It was a chance meeting, spurred by a question that his adviser could not answer, that led attorney-at-law Thomas Cheeseman in 2008, during the first few days of his freshman year at Hamilton College, to the Alexander Hamilton Institute for the Study of Western Civilization (AHI). The answer to that question by AHI charter fellow Douglas Ambrose inspired Cheeseman to enroll in Ambrose’s course “The Emergence of Early Modern Europe.” He subsequently paid the AHI a visit and listened on Constitution Day to the AHI’s First Annual David Aldrich Nelson Lecture, delivered by Jeffrey Sutton, a distinguished federal judge on the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit. A short time later, he attended a provocative AHI-sponsored lecture by Barry Alan Shain, Professor of Political Science at Colgate University, on the origins of individual rights in the United States. “From there,” said Cheeseman, I was hooked.”
AHI Alum Thomas Cheeseman, J.D.
Thomas Cheeseman now lives in Wilmington, Delaware, and is an associate at Delaware Corporate Counseling Group. For the firm, he focuses on corporate governance issues involving the Delaware General Corporation Law. After graduating from Hamilton College in 2012 with a major in economics, Cheeseman attended Vanderbilt Law School as a John W. Wade Scholar. During the summer of 2014, he served as a judicial intern for Judge Gregory M. Steet, of the U.S. District Court for the District of Delaware. Cheeseman earned his J.D. in 2016.
Recalling his undergraduate days, Cheeseman claims that he was so “hooked” after being initially exposed to the AHI that he became President of the Christopher Dawson Society, where he led discussions of C.S. Lewis’s The Great Divorce, The Abolition of Man, and The Screwtape Letters. He also became co-leader of the F.A. Hayek Reading group and presented a paper “The Natural Rights Dilemma: Organic Order and the Constructivist Fallacy” at an undergraduate conference sponsored by the James Madison Program at Princeton University.
Cheeseman believes that the AHI kept him at Hamilton College. When he first arrived as a freshman from a small town in Ohio, he felt culturally alienated as well as academically under-prepared. Within a few months, he was strongly considering transferring to another college. But the AHI excited him, made him feel welcome, and, indeed, that there was some purpose to attending college. At a meeting of the Christopher Dawson Society, for example, as the group was set to discuss Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s “A World Split Apart” and “Men Have Forgotten God,” he was struck by how civil and purposeful the exchanges between the older students and the professors were, even though he floundered a bit in terms of following the conversation. “No one responded to grandstand or to ‘score points,’” he recalled. Instead, “they were seriously engaging Solzhenitsyn’s ideas. Indeed, even those individuals who disagreed with the general thrust of the pieces being discussed seemed to be dispassionately appraising the pieces.” He learned that a piece doesn’t have to be labeled “right” or “wrong.” It can be “’interesting, but wrong,’ ‘wrong, but interesting,’ ‘on your side, but wanting in some respect’ or any other number of categories.”
The AHI would provide Cheeseman with a nurturing environment for four years. AHI founders and fellows helped him on an individual basis, spending “a great amount of time personally helping me improve my thinking, writing, and academic abilities.” By fall, 2009, Cheeseman had made Hamilton College’s dean’s list and remained on it until graduation. The AHI not only prepared him well for law school and the practice of law, he noted, but it also “cultivated in me a profound awe at what our civilization has produced and the cost of losing distinctive traditions and modes of interaction. Hamilton gave me a degree, but the AHI gave me a liberal education. My critical faculties weren’t developed in some distorted, Marxist manner, only capable of tearing down ‘structures,’ but with an eye to discerning the good life and the nobility of pursuing truth, however elusive it may be.”
Since graduation from Hamilton College, Cheeseman has tried to continue in that ideal. In 2013, his paper, “Homo Ludens and Civil Association: The Sublime Nature of Michael Oakeshott’s Civil Condition,” which he presented at Colorado College, was also published in the interdisciplinary journal Cosmos + Taxis. In 2014, he participated in the biannual Mont Pelerin essay competition. His paper, “Optimism, Pessimism, and the Hayekian Mind,” came in fourth place out of a thousand applicants from around the world.
Now, even as he begins a demanding legal career, Cheeseman is finding the time to continue his intellectual pursuits, and he is doing so with fellow AHI alum Landry Frei. They have recently started reading and discussing Richard Bourke’s new philosophical biography of Edmund Burke, Empire and Revolution (2015). A few months ago, he realized just how much he missed the conversations at the AHI, so began a reading project with Frei. Their first selection was Merrill Peterson’s The Great Triumvirate: Webster, Clay, and Calhoun (1988), a monograph that probes the biographies and statesmanship of the three most important American political figures of their generation. “It gave us a wonderful opportunity to have structured, but wide-ranging conversations once a week,” he said, “on everything from the necessary preconditions for our republican form of government, the meaning of statesmanship, and the role of ambition in preserving order and liberty, to more practical questions, such as whether we are living in a similarly disunionist time and whether people can even clearly articulate why it is we have the Union as it is.” Few young adults at the cusp of their careers would undertake such projects. But, for Cheeseman, “I seriously doubt that without the AHI’s nurturing I would either have the desire to pursue such projects or the ability to make the endeavor worthwhile.
AHI Executive Director Robert Paquette taught Cheeseman in several classes and supervised his independent study of the Scottish Enlightenment. “Thomas Cheeseman has a remarkable story to tell,” Paquette observed. “A rather shy, mousy young man when I first met him, he became an undergraduate lion by the end of his four years. He read great books voraciously and became more conversant in the writings of several of my intellectual favorites than I was. Much to the chagrin of several of Hamilton’s more politicized professors, Thomas exposed their shallowness in class when speaking about thinkers they had never read seriously or had encountered second-hand. Thomas took direction from the AHI. He cared less about grades than about gaining erudition and analytical prowess. When it came time to take the LSAT, he achieved an impressive score, one that opened up doors to many of the most prestigious law schools in the country. He has a bright future ahead of him.”
By Mary Grabar, AHI Resident Fellow