“Experience is the oracle of truth; and where its responses are unequivocal, they ought to be conclusive and sacred.” – Alexander Hamilton and James Madison, Federalist #20
The idea of an Alexander Hamilton Institute for the Study of Western Civilization at Hamilton College originated in a conversation between Professors James Bradfield, an economist, and Robert Paquette, a historian, during the fall of 2003 when both were co-teaching a sophomore seminar on the idea and institution of property. This conversation conjoined with another that Paquette was having with Carl Menges, a distinguished alumnus of Hamilton College (Class of 1951), about establishing a major book prize in honor of Alexander Hamilton. In 1792, Hamilton, Secretary of Treasury, had readily consented to serve as one of sixteen charter trustees for the “Seminary of Learning” that would two decades later mature into Hamilton College.
Planning for the Alexander Hamilton Center intensified during the academic year 2004-2005 as the college was shaken by several incidents that raised questions about its direction and, indeed, its very ethos as an elite liberal arts college. During the summer of 2006, three senior professors at Hamilton College–Douglas Ambrose, James Bradfield, and Robert Paquette– reached agreement with the administration to establish on campus a scholarly center named after Alexander Hamilton. The founders of the center, recognizing Alexander Hamilton’s crucial contributions to the founding of the United States, intended to explore through an innovative series of programs a constellation of issues within the Western tradition related to the origin and articulation of freedom, democracy, and capitalism. In enunciating the mission of the center, they hoped to promote intellectual diversity on campus by broadening and deepening the debate about American ideals and institutions.
Within the span of a few months, however, opposition from within the college mounted and the initiative collapsed. Yet the center’s original charter, having been published and widely circulated, attracted the attention of educators, philanthropists, and alumni. Supporters engaged the founders in an extended conversation that resulted in the rebirth of the center as an independent entity with an expanded mission to bring the fruits of a great conversation within a distinctive culture to educational institutions in upstate New York and across the country.
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