Hamilton, James (1838–1913), 2nd duke of Abercorn and MP, was born 24 August 1838 in Brighton, Sussex, eldest son of James Hamilton (qv), 1st duke of Abercorn, and his wife Louisa Jane, second daughter of the 6th duke of Bedford. He was educated at Harrow School and at Christ Church, Oxford, graduating BA (1860) and MA (1865). Though one of two conservative representatives for the Abercorn stronghold of Co. Donegal from 1860, he rarely attended the house of commons during the first part of the 1860s, having inherited royal favour and court office from his father. After taking part in a mission to the Danish court in 1865, he accompanied the prince of Wales on a state visit to Russia in early 1866, and was lord of the bedchamber to the prince (1866–86). Irish landed political equipoise had been little shaken by October 1868, when he went without fear of contest to the hustings in Donegal, with an affable appeal to catholic voters to support a principled stance against disestablishment of the Church of Ireland in order to secure the foundations of society. Again, in the general election of February 1874 he found that nationalist feeling had made little headway among the Donegal electorate and, despite the emergence of contenders for the county interest, he headed the poll on the strength of a vague statement of respect for continuance of the Ulster custom. Scenting future difficulty, however, he unsuccessfully urged the tory party in June 1874 to prepare its own amendments to the 1870 land act.
By early 1880 the bonds of sentiment between tory and liberal unionists had unravelled, and Hamilton affirmed the unpopularity of tory government in the north to the party whip, explaining that the old fear of ‘popery’, among presbyterian voters in particular, was now strongly outweighed by an appetite for agrarian reform. Though he was the sole tory candidate presented for Donegal at the general election in April, he found that emollient promises of fair hearing for the tenant case did not avail to preserve his seat. During 1884 and 1885 he endeavoured to mend fences between tory and liberal unionists in north-west Ulster, and managed to acquire the backing of the Tyrone Liberal Association for his selection as north Tyrone candidate for the forthcoming elections, on the basis of a deal in which the proposed conservative candidate gave way to a liberal in east Donegal. He was replaced as candidate by his younger brother, Lord Ernest Hamilton (qv), when he succeeded to the dukedom on the death of his father in October 1885.
A pronounced sense of urgency in the face of the forthcoming introduction of the first home rule bill in 1886 prompted unceasing attempts on his part at regrouping unionist forces. He played an active role in the quiet establishment of the Irish Loyal and Patriotic Union (ILPU) in Dublin in May 1885, specifically an effort to set up a vehicle for the non-sectarian and cross-party expression of unionist conviction, north and south. When the ILPU announced itself publicly in late 1885, seeking to set up an independent unionist body in parliament, the primacy of northern middle-class and Orange elements in the unionist alliance was reflected in the failure of Abercorn's bid for leadership. The struggle for control of unionism played itself out over several decades, however, and the reckoning was delayed by the success with which Abercorn established a consultative intimacy with the inner circles of tory power in early 1886. In January he founded the North-West Loyalist Registration and Electoral Association, with the Tyrone liberal, E. T. Herdman, in order to intensify a registration programme in the area, and to coordinate the different wings of local unionism. On the one hand, Abercorn discovered that there was great difficulty in raising subscriptions in the area, and as a consequence electoral and registration funding tended to fall on his shoulders; on the other, liberal and Orange unionists resisted the conservative embrace.
He had a less frustrating task trying to bring about concerted action by the unionist peerage in the house of lords. During March and April 1887 he led the Irish landed assault on a proposed amendment to the 1881 land act, securing the removal of disadvantageous clauses protecting bankrupt tenancies, while bowing to the inevitable with regard to the introduction of a triennial revision of judicial rents under the land courts, on condition that limits to possible reduction be set for fear that ‘the door would be open to absolute confiscation’ (quoted in Curtis, 340), as he put it. It was no surprise that he was one of the principal agents in the formation of the hard-line Irish Landowners Convention (ILC), set up in early 1888 to defend the rights of landed property in Ireland, was elected its first president, and held the office for at least a decade.
