The “Hamiltonian System” of Education

The “Hamiltonian System” of Education

In the contest that is waged between the upholders of the old fashioned grammar-and-lexicon style of education and the advocates of “improved methods,” mention is made from time to time, as in a recent number of Macmillan’s Magazine, of what is known as the “Hamiltonian system.” The name is by no means a familiar one to the present generation of students, few of whom, probably, are aware how fiercely the educational world was agitated, some sixty years ago, by the first introduction of Hamilton’s daring scheme of reform, and what sanguine estimates were formed of its possible results. “We should opine,” said a writer in the Westminster Review of 1829, “that some time about the year 1849 all the little boys and girls in the country will have great reason to make mention of Mr. Hamilton in a thanksgiving, in their morning and evening prayers.” Twenty years were then calculated to be sufficient for the realisation of the Hamiltonian system; yet (alas for the impatience of human forecasts!) thrice that period has now almost gone by, and the little boys and girls, so far from blessing the name of their deliverer, are still groaning daily under the bondage of the grammarian.

James Hamilton, who was born in 1769, and was at first occupied in mercantile pursuits, has himself left a record of the origin and reception from his “History of the Hamiltonian System,” published in 1829, that he got the idea of dispensing with the use of grammar or dictionary from a French émigré at Hamburg in 1798. He did not, however, put the plan into execution until 1815, and then more by accident than by deliberate intent; for having one to the United States with the purpose of becoming a manufacturer of potash, and having actually set out on horseback from New York to proceed to the farm which he had taken, he suddenly changed his mind, rode back to New York, and finding himself in need of employment to gain a living, took to education as a pis aller, adopting as his method the system which he had been turning over in his mind during the seventeen preceding years.

Henry S. Salt

The Gentleman's Magazine, 1888, pp. 568-577

Download: The “Hamiltonian System” of Education (pdf)