Governor, secretary of the navy. Hamilton was born in St. Paul’s Parish on October 16, 1762, the son of Archibald Hamilton and Rebecca Branford. He received instruction from a private tutor in Charleston until 1778, when he left the city to join a local militia company. During the Revolutionary War, Hamilton served in militia units commanded by Francis Marion and William Harden. He participated in several significant actions, including the siege of Savannah (1779), the Battle of Camden (1780), and the capture of Fort Balfour (1781). After the war Hamilton took up planting rice and indigo in St. Paul’s and St. Bartholomew’s Parishes. By 1788 he owned at least thirty-eight slaves and 1,602 acres of land. On October 10, 1782, he married Mary Wilkinson, and the couple eventually had at least six children.
Well positioned by his military service and family connections, Hamilton turned to politics in the postwar years. He served one term in the General Assembly as a representative from St. Paul’s Parish from 1787 to 1789. As a delegate to the South Carolina ratification convention in 1788, Hamilton voted in favor of the federal Constitution. He then represented St. Bartholomew’s Parish for three terms in the state Senate during the 1790s, during which time he became a Democratic-Republican in contrast to the Federalist leanings of many of his lowcountry contemporaries. He was an elector for Thomas Jefferson in the 1800 presidential election. While serving as state comptroller of finance, Hamilton was elected governor of South Carolina by the General Assembly on December 10, 1804. During his two-year tenure he advocated military preparedness through improvements to state militia laws and coastal defenses. He also called for a revision of the penal code, requesting that the state’s “old sanguinary provincial system” be replaced with a penitentiary system that would provide inmates “time for reflection and amendment.” He also urged the General Assembly to ban the Atlantic slave trade, which had been reopened in 1803. Legislators resisted Hamilton’s request, however, and the trade remained open until Congress closed it permanently in 1808.
In 1809 President James Madison selected Hamilton to be his secretary of the navy as part of an effort to achieve regional balance in his cabinet appointments. Hamilton proved an inexperienced but competent naval administrator. He advocated fiscal restraint and general military preparedness, including the enlargement of the seventeen-ship U.S. Navy. His one lasting success was in securing congressional support for the creation of a system of naval hospitals in 1811. When war broke out with Britain in 1812, Hamilton, fearing the tiny U.S. Navy would be destroyed, advised Madison to order all vessels to port. He was overruled and Madison implemented a plan to harass British merchant ships. At a presidential ball to celebrate the surrender of HMS Macedonia, Hamilton appeared so drunk that Madison requested his resignation. Hamilton subsequently resigned on December 31, 1812. He died at Beaufort on June 30, 1816, and was buried at a private cemetery in Beaufort District.
Bailey, N. Louise, Mary L. Morgan, and Carolyn R. Taylor, eds. Biographical Directory of the South Carolina Senate, 1776–1985. 3 vols. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1986.