Abercorn kept continuously abreast of the currents of political feeling within the inner circle of conservative politicians through correspondence with the marquess of Salisbury, among others. During the campaign against the second home rule bill of 1893 he struck a chord with the mass of unionism by the rigid dignity of the phrase ‘We will not have home rule’, enunciated first at a farmers’ meeting in Enniskillen, but with greatest plangency and effect at the enormous convention held in Belfast on 17 June 1892, where he got the 12,000 people attending to raise their hands and repeat it after him. It became a somewhat unlikely slogan over the next two decades. In the spring of 1893 Abercorn presided at a huge meeting in opposition to home rule at the Albert Hall, London. He mustered effective opposition against the bill in the house of lords, helping to bring it to defeat that year. During the early 1890s he carried on a running battle against radical unionism, particularly in the shape of T. W. Russell (qv), whom he characterised as a ‘vicious, little, teetotal, radical, Scotchman’ (Gailey, 155), and his fellow campaigners for compulsory land purchase.
The comprehensive exercise of patronage through manipulation of his contacts within the conservative ruling caste was one of the instruments by which he attempted to hold the ground against populist unionism, with its threat to principles more fundamental than the union. While this ironically remained a standing option with regard mainly to superior office (the appointment of Sir John Ross (qv) as a land judge in 1896 being one of his coups that year), the increasing regulation of clerical and other lesser public offices by competitive examination made patronage at this level much more difficult. Even his genial mastery of the unionist peerage within the house of lords proved of diminishing effect. Despite frequent tactical meetings at Hampden House in late 1896, and the achievement of getting 138 peers to gather and defeat on six separate divisions a bill designed to enhance tenant security, he was ultimately unable to halt the legislation, for which his brother, Lord Claud Hamilton, voted in the house of commons. Some compensation was offered when Salisbury encouraged calls in April 1897 by the ILC for a commission of inquiry into the operation of the 1881 land act. Shortly after the report of the commission came out on the landed side, Abercorn made known, in private audience with Salisbury, landed and broad unionist discomfort with the provisions of the local government bill of November 1897. Swayed as much by the aura of intimacy and courtesy projected by Salisbury as by any definite promise of safeguards to either interest, Abercorn warmly supported the progress of the bill in early 1898. A unionist strategy based on fellow-feeling within a decaying caste was clearly open to exploitation by government more than by the Abercorn lobby. By the middle of 1899 the ILC under Abercorn had extracted a tithes rent charge act of minor assistance to the landed interest out of the largely redundant Fry report. Abercorn rejected an invitation to the land conference proposed by John Shawe-Taylor (qv) in late 1902, but proved ‘pleasantly surprised’ by the text of its report and moved a resolution at a meeting of the ILC on 7 January 1903 that it should receive the serious consideration of the government. Accordingly he oversaw the broad cooperation of the landed right wing with the progress of the Wyndham land bill of 1903, intervening to carry through a crucial compromise amendment by John Redmond (qv) at a meeting of the ILC in the Westminster Palace Hotel on 20 June.
Chairman of Tyrone county council from 1899, Abercorn scotched efforts by nationalists in late 1904 to turn a fledgling general council of county councils into a forum for discussion of general political matters, and led the withdrawal of northern council delegates. Several months later he was elected the first president of the Ulster Unionist Council, established at Glengall St., Belfast, on 3 March 1905, as a link between Ulster unionists and their MPs. Increasingly no more than a figurehead for the movement and laid low by bouts of illness, he now appeared less often on protest platforms. Presiding to nostalgic acclaim at Carson's Londonderry meeting of 20 September 1912, and present among those delegates assembled to consider schemes for an independent Ulster at the Ulster Hall on 24 September, he was too ill to sign publicly the Ulster Solemn League and Covenant several days later, signing instead a copy of the document at his residence in Baronscourt, Co. Tyrone. He died 3 January 1913 at 61 Green St., Mayfair, London. His body was returned by steamer and train to Baronscourt, where he was buried to the sound of a Scottish lament by the Hamilton pipe band.
He married (7 January 1869) Mary Anne Curzon, fourth daughter of Richard William Penn, 1st Earl Howe. They had seven sons and two daughters.