Open main menu

Hamilton, James (1769-1829) (DNB00)

HAMILTON, JAMES (1769–1829), author of the Hamiltonian system of teaching languages, was born in 1769. He was taught for four years at a school in Dublin kept by Beatty and Mulhall, two Jesuits. He went into business, and for about three years before the revolution was living in France. In 1798 he was established as a merchant in Hamburg, where he had been made free of the city and had bought a house in the Neuen Burg. Here he applied for instruction in German to General D'Angeli, a French emigré. D'Angeli, without using a grammar, translated to him word for word a German book of anecdotes, parsing as he proceeded. After about twelve lessons Hamilton found that he could read any easy German book. Beatty and Mulhall had had a somewhat similar system. Hamilton already knew Latin and some Greek, and was well read in French and English. About this time he lodged in German houses in Leipzig and other towns. Removing to Paris he, in conjunction with the banking-house of Karcher & Co., did considerable business with England at the time of the peace of Amiens. At the rupture of the peace he was 'detained,' and his business in Hamburg and Paris was ruined. He went to New York in October 1815, with an idea of becoming a farmer and manufacturer of potash. At the last moment he changed his mind and determined to teach languages there on the principle of D'Angeli. His plan, he says, was 'to teach instead of ordering to learn.' He began at once with a word-for-word translation, and left instruction in grammar till a later stage. His first pupils were three clergymen and Van Ness, judge of the district court, and his whole time was soon engaged in teaching. His pupils, of whom he had about seventy in his first year, read French easily in twenty-four lessons of four hours each. His charge was a dollar a lesson. In September 1816 he went to Philadelphia, and gave his first lecture in explanation of the 'Hamiltonian System.' Here he also printed his first reading-book, chapters i–iii. of St. John's Gospel, in French, with an interlinear and analytical translation. At a later time several 'books professing to be adapted to his system were published without his authority, and which, as he complained, did not make a teacher and a dictionary superfluous. Among the books with literal and interlinear English translations published by Hamilton were: 1. (in Greek) The Gospels of St. Matthew and St. John. 2. (in Latin, costing 4s. each) 'St. John's Gospel,' Lhomond's 'Epitome Historiæ Sacræ,' 'Æsop's Fables,' 'Eutropius,' 'Aurelius Victor,' 'Phædrus,' 3. (in French) 'St. John's Gospel' (nine editions), Perrin's 'Fables.' 4. (in German) Campe's 'Robinson Crusoe.' 5. (in Italian) 'St. John's Gospel,' In 1817 Hamilton left Philadelphia for Baltimore, his wife and daughters teaching with him. The professors at Baltimore College ridiculed him in a play called 'The New Mode of Teaching,' acted by their pupils. Hamilton went to the play, and three days after published it in a newspaper with his own comments. The college, he says, was soon without a pupil, while the Hamiltonian school at Baltimore had more than a hundred and sixty pupils and twenty teachers. He was obliged by ill-health and pecuniary difficulties to leave the school to his teachers, and went on to Washington, and then to Boston, where he could only obtain four pupils. A professor at the Boston University attacked him as a charlatan, but a committee examined and approved his four pupils, and he soon had two hundred. Hamilton also taught at the colleges of Schenectady, Princeton, Yale, Hartford, and Middleburg, and often had the teachers as well as their pupils in his classes. In 1822 he went to Montreal, and then to Quebec. At Montreal he instructed the gaoler, and successfully taught reading to eight ignorant English prisoners there (on the method adopted see History, Principles, &c., of the Hamiltonian Method, pp. 13, 14). He left America in July 1823, and came to London, where in eighteen months he had more than six hundred pupils learning different languages, and seven teachers. He left his school to the teachers, and afterwards taught his system in Liverpool, Manchester, Edinburgh, Dublin, Belfast, and at least twenty other places. In London he taught at his house, No. 25 Cecil Street, Strand, and then in Gower Street. As a rule his classes were for adults only. His best classes he found to be those numbering from fifty to a hundred pupils. Some fathers and grandfathers, who had stipulated 'not to be called upon to recite' publicly, soon proved the most lively pupils in the class. From the middle of May to 16 Nov. 1825 (six months) he had ten very ignorant parish-school boys to live in his house. At the end of this period they passed a fair examination in translating Latin (the Gospel of St. John and 'Cæsar's Commentaries'), and also in French and Italian. The expenses of this experiment were partly borne by John Smith, M.P. Hamilton's system and his plan of advertising (on which by 1826 he had spent more than 1,000l.) were much attacked by school-masters and others. A good-humoured and forcibly written defence of his system by Sydney Smith (a stranger to him) appeared in the 'Edinburgh Review' for June 1826 (reprinted in Essays of Sydney Smith). The Hamiltonian system was also defended in the 'Westminster Review.' Hamilton died at Dublin, whither he had gone to lecture, on 16 Sept. 1829 (Gent. Mag. 1829, vol. xcix. pt. ii. p. 477), in his sixtieth year. Among the writers who have written on his system are Alberte, Donate, Hartnell, Santagnello, Schwarz, Tafel, and Wurm (see also Fletcher, Cyclopædia of Education, s.v. 'Hamilton, J.')

[Hamilton's History, Principles, Practice, and Results ... of the Hamiltonian System, Manchester, 1829, 12mo; Brit. Mus. Cat.]

W. W.