Named for his father's friend Alexander Hamilton, and heir to the Federalist tradition, Fish naturally gravitated to politics as a Whig. He served as U.S. Representative (1843–45) and was elected lieutenant governor of New York in 1847 and governor, for a two-year term, in 1848. From 1851 to 1857, Fish was a U.S. Senator, serving on the foreign relations committee in 1855–57. A moderate antislavery man, he opposed both abolitionist and proslavery excesses and deplored the breakup of the Whigs as a national party. Slow to join the new Republican party, he lost his national political standing but became prominent in civic activities in New York.
Fish was one of many to lionize the victorious Civil War general Ulysses S. Grant, but his appointment (Mar., 1869) as Grant's Secretary of State, to succeed the grossly miscast Elihu B. Washburne, came as a surprise. He accepted reluctantly and expected to hold the office for only a few months, but actually remained in the cabinet longer than any other member, serving through both of Grant's administrations.
Fish was one of the ablest of U.S. Secretaries of State. Grant was much impressed with Fish's character and ability, and he called upon Fish's aid in the administration of domestic affairs as well. Fish's greatest achievement as Secretary was bringing about the treaty (see Washington, Treaty of) that paved the way for settlement of the Alabama claims and other long-standing disputes with Great Britain. This was accomplished amid great difficulties, especially those offered by the vigorously anti-British chairman of the Senate foreign relations committee, Charles Sumner.
The period was one of constant trouble with Spain, arising out of the Ten Years War, and Fish was hard pressed to persuade Grant not to recognize the belligerency of Cuba. Under Fish's vigilant eye filibustering expeditions from the United States to Cuba were kept to a minimum, but the Virginius affair in 1873 nearly brought the nation, long sympathetic to the Cuban cause, to war with Spain. To secure Grant's support of other policies Fish supported without enthusiasm the President's unsuccessful project to annex the Dominican Republic.
See A. Nevins, Hamilton Fish: The Inner History of the Grant Administration (1936, repr. 1957).
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