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Peter Joseph Hamilton (March 19, 1859–July 13, 1927) was an Alabama lawyer and historian who also served as Judge of the United States District Court for the District of Puerto Rico from 1913 to 1921.

Hamilton was born in Mobile, Alabama. He studied at Princeton University and the University of Leipzig before obtaining advanced law degrees at the University of Alabama. Hamilton's books during his Alabama years included Colonial Mobile: An Historical Study (1897), Early Southern Institutions (1898), The Colonization of the South (1904), The Reconstruction Period (1910), and Mobile of the Five Flags (1913). He also practiced law and was involved in codifying the city ordinances of Mobile.

Hamilton, a Democrat, was appointed as the federal judge for Puerto Rico in 1913 by President Woodrow Wilson, who was his classmate at Princeton University. (Hamilton actually was first nominated by outgoing President William Howard Taft, but it appears that this was a courtesy nomination on Wilson's behalf.)

Hamilton served two four-year terms as District Judge in Puerto Rico, obtaining reappointment from President Wilson in 1917. Throughout his tenure, Hamilton was a strong proponent of bringing Puerto Rico under greater influence by the United States, and supported increased use of the English language in Puerto Rico. At one point, questions were raised concerning Hamilton's personal finances and any effect they might be having on his judicial service. The matter was the subject of an investigation by the Justice Department, but the allegations were not sustained.

Hamilton tried to enhance the public reputation of his court and improved the court's administration, keeping more current with the docket than had his predecessors. Issues addressed during his time on the bench included the political status of Puerto Rico, issues relating to citizenship, and a variety of commercial and criminal cases.

At times, Hamilton had tense relations with a fellow Wilson appointee, Governor of Puerto Rico Arthur Yager. Hamilton and the federal court in Puerto Rico were unpopular with some segments of the Bar in Puerto Rico, and there was a series of attempts to induce the United States Congress to abolish the federal court, which were unsuccessful. On the other hand, efforts by Hamilton to obtain life tenure for judges of the federal court in Puerto Rico, as is required for Article III federal courts, were also unsuccessful (that step was not ultimately taken until 1966).

In 1921, President Warren G. Harding, a Republican, declined to reappoint Hamilton to a third term. He was succeeded by Arthur Odlin.

Hamilton remained in Puerto Rico for several years. In addition to practicing law, in 1922 he published Origin and Growth of the Common Law in England and America. He also wrote a series of articles for the Harvard Law Review comparing the common law and civil law systems, as well as an article on Puerto Rican folklore. He died in 1927.

There is no full-length biography of Hamilton, but he is the subject of published articles by his daughter, Rachel Duke Hamilton, and by Puerto Rican historian Carmelo Delgado Cintron. There is also no archival collection of Hamilton's papers, but some of his correspondence can be found in the manuscript collections of contemporary Alabama and Puerto Rico political figures.

The Peter Joe Hamilton Elementary School in Chickasaw, Alabama is named after Hamilton.


  • Carmelo Delgado-Cintron, "El juez federal Peter J. Hamilton", Revista del Colegio de Abogados de Puerto Rico, vol. 41(3), p. 11 (1980).
  • Carmelo Delgado-Cintron, "Peter J. Hamilton: bocedo de un juez federal (1913-1922)", La Toga, April 1978.
  • Guillermo A. Baralt, History of the Federal Court in Puerto Rico: 1899-1999 (2004), chaps. 3-4.
  • "The Federal Court of Puerto Rico: Remarks of Peter J. Hamilton" (pamphlet 1914, also reprinted in 8 Puerto Rico Federal Reports) (remarks by Hamilton on opening of the new federal courthouse in San Juan).
  • Rachel Duke Hamilton Cannon, "Peter J. Hamilton: A Daughter's Recollection," Alabama Review, vol. 8, p. 256 (October 1953).
Preceded by
Paul Charlton
Judge, United States District Court for the District of Puerto Rico
Succeeded by
Arthur Odlin


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