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Hamilton FishHamilton Fish

Secretary of State who was responsible for settling four major international disputes, three of which directly involved the United States

Hamilton Fish was born in New York City, New York, on August 3, 1808. His father, Nicholas Fish, had been an officer in the Revolutionary War and was a prominent Federalist politician in New York State. He graduated from Columbia College in 1827, and was admitted to the bar in 1830.

Early Political Career

Fish was elected as a Whig to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1842, and served there from 1843 to 1845. He was a Whig candidate for Lieutenant Governor in New York in 1846, but was defeated by Addison Gardner, a Democrat. In 1847 he was elected to fill Gardner's seat after the latter was appointed to the State Court of Appeals; he served as Lieutenant Governor until January of 1849. He subsequently served one two-year term as Governor of New York before being elected to the U.S. Senate. In the Senate, he opposed the Kansas-Nebraska Act, and joined the Republican Party upon its formation. He left the Senate after one term, in 1857. During the Civil War, he served first on the New York City Union Defense Committee and then the Commission on Exchange of Prisoners.

Secretary of State

Named Secretary of State by President Ulysses S. Grant in 1869, Fish went on to serve through Grant's entire two-term administration. During his tenure in this position Fish was responsible for settling four major international disputes, three of which directly involved the United States.

The Alabama Claims involved the United States' claim for compensation from Great Britain due to damages caused to American shipping during the Civil War. The United States demanded compensation because several Confederate ships, including the Alabama, had been built in Britain in violation of that nation's neutrality declaration. According to terms of the Treaty of Washington (D.C.), signed in 1871, the dispute was arbitrated by an international commission, which decided in favor of the United States.

The San Juan Boundary Dispute concerned the ownership of Washington Sound, between British Columbia and the State of Washington, and of San Juan and other islands within it. The same Treaty of Washington which decided the Alabama Claims stipulated that this dispute was to be arbitrated by the Emperor of Germany, who decided in favor of the United States (over Great Britain).

The Virginius Affair began in November 1873, when Spain captured the American-owned vessel Virginius, which was transporting arms to Cuban insurgents, and executed 57 of its crew and passengers, including eight American citizens. Fish negotiated a settlement with Spain whereby that nation surrendered the Virginius and its survivors to the United States and made limited compensation.

In 1871, Fish presided over a peace conference in Washington, D.C., that ended sporadic warfare between Spain and the allied republics of Peru, Chile, Ecuador, and Bolivia.

In 1875, Fish virtually incorporated the Kingdom of Hawaii into the economic system of United States, thanks to a reciprocity treaty with the islands.

Fish was also an early proponent of the merit system in governmental service, and required that all candidates for consular service take civil-service examinations.

Hamilton Fish died in Garrison, New York, on September 7, 1893.

All three of Fish's sons became prominent in their own right: Nicholas served as an Ambassador to Belgium before becoming a banker; Hamilton, Jr., served as Assistant Secretary of the Treasury from 1903 to 1908 and as a Congressman from New York from 1909 to 1911; and Stuyvesant began serving with the Illinois Central Railroad in 1871 and served as the railroad's president from 1887 to 1906. Hamilton Fish III, son of Hamilton, Jr., was a well-respected Congressman from New York from 1919 to 1945.

SEE ALSO
New York City, New York
August 3
Revolutionary War
Columbia College
Kansas-Nebraska Act
Civil War
President Ulysses S. Grant
September 7

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The Robinson Library >> American History >> United States: General History and Description >> Late 19th Century, 1865-1900 >> Biography, A-Z

This page was last updated on August 02, 2017.