In 1793 Alexander Hamilton, Secretary of the Treasury, endorsed Samuel Kirkland’s proposal to create a “Seminary of Learning” to educate the children of Indians and white settlers in upstate New York. Hamilton agreed to serve as a trustee of the school, which in 1812 was chartered as Hamilton College. Himself the beneficiary of rigorous training in the liberal arts at King’s College (now Columbia University), Hamilton matured in a dynamic transatlantic world during a century that may well have generated the most bold and original political thinking in history. However much the founding fathers looked to the past to inform a new system of government, the creation of the United States, a democratic republic, represented a political innovation. A freedom loving people fiercely committed to the private ownership of landed property had created a government shorn of a monarch, an established church, and a hereditary aristocracy. Hamilton stood at the center of the founding of the United States. He served as an artillery officer and key aide to George Washington during the Revolutionary War. He not only participated as a delegate in the Constitutional Convention, but endorsed its handiwork unforgettably by composing the majority of the Federalist Papers. Thomas Jefferson, Hamilton’s arch-rival, described the eighty-five essays as “the best commentary on the principles of government, which ever was written.” Indeed, Hamilton’s role in the ratification of the Constitution and his enduring contributions to the fields of law, economics, and politics helped ensure the very survival of that great experiment in popular government.
A heritage, at its most basic level, speaks to the journey of persons from there to here. It identifies the signposts, monuments, and ruins left behind by human beings as they sought individually and collectively to define who they are and what they aspired to be. The Alexander Hamilton Institute for the Study of Western Civilization (AHI) proceeds on the premise that the reasoned study of Western civilization, its distinctive achievements as well as its distinctive failures, will further the search for truth and provide the ethical basis necessary for civilized life. The AHI aspires to create an educational environment of the highest standards in which evidence and argument prevail over ideology and cant.
No tradition, however worthy, grows richer or stronger by lying fallow. What should be valued in higher learning, the good, the just, and the true, requires cultivation by a vigilant and educated citizenry, guided by reason and ever mindful of the lessons of history and experience. College presidents and faculty once looked upon the design and maintenance of a core curriculum as virtually a sacred trust. They unabashedly and unapologetically privileged a body of knowledge rooted in what the best and brightest had to say throughout the ages, thereby endowing their students with the intellectual and moral property requisite for effective citizenship. A traditional liberal arts education relies on curricular disciplines to expose students to different ways of attaining knowledge. “The mere facts about a subject which may come marching in monotonous array,” argued the educator Richard Weaver, “do not speak for themselves. They speak only through an interpreter . . . , and the interpreter has to be those general ideas derived from an understanding of the nature of language, of logic, of mathematics, of ethics, and politics. The individual who is trained in these basic disciplines is able to confront any fact with the reality of the freedom to choose.”
Thus, for a serious liberal arts college, no more vital understanding of diversity exists than that which would promote intellectual diversity. The proper ends of education imply variegated approaches to the acquisition of knowledge and to the cultivation of intelligence. A liberal-arts graduate, properly trained, should possess not only an enhanced capacity to distinguish between career and the good life, but the ability to manage with honesty and dignity the often conflicting claims imposed on adulthood by nature, society, and environment. The great books of Western civilization conserve a distinctive intellectual and spiritual tradition. They have generated through the ages a great conversation, which Alexander Hamilton, as a liberal-arts student and American citizen, participated in and notably elevated.
Inspired by Alexander Hamilton’s life and work, the AHI promotes excellence in scholarship through the study of freedom, democracy, and capitalism as these ideas were developed and institutionalized in the United States and within the larger tradition of Western culture. The word freedom, it should be recalled, had no equivalent in the vocabularies of non-Western civilizations until imported from the West. Democracy first flourished in the poleis or city-states of ancient Greece. While the propensity to truck, barter, and exchange seems to have been inscribed in humanity’s genes, a full-blown capitalist system, one based on the private ownership of the non-personal means of production, originated in England. Since to a great extent modernity implies the momentous extension and elaboration of these ideas around the world, the AHI will necessarily range widely across geographic, cultural, and disciplinary boundaries in pursuit of its mission and to implement plans of rediscovery.
Along the way, the AHI will explore as central concerns:
1. The meaning and implications of capitalism, its genesis and impact; the role of markets, money, and banks in economic growth; the importance of the rule of law and property rights in wealth creation.
2. The relations between economic freedom and political freedom; the construction of limited government; the rise of the modern, bureaucratic state and its impact on individuals and communities.
3. The nature and paradox of civil liberty; the compatibility of freedom with equality and of virtue with efficiency.
4. The significance of natural law and natural rights in shaping Western political and legal culture; the common law tradition in the United States and the principles on which it is based.
5. The role of religion in American politics; the moral basis of democracy; separation of church and state.
6. The relation between the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution in the founding and evolution of the United States; notions of limited and divided government; the federal principle.
7. The role of private associations in a free society; their role in mediating between state and individual; the lines between private and public in a democratic society.
8. The nature of republics, democracies, and empires; realism and idealism in the practice of United States foreign policy; the role of the United States in world affairs.
9. Justice as a central concern of government; government as a potential threat to justice.
10. Modes of leadership; rhetoric and communication in the effective performance of leadership.
If an insular college campus ever truly existed, its time has passed. Indeed, the AHI rejects as dangerous the pretense that campus life should be immured from the outside world. The AHI grew out of a failed attempt in 2006 to establish an enduring edifice of learning about American ideals and institutions at Hamilton College. As a result, the AHI intends to work with kindred spirits on campuses throughout the country to promote a genuine free marketplace of ideas. The AHI welcomes public scrutiny as well as public interest. Programming will seek to engage a broad community of informed citizens, including high school and college students, teachers, alumni, trustees, and political officials. The creation of an outside board of academic advisors comprised of distinguished scholars from different disciplines will ensure scholarly integrity and help chart the direction of the center’s programming. A board of overseers comprised of faculty, trustees, alumni, and institutional leaders will ensure transparency, accountability, and loyalty to the charter.