On April 2 and 3, Douglas Ambrose, Alexander Hamilton Institute for the Study of Western Civilization (AHI) Charter Fellow, visited Mercer University in Macon, Georgia, to deliver a public lecture and conduct a seminar discussion in a course on the American Founding. Ambrose was the invited guest of Mercer’s Thomas C. and Romana E. McDonald Center for America’s Founding Principles.
Mercer University, unlike many elite liberal arts colleges, has an impressive commitment to the study of America’s heritage. “Guided by James Madison’s maxim that ‘a well-instructed people alone can be permanently a free people,’ the McDonald Center exists to promote the study of the great texts and ideas that have shaped our regime and fostered liberal learning.” To fulfill that mission, the McDonald Center supplements Mercer’s “excellent liberal arts program with a redoubled commitment to the foundational texts and ideas that have shaped Western Civilization and the American political order. This focus on the core texts of the Western tradition helps to revitalize a cross-centuries dialogue about citizenship, human rights, and political, economic, and religious freedom, thereby deepening the moral imagination and fostering civic and cultural literacy.” In addition to sponsoring an annual conference on “Great Books and Ideas,” the Center’s programming also includes guest speakers, student-faculty reading groups, a summer Great Books program for high school teachers and students, undergraduate research fellowships, and a general education course on the America’s Founding Principles. The McDonald Center’s faculty includes professors from political science, history, philosophy, law, biology, religion, and English.
Dr. Ambrose presented his public lecture on the evening of April 2. Entitled “‘A Public Man of the Worst Sort’: Alexander Hamilton’s Critique of Aaron Burr,” the lecture focused on Hamilton’s twelve-year campaign to thwart Burr’s political aspirations. As early as 1792 Hamilton declared, “I feel it a religious duty to oppose his career.” Often appealing to classical history and likening Burr to Roman figures such as Catiline and Caesar, Hamilton feared that Burr was a man who sought power for its own sake rather than to serve the public good. In Hamilton’s mind, men like Burr, men of “unprincipled ambition” who “flatter the prejudices of the people,” were “the true enemies” of republican government.
In the America’s Founding Principles class, Ambrose led a lively discussion of the great debate between Hamilton and Madison over President George Washington’s 1793 Proclamation of Neutrality. Hamilton, writing as “Pacificus,” defended both the logic of the Proclamation and, more important, the constitutional legitimacy of the President’s issuance of it. Writing as “Helvidius,” Madison denounced the Proclamation as a pro-British intervention and objected to Hamilton’s constitutional interpretation, arguing that the Senate had a vital role in determining foreign policy. The class impressed Ambrose with its close reading of the texts and the students’ understanding of how the Pacificus-Helvidius debates both reflected and shaped the development of politics and constitutional interpretation in the Early Republic.
Mercer University and its McDonald Center are to be commended for their commitment to promoting liberal education and intellectual diversity. For more on the McDonald Center’s events, programs, and publications, visit their website: https://afp.mercer.edu/about/