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A DISTINGUISHED citizen of Albany, whose fame as a lawyer, a scholar and a statesman extends far beyond the limits of his residence, is the Hon. Hamilton Harris. Born at Preble, Cortland county, N. Y.,on the 1st of May, 1820, he passed his boyhood amidst the beautiful natural scenery of his native place, engaging in the healthful exercises, sports and pastimes of a life in the country. His father, Frederick Waterman Harris, a native of the state of New York, but of English origin, was one of the sterling pioneers of Cortland county. His mother, whose maiden name was Lucy Hamilton, was of Scottish ancestry and possessed many of the noble qualities of that race.
The parents of Hamilton Harris had removed from Charleston, Montgomery county, N. Y., in the year 1808 to Preble, and settled on a farm of several hundred acres. This large farm presented a rich and varied surface of hill and valley and plain, and was carefully cultivated and improved by the elder Harris. Near the old house yearly bloomed gardens of flowers, while orchards rich with autumnal fruits formed a leading attraction of the delightful spot. Here the happy days of the youth of Hamilton Harris were spent in laying the foundation of a strong constitution, and in receiving his first lessons in a literary cases, both far and near Ten years after the formation of this partnership Mr. Cochrane died, but Mr. Harris and Mr. Reynolds continued their association during a period of eight years, when the grave closed over the remains of Mr. Reynolds, a man eminent in his profession and fascinating in his social qualities. Since Mr. Reynolds’ death, Mr. Harris has continued the practice of his profession in association with his son Frederick, and with William P. Rudd, which firm has as extensive a practice as any in the country, being largely engaged for corporations. Mr. Harris has for a number of years been employed in the defense of most of the suits brought against railroad corporations in this county.
In 1853 Mr. Harris was elected district attorney of Albany County, serving in this capacity till January i, 1857. Here his legal talents .shown forth in great lustre. He was, indeed, one of the ablest and most fearless district attorneys the county ever had. He conducted several noted cases with great learning, adroitness and success, among which was the argument in the case of People v. Hendrickson indicted for the murder of his wife by poison in 1853. He conducted on the part of the people the several trials of McCann for the murder of his wife in 1856; the murder cases of People V. Phelps, People v. McCrosseti, People v. Diinnigan, People v. Cummings, and defended in the murder case of People v. Reiman. In many memorable and important civil cases Mr. Harris has won great distinction throughout the state by the able manner in which he conducted them, and the deep legal research and the profound general learning which he displayed.
In 1884 Mr. Harris argued the case of William McDonald arraigned at the bar of the senate for refusing to answer questions before a legislative body; and he successfully conducted the case of Judge Westbrook before the senate committee in 1882,
While carrying on an extensive law practice he early turned his attention to the field of politics. In the autumn of 1850 he was elected member of assembly from the county of Albany. He became on the formation of the republican party one of its strongest champions. As a member of the republican state committee from 1862 to 1864, and chairman of the republican state committee from 1864 to 1870, he displayed fine executive abilities in the management of political affairs, taking a prominent part in often successfully guiding the republican ship of state over boisterous seas into the haven of peace and triumph. In a political sense he is a grand master-builder, whose skill is remarkable, whose plans are perfect, whose resources are prolific, and whose finished work commands the admiration of his party.
When the erection of the new capitol, greatly through the persistent labors of Mr. Harris, was decided upon by the legislature of 1865, he was elected president of a new board of capitol commissioners, and served with marked ability and untiring diligence until 1875, when he resigned. In the autumn of 1875 he was elected to the state senate, and at once took a leading part in the deliberations of that body. Reelected by a large majority in 1877, he won still higher senatorial honors during his second term, indicating the possession of true legislative qualities, as a close thinker, a bold leader, a skillful organizer, and a ready debater. His championship in the senate of popular and higher education was appreciated by the friends of education throughout the state and recognized by the legislature by his election, in March, 1885, to the office of a regent of the university of the state of New York.
Amidst all his arduous and varied efforts as a lawyer and a politician, Mr. Harris has found time to exhibit his literary tastes and fine culture on the platform before large and appreciative audiences. Among the most noted of his published literary addresses were his admirable lectures on ” Politics and Literature,” delivered before the Young Men’s association of Albany in 1880, and on “The Tower of London,” delivered before the same association in 1878. His tribute to the memory of John Morrissey in the senate, his eulogy on Lyman Tremain and his tribute to James A. Garfield were all expressed in the most appropriate, touching and beautiful language.
