Hamilton [College] on Hamilton: Voices from Students Past

HamCol Book


I came across an interesting collection that I wanted to share.  Franklin Harvey Head, who penned an extremely influential address on the meaning and goals of liberal arts education in the US, sponsored a prize foundation at Hamilton College that awarded the top student orator for each year a prize for preparing and delivering a speech on Alexander Hamilton.  The introduction to the collection states “Mr. Head established the prize called by his name, designating that the subject for this Prize Oration year by year should have reference to the character and career of Alexander Hamilton.”  The introduction also notes:

“No name from the rolls of our struggle for independence and our binding together as a nation awakens more intense interest or opens wider fields for consideration than that of Hamilton.  From the first appearance of the youthful student, to the tragic hour on the heights of Weehawken, the story has the attraction of romance, and in it can be found the kindling of influences potent not only for then but for all time.”

The thirty-one topics include:

  • Hamilton as a Constitutional Statesman
  • The Character and Statesmanship of Hamilton
  • Hamilton as an Expounder of the Constitution
  • The Intellectual Rank of Hamilton among his Contemporaries
  • Hamilton as a Political Prophet
  • The Relations of Hamilton and Burr
  • Our Political Indebtedness to Hamilton
  • Hamilton Compared with His European Contemporaries
  • The Position of Hamilton in American History
  • The Career and Character of Hamilton
  • Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson
  • The French Revolution and the Political Doctrines of Hamilton
  • Alexander Hamilton and Salmon P. Chase
  • Hamilton and Seward as Political Leaders
  • Alexander Hamilton and Louis Adolphe Thiers
  • The Death of Hamilton
  • The Political Doctrines of Hamilton in the Light of Recent American History
  • Hamilton and the Tariff Question
  • Alexander Hamilton and Benjamin Disraeli
  • The Political Services of Hamilton and Webster
  • The Debt of Our Government to Washington and Hamilton
  • Hamilton and the Presidential Election of 1800
  • The Military Services of Hamilton
  • The Verdict of Experience on Hamilton’s Constitutional Theories
  • Hamilton and the Constitutional Convention of 1787
  • The Influence of “The Federalist”
  • Hamilton, Webster, Seward
  • The Principles that Distinguish Hamilton and Jefferson as Statesmen
  • Alexander Hamilton and John Adams
  • Hamilton as a Lawyer
  • Hamilton and the Code of Honor
  • Hamilton’s Theory of the United States Senate

The collection of thirty-one prize-winning student oration is interesting for several reasons.  First, it offers us a snapshot of what students in the 1864-1895 time period were focused on studying.  Second, the range of topics varies from purely historical discussions of particular aspects of Hamilton’s legacy, to discussions of Hamilton in comparison to contemporary political figures.  I found the essays comparing Hamilton with contemporary politicians (Disraeli, Thiers, etc) extremely interesting.  Those orations offered an insight both into Hamilton and into the political theory of the late 1860s.  Keep in mind that these orations were being delivered for the three decades immediately after the Civil War, when the nation was still reeling.  Little wonder that students would seek lessons from the Constitutional period for guidance during another time of division and crisis.

The full text of the thirty-one orations is available via Google Books and Cornell’s Internet Archive..

Hamilton’s Views on Race and Slavery: Indian Policy and the Hamilton-Oneida Academy

In The Political Philosophy of Alexander Hamilton, Michael P. Federici writes:

“In 1793 a New York school designed by the Reverend Samuel Kirkland to teach Indian and white children was named after Hamilton (Hamilton-Oneida Academy), and he served as a trustee.  After his death, the school became Hamilton College.  His affiliation with a school for Indians was no accident.  Hamilton consistently supported peaceful relations with the various Indian tribes and he counseled Governor Clinton in New York and President Washington to reconcile with them.  Hamilton considered Indians and blacks to be equal members of the human race.”

The Hamilton-Oneida Academy in Clinton, New York was created with the idea of educating Indian and white children side by side to build cultural understanding.  The charter for the academy was granted on the January 29, 1793.  Hamilton was incorporated as a trustee and a namesake of the school soon after.

One description of Hamilton’s involvement states:

“Alexander Hamilton, the Secretary of the Treasury, and Colonel Pickering, then Post-Master General, furnished substantial aid, and the former was one of the trustees named in the petition for incorporation.”

The Magazine of American History with Notes and Queries reports:

“Mr. Kirkland met Alexander Hamilton, who took unusual interest in his efforts, and was of such assistance that Mr. Kirkland thought it but a fitting compliment to call the institution Hamilton Oneida Academy.”

In 1812, the Hamilton-Oneida Academy was chartered as Hamilton College, a liberal arts college.  The college recently celebrated its bicentennial.

The contemporary descriptions of Hamilton’s involvement with the Academy do not mention him having any substantial role in refining the Academy’s mission or determining what function it would have in the lives of the students attending.  However, Hamilton’s support of it may reflect his belief in the power of education and his progressive beliefs in racial equality.  Of course, to say that any founder, even Hamilton, was progressive with race relations in the modern sense would be an overstatement.  Hamilton’s father-in-law was involved with land grabs in New York that took substantial territory away from Indian tribes, and Hamilton firmly supported Washington’s policies that laid the groundwork for the forced migration of Indian tribes.  However, Hamilton’s support of the Academy suggests that he wanted to play a role in improving relationships with the Indians.

I generally feel ambivalent about the Indian boarding schools created by missionaries and later sponsored by the federal government.  In the late 1800s, these schools served as ground zero for the abuse of Native American children and the destruction of cultural history as the government attempted to forcibly assimilate these groups into mainstream American society.   Tim Giago states in Children left behind: dark legacy of Indian mission boarding schools that most of these school represented an “unholy alliance between church and state that tried to destroy the culture and spirituality of generations of Indian children.”