Hamilton, William Gerard (1729–96), chief secretary for Ireland, was born 28 January 1729 in London, the only son of William Hamilton (d. 1754), bencher of Lincoln's Inn, and his wife Helen, daughter of David Hay of Woodcockdale, Linlithgowshire, Scotland. After three years at Harrow school (1742–5) he matriculated (4 March 1745) at Oriel College, Oxford, though he seems not to have graduated. Coming into a sizeable patrimony on the death of his father (January 1754) he entered politics, and in April 1754 was elected MP for Petersfield, Hampshire, and allied with Henry Fox (1705–74). The assurance of his lengthy maiden speech in the commons on 13 November 1755 astonished contemporaries, keenly appreciative of the art of political rhetoric. Its effect was accentuated (as Hamilton hoped) by the deft way he slipped in and out of argument in order to respond to the floor. The whole performance was the result of assiduous rehearsal and memorisation: a later dictum of Hamilton's explained the effect to be obtained by tying in the most brilliantly written parts of a speech with ‘what has incidentally fallen in debate’, pretending to ‘hesitate and . . . boggle . . . then seem at last to hit upon the true thing’ (Gold, 1142).
Although later nicknamed ‘Single-speech’ Hamilton, he actually spoke six or seven times again in parliament in England and in Ireland. Fox was sufficiently impressed to secure his appointment in April 1756 as commissioner to the board of trade and plantations under George Montagu Dunk (qv), 2nd earl of Halifax, to stop his threatened defection to William Pitt (1708–78). In c.1759 he took on Edmund Burke (qv) as secretarial assistant and sometime tutor in his continuous programme of administrative studies, and became a close friend. When Halifax was appointed lord lieutenant of Ireland (3 April 1761), Hamilton became chief secretary. At the general election of 1761 he was elected MP for Killybegs, Co. Donegal (1761–8); he was also MP for Pontefract in England (1761–8). Taking Burke with him, he accompanied Halifax to Dublin in early October 1761. During the late summer he had already got to know John Hely-Hutchinson (qv) well, having organised a pension on his behalf and secured for him the post of prime serjeant. Several of his speeches during the first parliamentary session enthralled the Irish house of commons. His speech on the first reading of the annual supply bill (14 November 1761) played a part in getting the bill through, at a time when the administration was apprehensive of strong opposition. The widespread applause that greeted his speech in support of the government bill of February 1762 to provide for the embodiment of five additional battalions of foot to the Irish establishment may have fooled him, and English observers, into thinking that his ‘unexampled eloquence’ (Hardy, 81) had decisively turned the heads of Irish representatives in favour of the expense. But Hamilton had in reality been pushing at an open door, given the state of popular excitement. A draft copy of this speech shows that his oratorical method was less histrionic than was the fashion. He relied on the cumulative force of tightly patterned logical argument, cunningly interleaved with appeals to high self-sacrificing sentiment.
During the Munster Whiteboy disturbances of 1762 Hamilton took the judicious view that agrarianism reflected economic distress rather than radical ambition; Burke may have argued plausibly to this effect. It seems unlikely that Burke scripted Hamilton's set-piece speeches, as was once believed; but he was certainly indispensable as advisor and confidant. During 1762–3 Hamilton's political horizons were at their broadest. In August 1762, some months after Halifax was replaced as lord lieutenant by the duke of Northumberland (qv), he wished to continue as chief secretary and thus have comfortable scope for progress in England, assistance to Irish friends, and even the gradual consolidation of a powerful block of interest in the Irish commons sufficient to dominate government patronage.
Hamilton's acerbic tone and ‘indefatigable, meditative, mysterious’ airs repelled the ordinary Irish MP (Gold, 1141), though he was friendly with certain catholic gentry. His only significant coup came in May 1763 when he was granted the office of chancellor of the Irish exchequer by patent for life, a sinecure worth £2,000 a year. Storms broke over his head from October 1763, however, when Henry Flood (qv), a former admirer, called for debate in parliament on the abuses of appointment within an ‘enchanted circle’ (Kelly, 87). The administration was enabled to soothe patriot anger only at the cost of a promise never again to give office on such terms. By mid November 1763 Flood was sparring effectively in the Irish commons with Hamilton. Northumberland (who disliked Hamilton and made a scapegoat of him) made sure that his tenure as chief secretary was not renewed at the close of the session in May 1764. Hamilton cut a small figure back in Westminster, and when Burke decided in June to quit as his secretary to resume his literary career, they quarrelled bitterly, and Burke refused the pension of £300 arranged by Hamilton on his behalf in early 1763.
Hamilton represented a succession of boroughs, under different patrons, for the rest of his life (Old Sarum, Wareham, Wilton, Haslemere), but never again spoke in parliament after 1764. In the later 1760s he analysed the parliamentary mood for Lord Temple, tending to vote with the opposition from then until the early 1780s. There were unlikely rumours in 1770–71 that he was the author of the Letters from Junius. He rejected as inadequate proposals from the Irish administration in summer 1773 that he surrender the chancellorship of the exchequer in return for an equivalent pension for life, but agreed to these terms in April 1784, when John Foster (qv) was appointed. The gossip of the 1780s gave him the nickname that has survived, but many were puzzled that his talents had not been fulfilled in government. The main reason may have been the evident want of practicality with which he played the game of patronage, and his excessive subtlety in dealings with too many would-be sponsors. Halifax did not protect him in 1764, and the earl of Pembroke wearied of his manoeuvres in 1789. He died, unmarried, on 16 July 1796 in Upper Brook St., London, and is buried in St Martin-in-the-Fields church. Remarks by him on politics and public affairs were gathered posthumously by Edmund Malone (qv).