Reflections on “Hamilton v. Jefferson: On History, Freedom, and Republican Government”

The Alexander Hamilton Institute’s eleventh annual colloquium, “Hamilton v. Jefferson: On History, Freedom, and Republican Government,” took place recently in Charlottesville, Virginia. It was an extraordinary educational event.

AHI undergraduate fellows and other Hamilton College students traveled there on Thursday, November 15 for the two-day conference, where they heard prominent Jefferson and Hamilton scholars debate these two very different founders’ legacies and contributions to American history.

Students from Professor Paquette’s and Professor Ambrose’s “The Old South” course, along with Hamilton alumni plus undergraduates from other institutions, attended free of charge. The conference “was informative and explained many of the nuances relating to the Hamilton-Jefferson debate,” said Philip Gow, a student in the class. “It was great to see so many big-name historians in the same room arguing their points.”

The panel included many distinguished scholars: Peter Onuf of the University of Virginia, Annette Gordon-Reed of Harvard University, Joanne Freeman of Yale, Michael Zuckert of Notre Dame, John Boles of Rice University, Carson Holloway of the University of Nebraska-Omaha, Colleen Sheehan of Villanova, Bradford Wilson of Princeton, Kevin Gutzman of Western Connecticut State, John Ragosta of the Robert H. Smith International Center for Jefferson Studies, Andrew Porwancher of the University of Oklahoma, and Professor Ambrose. Dr. Steve Ealy of Liberty Fund, a leading academic nonprofit organization, served as moderator of the four panel discussions, which were based on Hamilton’s and Jefferson’s own writings. All sessions included a question-and-answer period open to students and others in attendance.

Despite stormy weather on Thursday, all panelists except for Stephen Knott of the Naval War College were able to attend the conference, which began that evening with a reception and dinner at the Omni Charlottesville Hotel. Dr. Andrew O’Shaughnessy, vice president of the Thomas Jefferson Foundation, Carl B. Menges, Hamilton class of ‘51 and the AHI colloquium’s generous annual sponsor, and Professor Paquette, executive director of the AHI, opened the evening with introductory remarks. Professor Gordon-Reed, author of The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family, gave the keynote address, “Hamilton, Jefferson, and the Judges: Courts in the American Republic.”

On Friday, due to the previous day’s weather, staff at the hotel graciously reorganized to ensure that the panelists and attendees could meet there instead of using the historic Montalto house, which was temporarily unavailable.

The colloquium’s first two sessions were on “History” and “Freedom,” dealing with differences in Hamilton’s and Jefferson’s visions of the past and future, and with the nature of slavery in the newly founded American nation. Later in the day, there were complimentary small-group tours of nearby Monticello, Jefferson’s home. The reception and dinner that night allowed  panelists, students, and other guests to socialize further and enrich their educational experience.

With the fallen trees cleared by Saturday, the colloquium moved to Montalto for the final two sessions, on “Republican Government” and “Hamilton v. Jefferson: What Should You Know?” The first focused on the two founding fathers’ visions of American government. In the second and final session, the panelists summed up their observations. The conference concluded with unscheduled remarks from Professor Ambrose praising his longtime colleague Professor Paquette and noting his involvement in shaping Ambrose’s career, which prompted a standing ovation from the audience.

In addressing the students in “The Old South” class and the other attendees, Paquette noted: “I thank you all for making this event a memorable and special one. There will, in my estimation, never be another event with such an accomplished group of Hamilton and Jefferson scholars.”

As the photographer for the conference and a student of professors Paquette and Ambrose, I would like to thank the AHI, Mr. Menges and his family, the panelists, and all others who were involved in funding, organizing, and conducting it.