A man of handsome and commanding presence, of sound physical constitution, and of capacious intellect, he has the power to sway an audience with his strong, persuasive eloquence. As a forensic and political orator, Mr. Harris occupies a high position in the history of our city, our state and country. His popularity is well merited. Logical in argument, brilliant in speech, exhaustive in research, when stirred to the depths of his heart by the greatness of his theme, there is a magnetism about his whole manner which it is difficult to resist. His clear, concise, vigorous sentences fall like the hammer and chisel of a skilled sculptor on the rude stone, removing obstructions, smoothing down its rough surface, and shaping the whole block into a perfect, admirable statue.
Mr. Harris has a great knowledge of human nature, a keen perception of character, discernment of motive, and is sure and rapid in his judgment of individuals, which enables him in dealing with men to address himself to their feelings, interests, biases and prepossessions. He is a fluent speaker, with an easy colloquial manner, and the art of his advocacy is exhibited in clear and simple appeals to the understanding; in sinking the professional character of the advocate, elevating the merits of his case, adapting his suggestions and inferences to the opinions or prejudices of the audience and speaking very earnestly on points useful to his case without any apparent sophistry, and passing easily over others that are hurtful to it in a way the best calculated to draw.observation from the difficulties he has to deal with. While he is really eloquent, he abstains from all attempts at oratorical display, and concerns himself little about gesture or declamation.
Since his comparative retirement from the political field, Mr. Harris has established one of the largest and most remunerative law practices in this city or state. He is now the leading counsel for the New York Central and Hudson River Railroad Company, and the Boston and Albany Railroad Company, for which companies he has won a large number of important cases. The uniform success which has marked his efforts in the conduct of such suits has also caused his professional services to be sought after by other railroad companies, so that his legal practice has become far more attractive to him than the warfare of politics. He has the reputation in his profession of being cool, wary and adroit in the trial of cases, and is distinguished by his skill in cross-examination, and his ability as an advocate.
Mr. Harris’ love of general literature is shown by his choice private library, which contains all the principal works of eminent English and American statesmen, orators, poets, jurists, and scholars, as well as the best writings in almost every department of human learning. It is one of the most valuable collections in Albany, an extensive description of which the author gave some years ago in the New York Evening Post, and which will form an appropriate conclusion of this memoir.
The Hon. Hamilton Harris has spent many years in bringing together one of the most useful general collections of books that any professional or literary man could desire, numbering about 3,500 volumes. His shelves are not crowded with a great many exceedingly rare or curious works in costly binding, but they display a remarkable richness in contributions to general literature in all its departments. It is a miscellaneous library particularly suitable to the tastes and requirements of a man of broad culture and refined taste in universal learning, who is thoroughly familiar with the knowledge of jurisprudence and the important events daily occurring in the arena of political life. These cherished volumes, full of entertaining and valuable information, and reflecting the thoughts of the best writers on subjects not directly connected with the legal profession, are admirably adapted to enlarge the views and add to the accomplishment of any strictly professional man.
There are three departments of literature in the library of Mr. Harris which are worthy of special notice on account of their completeness and excellence – those of history, biography, and statesmanship. In the historical department stand in graceful and appropriate order the complete works of the great masters and students of history from the earliest periods to the present day, embracing among hundreds of other names those of Herodotus, Thucydides, Xenophon, Livy, Tacitus, Niehbur, Grote, Arnold, Hume, Gibbon, Macaulay, Carlyle, Clarendon, Lamartine, Lieber, Schlegel, Schiller, Neander, Sir James Mackintosh, Hallam, Guizot, Thiers, Sir James Stephen, Alison, Jesse, Froissart, Hazlitt, Green, Bancroft, Prescott, Motley and Irving.
