Alexander Hamilton Institute Seeks to Bridge America’s Divisions

America today is “a deeply divided country,” says Robert L. Paquette, president and executive director of the New York-based Alexander Hamilton Institute for the Study of Western Civilization, in ways reminiscent of the “civilizational struggle that tore apart the Union in the 1850s.”

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In Paquette’s estimation, a main cause of our current disorder is the deterioration of civic education, with its “declining standards, inflated grades, abandoned requirements, and advocacy that substitutes for scholarship.” His diagnosis is based on his battles with the administration and trustees of Hamilton College, where he taught for 37 years.

Paquette’s disillusionment with the college began when he raised a public outcry against a proposed center that wanted to bring Susan Rosenberg, a convicted terrorist, and the notorious Ward Churchill to campus. Then, after working to establish an alternative center dedicated to studying Western civilization, he says that the “College reneged on the signed agreement, and administrators subsequently lied publicly about what happened.”

A scholar of the history of American slavery who wrote his dissertation under the guidance of noted historian Eugene Genovese, Paquette rejects the idea that the country is lost. He co-founded the Alexander Hamilton Institute (AHI) in 2007 to “create an educational environment of the highest standards in which evidence and argument prevail over ideology and cant.” AHI is housed in a historic, Federal-style mansion about one mile from Hamilton College.

Paquette argues that civic education is the lifeblood of the American republic, being premised on the claim that “the people are the most important guardians of their own liberty.” Civic education should instill “the necessary self-discipline that prevents liberty from turning into licentiousness.” AHI’s namesake, of course, is Alexander Hamilton, who sacrificed his “life and sacred honor” for the “noble and great experiment in American self-government.”

AHI features a wide array of programming for students of all ages that can help foster a civic rebirth. This includes regular lectures, a student-run independent publication (Enquiry), and undergraduate conferences, where students present papers on a wide-range of topics, including political science and history. AHI has an on-site bookstore featuring titles published by Encounter and a large collection of the books and a selection of the personal papers of Eugene Genovese.

The Institute also hosts conferences with like-minded organizations that focus on topics such as religion’s role in supporting republican government and the place of justice in American society. Last month, AHI co-sponsored a week-long webinar, “Slavery or Freedom: The Conception of America,” with the National Association of Scholars and the Texas Public Policy Foundation.

The “piece de resistance of AHI programming,” Paquette says, is the annual Carl B. Menges Colloquium (named after a distinguished Hamilton College alum), in which a panel discusses topics concerning the Western canon.

Clubs and associations are a sizable part of AHI’s network. The Edmund Burke Association invites undergraduates to read the great books of the Western tradition and exchange ideas. The Entrepreneur Club engages students and the larger Clinton, New York community in “ideas and institutions that best promote entrepreneurship to the benefit of individuals and their communities,” while the Christopher Dawson Society features monthly public discussions on the intersection of faith and reason.

Directed by AHI senior fellow Juliana Pilon, the Washington Program on National Security helps prepare promising college students to confront global challenges by providing them with the opportunity to engage current and former officials in Congress, the Pentagon, and the intelligence community. Now in its fifth year, the program takes place each summer in Washington, D.C.

AHI has two in-house resident fellows, David Frisk and Mary Grabar. A historian specializing in the twentieth-century conservative movement, Frisk is the author If Not Us, Who? William Rusher, National Review, and the Conservative Movement, and teaches a course every semester on subjects such as executive power and challenges to democracy in American history. Grabar focuses on reforming education by giving resources to students and parents through her website, Dissident Prof. Her most recent book is Debunking Howard Zinn: Exposing the Fake History that Turned a Generation Against America. (In an essay for RealClear’s American Civics portal, Grabar summarized the book’s arguments).

AHI’s founding charter reads: “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.” Through civic debate and examination of the great questions that have animated the West for centuries, AHI hopes to put America on a more promising path.  

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