Columbians Ahead of Their Time
Hamilton Fish

Hamilton Fish

"If our country is worth dying for in time of war let us resolve that it is truly worth living for in time of peace."

Hamilton Fish (1808–93)
Columbia College 1827

One of New York's great statesmen, Hamilton Fish served as secretary of state under President Ulysses S. Grant. A lawyer by training and an enthusiastic Whig, he served single terms as a U.S. representative, lieutenant governor, governor, and U.S. senator. After the Whig party failed, he aligned with Republicans, supporting Abraham Lincoln and later Andrew Johnson and developing a friendship with Grant. Many observers were surprised nonetheless when Grant named Fish as secretary of state in March 1869, and in fact both men intended that Fish serve only briefly to lend Grant credibility after early missteps. But Fish proved a skilled diplomat and valuable adviser and remained in the position for the remainder of Grant's two terms, outlasting every other cabinet member. He was particularly lauded for helping to smooth American relations with Great Britain by negotiating a system to arbitrate disputes that stemmed from British actions during the Civil War. Fish also helped expand American trade opportunities in Asia, in the Caribbean, and with the then-independent nation of Hawaii, and tempered Grant's interest in annexing the Dominican Republic and aiding Cuban revolution against Spain. When Grant left office in 1877, Fish returned to his estate in the Hudson River valley. In the years that followed, he continued his long tenure as chairman of Columbia's trustees and also for a time was the president of the New-York Historical Society. A son, grandson, and great-grandson—all named Hamilton—would each serve in the U.S. House of Representatives.

Fish's father, Nicholas, an officer in the revolutionary army, named his son after his close friend Alexander Hamilton; his mother, Elizabeth, was a descendant of Peter Stuyvesant. An 1827 graduate of Columbia College, Fish served as a trustee for 53 years, from 1840 to 1849 and then from 1851 (as chairman from 1859) until the end of his life. Columbia Law School's Hamilton Fish Professorship of International Law and Diplomacy, created in the 1890s, was the first such position in the nation. Columbia historian Allan Nevins authored a biography of Fish that won the 1937 Pulitzer Prize.

Read more about Fish in the Columbia Encyclopedia.

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