In biographical literature the library is the most ample and complete one in Albany. More than five hundred authors of memoirs of eminent persons here display the fertility of their genius in enriching and illustrating, often with the charms of graceful and graphic pens, this useful and attractive branch of human learning. Biography has a peculiar charm for Mr. Harris, and he has accordingly made a specialty in collecting volumes of this nature, embracing the lives of kings, emperors, presidents, orators, statesmen, historians, poets, novelists, politicians and men of letters, written by those who have been received as standard authorities on the subjects of which they treat. To mention a few whose personal, political or literary career has been thus illustrated we have here the names of Sir Thomas Moore, Sir Walter Raleigh, Lord Bacon, John Milton, Algernon Sidney, Oliver Cromwell, John Hampden, Sir John Eliot, Earl of Clarendon, Lord Bolingbroke, Sir Robert Walpole, the Earl of Chatham, Edmund Burke, Horace Walpole, Charles James Fox, Richard Brinsley Sheridan, William Pitt, George Canning, Dr. Samuel Parr, Richard Porson, John Howard, Duke of Buckingham, Lord North, Granville Sharp, Sir William Jones, Dr. Johnson, Sir James Mackintosh, Oliver Goldsmith, Cardinal Richelieu, Talleyrand, Metternich, Montaigne, the Napoleons, De Stael, Edward Gibbon, Goethe, Addison, the Georges, Chateaubriand, Erasmus, Wilberforce, Sir Isaac Newton, Sir Joshua Reynolds, Lord Hardwicke, Lord Eldon, Lord Brougham, Lord Lyndhurst, Lord Denman, Lord Campbell, Sir Samuel Romilly, Wellington, Frederick the Great, Bismarck, Lord Melbourne, Sir Robert Peel, Lord Palmerston, Lord Russell, Lord Jeffery, the Earl of Beaconsfield, Lord Lytton, Richard Cobden, Garrick, Siddons, Kemble, Kean, Walter Savage Landor, Charles Townshend, Voltaire, Cardinal Wolsey, Francis Xavier, Fouche, Cavour, John Adams, John Q. Adams, Jefferson, James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, John Jay, Aaron Burr, Washington, the Clintons, Patrick Henry, Richard Henry Lee, William Wirt, William Pinckney, Gouverneur Morris, Edward Livingston, William Livingston, Philip Schuyler, John C. Calhoun, Henry Clay, John Randolph, Joseph Story, Rufus Choate and Daniel Webster, with hosts of others of rank and world-wide renown. Here may also be found the works of eminent foreign and American statesmen, orators, jurists and scholars from Lord Bacon to Edward Everett. These are always presented in the best editions in excellent bindings, and form a very important part of the collection. For want of space we can only mention the following authors, whose complete works adorn the shelves of this notable library: Lord Bacon, Burke, Grattan, Bolingbroke, Erskine, Chesterfield, Hallam, Humboldt, Landor, De Tocqueville, De Ouincy, De Stael, De Lamartine, Darwin, Fielding, John Forster, Scott, Andrew Fuller, Froissart, Fenelon, Robert Hall, Victor Hugo, Lamb, Montagu, Massillon, Montaigne, Machiavelli, Rousseau, Rochefoucauld, Rabelais, Coleridge, Pascal, Mirabeau, Schlegel, Schiller, Smollett, Sterne, Talfourd, Talleyrand, Jeremy Taylor, Benjamin Frankliii, the Adams, Jefferson, Madison, Fisher, Ames, the Clintons, Webster, Clay, Sumner, Story, Woodbury, Seward, Emerson, Hawthorne, Irving and Everett. Mr. Harris, it is well known, is a great admirer of the writings of Alexander Hamilton, and has obtained the earliest as well as the latest editions of his works, the various memoirs of his life, and all the smaller publications regarding the history and genius of that consummate orator, statesman and financier.
Of illustrated volumes Mr. Harris has a very choice collection, embracing principally those on architecture, the towers, castles, abbeys, and famous public buildings of Europe. Of this class he has splendid copies of Roberts’ ” Holy Land,” from drawings made on the spot by David Roberts, R. A., with historical descriptions by William Brochedon, F. R. S., illustrated by Louis Haghe, two volumes imperial folio, full morocco, gilt edges, London, 1842; ” Egypt and Nubia,” by the same author, in the same size and style, two volumes, London, 1846. Also, Racinet’s ” Les Costumes Historiques,” published by Firmin, Didot & Cie.; in four volumes folio.
The law library of Mr. Harris contains about 3,000 volumes selected with particular regard to the everyday wants of the lawyer. He has many books illustrative of the literature of the law; and his collection of books and pamphlets on celebrated trials, both in England and America, is one of the most remarkable and complete that can be found in the state. In fact, it may truly be said, there is scarcely a trial of any note that has taken place in this country or in Europe but what a report of it may be found in this library.
Mr. Harris has prepared a complete alphabetical catalog of his volumes, which appear to have been selected with a view to practical utility, without special regard to the costliness of the binding.
Mr. Harris must heartily indorse the sentiments of the celebrated John Mitchell Mason, D. D., of New York – a great lover of books – in his defining what a library is – “It is an army – the books are my soldiers. I am the centurion. I call them down and make them fight for me.”