engaged several Scottish noblemen for the restoration of the son of James II. The parliament of England took up the matter, and passed a resolution, declaring that a dangerous conspiracy had been formed in Scotland to overthrow the protestant succession. Hamilton, and the others named with him, defended themselves by maintaining that the whole affair was nothing but a malicious attempt of the court, in consequence of the decided part they had taken in behalf of their country’s rights, to destroy their reputation, and weaken the patriotic party to which they belonged. Their countrymen were in no mood to take part against them: on the contrary, they considered the vote of the English legislature as a fresh encroachment upon their liberties, another unwarrantable interference with matters beyond their jurisdiction. When the states met in 1704, therefore, there was no alteration in their tone - the act of security was insisted upon with the same determination; and it was now wisely acceded to.

Scotland was thus legally disjoined from England, and the military preparations, provided for in the act of security, were immediately commenced. This measure, however threatening it might appear, produced ultimately the most beneficial effects, having had the effect of rousing the English government to the danger of a rupture with Scotland. Should that nation make choice of a separate sovereign, it was likely to be one who had claims to the throne of England; and thus not only might the old hostilities between the two countries be rekindled, not only might a Scottish alliance be resorted to by foreign courts, to strengthen them in their designs against England, but the prince who held his court at Edinburgh, would have numerous adherents in the southern part of the island, as well as in Ireland, by whose assistance long and harassing wars might be maintained, with too probable a chance of the ultimate establishment of the exiled family on the British throne.

The prospect of dangers such as these induced the English government to devote all their influence to the formation of a treaty, by which the two countries might be incorporated, and all causes of dissension, at least in a national point of view, removed. During the discussion of this measure, the details of which proved extremely unsatisfactory to the Scottish people, they looked up to the duke of Hamilton as the political leader on whom the fate of the country entirely depended. That nobleman seems in his heart to have been hostile to the union. In the earlier stages of the proceedings, he displayed considerable firmness in his opposition, and out of doors he was greeted with the most enthusiastic plaudits. The duke of Queensberry, who acted as royal commissioner, had his lodging in Holyrood house; so had the duke of Hamilton. The queen’s representative could only pass to his coach through lanes of armed soldiery, and hurried home amidst volleys of stones and roars of execration; while the popular favourite was attended all the way from the Parliament Close by crowds, who encouraged him with loud huzzas to stand by the cause of national independence. A plan was devised, with the duke’s consent, for interrupting the progress of this odious treaty, by a general insurrection. But when the agents had arranged matters for the rising of the Cameronians in the west country, either doubting the practicability of the scheme, or reluctant to involve the country in civil war, he despatched messengers to countermand the rising, and was so far successful, that only an inconsiderable number repaired to the place of rendezvous. It was next resolved that a remonstrance should be presented by the nobles, barons, and gentry hostile to the union; and about four hundred of them assembled in Edinburgh, for the purpose of waiting upon the lord commissioner, with this expression of the national opinion. The address was drawn up with the understanding that it should be presented by the duke of Hamilton; but that nobleman again thwarted the measures of his party by refusing to appear, unless a clause were inserted in the address, expressive of the willingness of the subscribers to settle the crown on the house of Hanover. To this proposal the Jacobites, who formed a large portion of the opponents of the union, would not listen for a moment; and while discussions and disputes were protracted between the dukes of Athol and Hamilton, the gentlemen who had attended their summons to swell the ranks of the remonstrants, dispersed to their homes, chagrined and disappointed.

