Hugh Francis Carleton was the son of Francis Carleton and his wife, Charlotte Margaretta Montgomerie, of both Clare More, County Tipperary, and Greenfield, County Cork, Ireland. He is said to have been born on 3 July 1810, and was baptised on 20 September in London, England. He married Lydia Jane Williams on 30 November 1859 at Pakaraka, Bay of Islands, New Zealand. There were no children of the marriage. He died at Lewisham, Surrey, England, on 14 July 1890.
Carleton was educated at Eton and Trinity College, Cambridge. A promising scholar, his university studies were temporarily interrupted when he was sent down after a town and gown disturbance. He then studied law in London at the Middle Temple, but never practised. Instead he went to Italy to study classical art, then spent three years travelling, finally arriving in Auckland in 1845.
His first New Zealand ventures were commercial. He was employed for a while by William Brown and John Logan Campbell, then entered into business on his own account, importing stock from Australia. He chartered a small barque, the Orwell, which made three unprofitable voyages before being wrecked in the Manukau Harbour on 2 March 1848.
During this time he immersed himself in the politics of the new colony. At intervals he helped edit the New-Zealander, advocating the cause of various land claimants and Governor Robert FitzRoy's grantees. His powerful, over-literary prose style and polemical self-righteousness were already apparent. In 1848 he established his own newspaper, the Anglo-Maori Warder, which ran from 25 April to 19 October.
From 1848 Carleton was involved in various trading schemes in the Pacific. At one stage he was accidentally marooned on Pitcairn Island when the ship carrying him to San Francisco was blown off while he was ashore. It is said that he amused himself while awaiting rescue by teaching the Pitcairn Islanders part-singing.
He returned to New Zealand from his Pacific adventures in time for the first election of the General Assembly. He was elected as representative for the Bay of Islands and held the seat continuously from 1853 to 1870. He did not stand for the first Auckland Provincial Council in 1853, but using the newspaper Southern Cross as his mouthpiece he attacked Governor George Grey and became leader of the so-called Senate opposition to the governor. At the provincial council elections held in October 1855 he was returned for the Bay of Islands. He was provincial secretary for most of 1856, when Campbell was superintendent, and again from 1864 to 1866 under Robert Graham and Frederick Whitaker. He represented the Bay of Islands (1855–57), the City of Auckland (1859–61), Newton (1861–65) and the Bay of Islands again (1865–75). Despite this record he was a determined enemy of provincialism, which he never ceased to attack until its final extinction in 1875.
As a member of the House of Representatives Carleton at first supported William Fox. In 1856 he took charge as editor of the Southern Cross and in the same year he helped turn out the Sewell ministry. During the 1860 session he shifted his allegiance from Fox to Edward Stafford, even though he disagreed with the latter's policy on the Waitara war. In 1861 he gave his casting vote to defeat Stafford. He maintained his position of independence thereafter, voting in accordance with his conscience.
Carleton had strong views on the issue of race relations. His attitude to Maori was essentially paternalistic – he maintained that they must submit to a superior civilisation. He also emphasised that they should be treated as a noble and unique race, and that their interests should be protected as far as possible. However, he clearly believed that the aims of Pakeha took precedence over Maori rights and he participated in the agitation to introduce direct purchase of Maori land and destroy the government's monopoly. He finally lost his seat for the Bay of Islands in 1870 to John McLeod, blaming his defeat on the inclusion of the former Mangonui electorate, and the additional votes of a large number of Maori landowners holding a Crown title. He was nominated again in 1878 for the Eden seat on the condition that he would support Grey but he refused to be bound. This was the end of his political career.
Carleton is a unique and enigmatic figure in the early history of the colony. He seemed to have all the qualities that should have made him a major political force, but he did not attain high office. He confessed that he was unsuited to leadership, preferring instead the role of critic, free from party affiliation. A peculiarity of his nature led him to take a great interest in the more formal side of debating and nobody had an equal talent for dispatching business through the House. As chairman of committees from 1856 to 1870 he was in his element. He was similarly fascinated by questions of privilege, and has been credited with raising the first question brought before the House, on a matter of privilege.
His very qualities were often his undoing. He was a polished and highly cultivated speaker, employing numerous Shakespearian and foreign language or Maori quotations; but his mannerisms and air of superiority, while they impressed some, antagonised many. 'An odd, wild, American looking personage with a beard' was the impression he made on Henry Sewell when they first met, while E. G. Wakefield's assessment was even less flattering: 'There he sits glorying in his bad French, in his childish quibbles, in his absurd shifts and excuses'. He prepared his speeches with care and delivered them with much gravity, yet he was looked on as a bore, and when he rose to speak, the House cleared. It was perhaps in an attempt to prevent members' escaping to a more congenial atmosphere that he twice attempted to introduce a bill in the House to close Bellamy's.
On his retirement from politics Carleton lived at his home at Pakaraka. He was passionately fond of music and helped to found the Auckland Choral Society, but his major interest was higher education. As early as 1851 he had advocated a New Zealand university to buttress the tottering religious faith of the age, and had expatiated on this idea in the second sitting of the General Assembly of 1854. He referred to these earlier statements in the debate on the 1870 University Bill, which finally established a university for New Zealand. He was one of the leaders in the successful struggle against the foundation of a national university institution in Otago, and he shared with Henry Tancred a great deal of the responsibility for the development of the University of New Zealand. Perhaps this should be considered his major achievement. It was appropriate that he should be appointed the first vice chancellor in 1871, retaining that position until he left for England in 1878.
While in New Zealand Carleton wrote a number of pamphlets on politics and history and a treatise on musical composition. The work for which he is remembered, however, is his biography of his father-in-law, The life of Henry Williams, archdeacon of Waimate, which was published in Auckland in two volumes between 1874 and 1877. Although biased it is an important and unique contribution to the history of New Zealand.