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Joseph Gregoire de Roulhac Hamilton, 1878-1961

Source: From DICTIONARY OF NORTH CAROLINA BIOGRAPHY edited by William S. Powell. Copyright (c) 1979-1996 by the University of North Carolina Press. Used by permission of the publisher. www.uncpress.unc.edu

Joseph Grégoire de Roulhac (6 Aug. 1878-10 Nov. 1961), university professor, was born in Hillsborough, the son of Daniel Heyward and Frances Gray Roulhac Hamilton. After study at home, he prepared for college at the Sewanee Academy in Tennessee and was graduated from the University of the South with the M.A. degree in 1900. He studied at Columbia University (1902-4) with the distinguished historian, William Archibald Dunning, and was awarded the Ph.D. degree in American history in 1906.

Hamilton began his teaching career in 1901 at the Horner Military School in Oxford and was principal of the Wilmington High School (1904-6). With his appointment in 1906 as associate professor of history at The University of North Carolina, Hamilton began his long and productive career on the university faculty which was to last until his retirement in 1948. He became Alumni Professor and head of the History Department in 1908 and was named Kenan Professor of History and Government in 1920.

The university's History Department grew in stature under his leadership and emerged as one of the important centers for graduate work in American history. He resigned as its head in 1930 in order to devote his major attention to the Southern Historical Collection, of which he became founder and director in that year. He continued to teach one or two quarters each year until 1936, but thereafter gave his full attention to the Southern Historical Collection. Hamilton was an imaginative, dynamic, and stimulating teacher, and many of his former students who attained distinction as professional historians, lawyers, journalists, and public officials readily acknowledged his influence. He became widely known as a teacher and scholar, and taught in summer sessions at the University of Michigan (1928), Harvard University (1931), the University of Chicago (1933, 1934, 1936), and the University of Southern California (1939).

During his more than forty-year tenure at Chapel Hill, Hamilton contributed to the enrichment of the university in many ways. His years as secretary of the Historical Society of The University of North Carolina and his articles in the Carolina Magazine, Alumni Review, and university Extension Leaflets contributed to an awakening of interest in the state's history and encouraged wider public support for the university. Hamilton played an important part in the early development of the university's Institute for Research in Social Science, directed by Howard W. Odum. Thus it was fitting that in 1972 the new building housing the departments of history, political science, and sociology was named for Hamilton, who had been a key figure in the emergence of the modern social sciences at Chapel Hill.

Professor Hamilton participated in the educational programs of the War Department during World War I as director of the War Issues Course, Fourth District, Students Army Training Corps (1918); lecturer, citizenship unit, Army Educational Corps, American Expeditionary Force (1919); and consultant in general education to the war plans division, General Staff (1920-22). Although Hamilton covered the broad field of American history and government in his teaching, in his research and publications he concentrated primarily on North Carolina state history, the American Civil War, Reconstruction, and American biography. He was a prodigious worker, and he wrote rapidly and with ease. He was the author of about one hundred articles, an equal number of biographical sketches, five monographs, and one or more chapters in several cooperative works. His articles appeared in historical journals, scholarly reviews, and literary and popular magazines. His best known books are Reconstruction in North Carolina (1914), Party Politics in North Carolina, 1835-1860 (1916), North Carolina Since 1860 (1919), and biographies of Robert E. Lee (1917) and Henry Ford (1926). He edited Truth in History and Other Essays by William A. Dunning (1937) and fourteen volumes of documentary sources, including the correspondence and papers of Jonathan Worth, Thomas Ruffin, Abraham Lincoln, Thomas Jefferson, Randolph A. Shotwell, and William A. Graham. He was the editor of the James Sprunt Historical Publications from 1908 to 1924. Hamilton published many articles on governmental reforms in the state press, the most notable of which was "A Plea for a Constitutional Convention," published serially in the Raleigh News and Observer (19 Dec. 1912-19 Jan. 1913) and reprinted in several other newspapers and in pamphlet form.

Although Hamilton's contributions to teaching and scholarship entitled him to rank with the leading historians of his generation, he placed greater value on his establishment and development of the Southern Historical Collection which made The University of North Carolina the leading center for research in southern history. Under Hamilton's direction and as a result of his incomparable talents and skills as a collector, the collection became the largest single depository of nonpublic manuscripts in southern history and culture in existence. His work drew wide praise from other historians. Claude G. Bowers wrote that "no greater contribution to the truth of history has ever been attempted"; Douglas Freeman said that "all historical investigators were in eternal debt" to Hamilton; and Allan Nevins said that all historians would have reason to be grateful to him.

Throughout his career, Hamilton was active in professional associations and read numerous papers before scholarly meetings. He served as a member of several committees of the American Historical Association, including its Executive Council (1929-33). He was elected president of the North Carolina Literary and Historical Association in 1920, of the Southern Historical Association in 1943, and of the Historical Society of North Carolina in 1954.

He was elected to membership in Phi Beta Kappa by the mother chapter at the College of William and Mary, and he was awarded the Columbia University Medal of Honor (1932) and honorary degrees by the University of the South (1942), Washington and Lee University (1942), and The University of North Carolina (1957). In 1949, a group of his former students dedicated a volume of Essays in Southern History to him.

Hamilton was a member of the Episcopal church and of the Kappa Alpha fraternity. He was a Democrat with an active interest in public policies, but he was not a "joiner" in the conventional sense. He did, however, enjoy and greatly value his many friends; his warm personality, infectious laugh, sparkling conversation, and seemingly endless fund of stories made him in great demand among his friends and acquaintances.

On 22 Dec. 1908 Hamilton married Mary Cornelia Thompson of Raleigh. She was coauthor with him of The Life of Robert E. Lee for Boys and Girls (1917), and was his constant companion and coworker in his thousands of miles of travel to collect manuscripts. Mrs. Hamilton died on 7 June 1959 and Hamilton two years later, both in Chapel Hill. He was buried in the old Chapel Hill Cemetery. There is a portrait in the Southern Historical Collection (University of North Carolina). Two sons survived: Joseph Grégoire de Roulhac Hamilton, Jr., a Washington, D.C. news correspondent, and Dr. Alfred Thompson Hamilton, a physician and surgeon of Raleigh.

J. Carlyle Sitterson

SEE: Chapel Hill Weekly, 6 June 1947, 13, 16 Nov. 1961; Durham Morning Herald, 28 Jan. 1954; Fletcher M. Green, "Joseph Grégoire Hamilton" (typescript, 1962, Office, Secretary of the Faculty, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill); J. G. de Roulhac Hamilton Papers (Southern Historical Collection, University of North Carolina Library, Chapel Hill); Raleigh News and Observer, 12 Aug. 1951, 13, 14 Nov. 1961; Who Was Who in America, vol. 6 (1976); Louis R. Wilson, The University of North Carolina, 1900-1930 (1957).

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