Hamilton next assembled the leaders of the opposition, recommended that they should forget former jarrings, and endeavour to repair previous mismanagement by a vigorous and united effort for the defeat of the obnoxious treaty. He proposed that a motion formerly made for settling the succession in the house of Hanover should be renewed, in conjunction with a proposal fatal to the union; and that, on its being rejected, as it was sure to be in such circumstances, a strong protest should be taken, and the whole of their party should publicly secede from parliament. The consequence of this step, he argued, must be that the government would abandon further proceedings, as they could not pretend to carry through a measure of such importance with a mere handful of the national representatives, whose opinions were so conspicuously at variance with the wishes of the great mass of the people. The Jacobites objected to the preliminary motion, but the duke overcame their scruples by representing, that as it must necessarily be rejected, it could not entangle them in any obligation inconsistent with their principles. Finally, he assured them, that if this plan failed of its effect, and the English should still press on the union, he would join them to recall the son of James II. The purpose of the anti-unionists having come to the knowledge of the duke of Queensberry, he sought an interview, it is said, with the leader of the popular party, and assured him that if the measure miscarried, his grace should be held accountable for its failure, and be made to suffer for it in his English estates. Whether intimidated by this threat, or that his own understanding did not approve of the course which his feelings prompted, Hamilton was the first to fail in the performance of the scheme which he had taken so much pains to persuade his coadjutors to consent to. "On the morning appointed for the execution of their plan," says Sir Walter Scott, "when the members of opposition had mustered all their forces, and were about to go to parliament, attended by great numbers of gentlemen and citizens, prepared to assist them if there should be an attempt to arrest any of their number, they learned that the duke of Hamilton was so much afflicted with the toothache that he could not attend the house that morning. His friends hastened to his chambers, and remonstrated with him so bitterly on this conduct, that he at length came down to the house; but it was only to astonish them by asking whom they had pitched upon to present their protestation. They answered, with extreme surprise, that they had reckoned on his grace, as the person of the first rank in Scotland, taking the lead in the measure which he had himself proposed. The duke persisted, however, in refusing to expose himself to the displeasure of the court, by being foremost in breaking their favourite measure, but offered to second any one whom the party might appoint to offer the protest. During this altercation, the business of the day was so far advanced, that the vote was put and carried on the disputed article respecting the representation, and the opportunity of carrying the scheme into effect was totally lost. The members who had hitherto opposed the union, being thus three times disappointed in their measures by the unexpected conduct of the duke of Hamilton, now felt themselves deserted and betrayed. Shortly afterwards most of them retired altogether from their attendance on parliament, and those who favoured the treaty were suffered to proceed in their own way, little encumbered either by remonstrance or opposition."

Such is the story of the duke of Hamilton’s share in these two great measures. It presents a curious view of perseverance and firmness of purpose at one time, and of the utmost instability at another in the same person, both concurring to produce a great and important change in the feelings and interests of two nations powerful in old times from their hardihood and valour, rendered more powerful in later times by the union of these qualities with intelligence and enlightened enterprise. The conspicuous and decided manner in which the duke of Hamilton stood forward, as the advocate of the act of security, carried it through a stormy opposition, and placed the kingdom in a state of declared but legalized defiance of England; while the unsteadiness of his opposition to the union paved the way for the reconciliation of the two nations. Had the Scottish people never asserted their independence with that determination which forced the English government to sanction the act of security—had the duke’s resolution failed him here, the terms of equality subsequently offered by England would not have been granted:—had the states persevered in the same intractable spirit when the union was proposed to them—had the duke manifested any portion of his former firmness, the mutual interests of England and Scotland might have been barred, the two kindred people might have been thrown back into interminable hostilities, and the glory and happiness which Great Britain has attained might never have been known.

Though the consequences of the union have been so beneficial to Scotland, yet the treaty was urged forward by means which no friend of his country could approve. The body of the nation regarded it as disgraceful and ruinous; its supporters were purchased with bribes—one nobleman sold himself for the miserable sum of eleven pounds sterling; and its opponents were awed to silence by threats. No wonder that men of honourable minds were fired with indignation, and many of them prepared to resort to desperate measures to wipe away the national disgrace. The opportunity seemed favourable for a movement among the Jacobites, and an agent from France engaged a number of the nobles to join the chevalier if he should land on the Scottish shores. Among these was the duke of Hamilton, who, although pressed to declare himself prematurely, adhered to the letter of his agreement, and by his prudence saved his large estates from confiscation. Whilst the French ships were on the seas, with the design of an invasion, his grace was taken into custody as a disaffected person, but suffered a very short restraint. This did not prevent his being named among the sixteen Scottish peers who took their place in the first British parliament, in which he attached himself to the tory party, and "stickled as much," to use the words of a biographer of that period, "for Dr Sacheverell and the high church interest, as he had done about three years before for the security of the Scottish kirk." The whigs losing their influence in the councils of queen Anne, the opposite party began to be received into favour; and in June, 1711, Hamilton was created duke of Brandon. He was at that time one of the representatives of the Scottish nobility, but claimed to take his seat as a British peer. In this he was vehemently opposed, notwithstanding the precedent afforded by the admission of Queensberry in virtue of the title of duke of Dover. After a long debate, in which a motion to take the opinion of the judges was rejected, it was decided, that since the union no Scottish peer could take his place in the British parliament in any other character than as one of the sixteen representatives. This decision so highly incensed the Scottish lords that they seceded from the house: they were appeased and prevailed on to return, but the point was not conceded at that time, although the queen interested herself in behalf of the duke of Hamilton. Nor was it till so late as the year 1782, when his descendant again preferred his claim, that, the judges having given an unanimous opinion in his favour, the eligibility of Scottish noblemen to the full privileges of peers of Great Britain was established.

