US GenWeb

This biography is from Landmarks of Albany County, New York, edited by Amasa J. Parker of Albany, N. Y., Syracuse, N. Y.; D. Mason & Co. Publishers, 1897.

Hamilton Harris

No name is more conspicuously associated with the bar of Eastern New York than that of Hon. Hamilton Harris, of Albany, and few lawyers have brought to their profession a more energetic mind, a more fortunate combination of legal and scholarly acquirements, or stronger or more practical administrative abilities. Mr. Harris is of English and Scotch descent, his parents being natives of this State and pioneers of Preble, Cortland county, where he was born May 1, 1820. Receiving a good preliminary education in the common schools of his native town and at the Homer and Albany Academies, he was graduated from Union College in 1841, and while yet a student manifested a strong inclination for the law. His collegiate career marked him as a classical scholar, and he distinguished himself at the commencement exercises by a very able and admirably delivered address. Upon graduation he entered the law offices of his brother, Hon. Ira Harris, afterward one of the ablest and most eminent of the judiciary of the State and a United States senator, of Albany. Mr. Harris was admitted to the bar in 1845 and immediately began active practice in the capital city, where he has ever since resided. He rapidly acquired a high reputation as an able, accomplished lawyer, and for many years has been a leader of the Albany bar. In 1848 he formed a copartnership with Hon. Hooper C. Van Vorst, which was dissolved in 1853 by the latter's removal to New York city, where he became a judge of the Superior Court. Soon afterward he associated himself with Hon. Samuel G. Courtney. In 1857 he became a partner of Hon. Clark B. Cochrane and Hon. John H. Reynolds, both of whom were elected to Congress during this connection. This firm, which was one of the strongest legal copartnerships that ever existed in Albany, ended with Mr. Cochrane's death in 1807, but Mr. Harris and Mr. Reynolds continued until the latter's death in 1875. Mr. Harris has now associated with him in practice his son Frederick, William P. Rudd, and Edmund C. Knickerbocker.

In the fall of 1853 Mr. Harris was elected district attorney of Albany county, and served until January 1, 1857. During his administration of that office he conducted a number of noted crimmal trials, promment among them being The People vs. Hendrickson, 10 N. Y. Reports, 13; McCann, 16 N. Y. Reports, 58; and those of Phelps, McCrossen, Dunningan, and Curaraings. As a pleader Mr. Harris has won great distinction throughout the State. He masters every detail of fact, pays close attention to the conduct of a case, and though gruff, and, to a certain extent, dictatorial, is kind, dignified, quiet, and honest. He is earnest and powerful, imbued with the highest principles of the law, and possesses a winning personality. The numerous reported cases in the Supreme Court and the Court of Appeals, argued by him show in some degree the extent and the magnitude of the legal business in which he has been engaged and the important questions of law which he has argued.

Early in life Mr. Harris became prominent in the Whig party in Albany county, advocating its measures on the platform and with his pen with such fidelity and ability that he soon was recognized as a leader in both county and State. In 1850 he was elected member of assembly, and was largely instrumental in securing the State Library and the improvement of the State Capitol. He was also, during that session, a member of the joint committee of six to call State conventions and construct a new party platform, which was one of the first steps in the formation of the Republican party, of which he has always been one of the strongest and ablest champions. From 1862 to 1870 he was a member and from 1864 to 1870 chairman of the Republican State Committee, and from 1862 to 1864 he was also chairman of its Executive Committee. A prominent writer has said of him: "His keen intuitions and his rare skill as an organizer, with a singular union of discretion with boldness, render him a natural leader of men." As a delegate to many State and National Conventions he was active and strongly influential in sustaining the measures of his party. Hon. James G. Blaine, in his "Twenty Years of Congress," after recounting the action of Mr. Harris in the National Convention of 1868, speaks of him as "a man of marked sagacity in political affairs." In 1865 Mr. Harris was elected president of a new Board of Capitol Commissioners and served until 1875 with ability and success so marked that he has been frequently termed " the father" of that great measure which resulted in the erection of the present Capitol in Albany. A contemporary newspaper, in commentmg upon the subject, said; "Let the people of Albany remember that to Hamilton Harris more than to any other man they are indebted for the New Capitol from its inception in 1865 to its progress in 1879," while the Troy Daily Times editorially stated that he was " the father of this structure, which is to rank foremost among the majestic buildings of the world."

In 1875 Mr. Harris was elected to the State Senate, and as chairman of the Finance Committee, of the Committee on Joint Library, and of the Select Committee on Apportionment his labors were useful and exhaustive. He always took a prominent part in the discussion of leading public questions, and his arguments never failed to command respect and attention. In 1877 he was re-elected State senator by a large majority, and two years later he declined a re-election. Among his senatorial addresses which have passed into history are those touching the New State Capitol, on the question of convict labor, on the Grand Army bill, on the question of historical societies holding real estate for preservation and monumental purposes, on higher education, on sectarian appropriations, and on taxation. In 1884 he ran as one of the Republican electors on the State ticket.

Mr. Harris possesses keen literary taste and culture and great ability as a writer, lecturer, and public speaker. Several of his addresses have been published, notably "Politics and Literature," "The Tower of London," and "Self-Effort." He has a large and valuable library of general literature, numbering about 3,500 volumes, while his law library contains nearly as many more. On March 10, 1885, he was unanimously elected a member of the Regents of the University of the State of New York.

A man of handsome and commanding presence, of sound physical constitution, and of capacious intellect, Mr. Harris's popularity is well merited. As a forensic and political orator he occupies a high position in the history of the city, the State, and the country, and as a citizen he enjoys universal confidence and esteem. He has great knowledge of human nature and keen perception of character. His loyalty and patriotism are among his chief characteristics and he has won a lasting place in the history of his adopted city.

Send comments or suggestions to:
Debby Masterson

Go Back to Albany County Biographies
Go Back to Home Page