The duke had married, to his second wife, Anne, daughter of lord Digby Gerrard, by Elizabeth sister to the earl of Macclesfield. Lady Gerrard was left by her husband’s will guardian to her daughter, whose fortune amounted to about £60,000; and while the duke courted her, he offered to content himself with that dowry, and bound himself in a bond of £10,000 to give her mother a relief of her guardianship two days after the marriage. This engagement, however, he not only declined to perform, but sought relief of his bond in chancery, which was so highly resented by lady Gerrard that she left all she had to her brother, and bequeathed to her child a legacy of five shillings, and a diamond necklace in case the duke should consent to give the release in question. This his grace persisted in withholding, and the earl of Macclesfield settled his estate, to the prejudice of the duchess of Hamilton, on another niece who had married the lord Mohun. The lawsuit to compel that nobleman, as executor of lady Gerrard, to give an account of his guardianship, was continued; and the feelings of the two parties were mutually much embittered in the course of the proceedings. Mohun was a man of violent temper, and in his youth accustomed himself to the most depraved society. When he was about twenty years of age, one of his companions murdered Mountford, a comedian in Drury Lane; and, the principal having absconded, Mohun was tried by the house of peers. Fourteen voices pronounced him guilty, but sixty-nine cleared him. So far, however, was the shameful situation in which he had been placed from reclaiming him, that he plunged again into the same courses, and seven years after was arraigned at the same bar on a similar accusation. This time, indeed, it was proved that his lordship had no participation in the crime, but had used some endeavours to prevent it. Thereafter he abstained, indeed, from dissolute and lawless brawls, but he carried into the pursuits of politics no small share of the heat which marked his early career. "It is true," says a contemporary writer, who seems to have been willing to excuse his faults, "he still loved a glass of wine with his friends; but he was exemplarily temperate when he had any business of moment to attend." His quarrelsome disposition was notorious, and the duke’s friends had been long apprehensive that a collision would take place, and repeatedly warned his grace to be on his guard. On the 11th of November, the two noblemen had a meeting at the chambers of Mr Orlebar, a master in chancery, in relation to the lawsuit, when every thing passed off quietly. Two days after, on the examination of a person of the name of Whitworth, who had been a steward to lady Gerrard, the duke was so provoked by the substance of his deposition, as openly to declare, "He had neither truth nor justice in him." To this lord Mohun rejoined, "He had as much truth as his grace." No further recrimination passed; another meeting was arranged for the Saturday following, and the duke, on retiring, made a low bow to Mohun, who returned it. There were eleven persons present, and none of them suspected any ill consequence from what had just taken place. His lordship, however, immediately sent a challenge to the duke, which was accepted. On the 15th of November, 1713, the day that had been fixed for a resumption of their amicable conference, they repaired to the Ring in Hyde Park, and, being both greatly exasperated, they fought with peculiar determination and ferocity. This is attested by the number and deadliness of the wounds on both sides. Lord Mohun fell and died on the spot. He had one wound mortal, but not immediately so, entering by the right side, penetrating through the belly, and going out by the iliac bone on the left side. Another dreadful gash, in which the surgeon’s hands met from opposite sides, ran from the groin on the left side down through the great vessels of the thigh. This was the cause of immediate death. There were some slighter incisions, and two or three fingers of the left hand were cut off. The duke’s body suffered an equal havoc, partly inflicted, it was alleged, by foul play. A cut in the elbow of the sword-arm severed the small tendons, and occasioned so much loss of blood as to be fatal. A wound in the left breast, between the third and fourth upper ribs, pierced downwards through the midriff and caul, sufficient to produce death, but not immediately. He had also a dangerous slash in the right leg. It is believed that the duke, after his right arm was disabled, being ambidexter, shifted his weapon, and killed Mohun with his left hand. The wound in his own breast was the last that was inflicted, and colonel Hamilton gave his oath that it was the sword of general Macartney, Mohun’s second, which dealt it. So strong was the presumption of the truth of this, that the general absconded, and when brought to trial in the ensuing reign, the evidence upon which he was acquitted still left the matter doubtful.

The death of two men of rank in so bloody a rencounter, was in itself enough to produce a strong feeling of horror in the public mind. The unfair play by which it was believed one of them had been sacrificed, filled every honourable bosom with indignation; and the agitation was increased by reports that the duke had fallen a victim to assassination instigated by political hatred. Immediately before the duel took place, he had been named ambassador extraordinary to Paris, with powers to effect an arrangement for the restoration of the exiled family on the death of the queen; and the party who were desirous of such a consummation, openly alleged that his death had been conspired by the whigs with a view to prevent it. This does not appear to have been the case, however true it may be that Mohun was a zealot in politics, and disreputable in his private character. The duke’s body was conveyed to Scotland for burial. The deplorable death of so amiable a nobleman spread a very general regret; a bill to prevent duelling was in consequence introduced into the house of commons, but it was dropt after the first reading.


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