Alexander Hamilton Awarded Honorary Degree at Alumni Association Meeting
By Vige Barrie
June 4, 2012
Hamilton alumni and college community members gathered in Wellin Hall on Saturday, June 2, for the Bicentennial Meeting of the Alumni Association.
The meeting began with a welcome and report from Alumni Association President Julie Ross ’84 and was followed by remarks by Josephine “Josie” Jones ’12, the great-great-great-great granddaughter of Hamilton’s first graduate. Board of Trustees Chairman A.G. Lafley offered words of welcome before nominating the college’s namesake Alexander Hamilton for a posthumous honorary degree:
“Madame President, it is now my honor, at this special moment in the College’s 200-year history, to present a candidate for a posthumous honorary degree. To make my case I will use the words written in 1957 by Professor of History David Ellis, a member of the Hamilton Class of 1938.
‘Student, soldier, author, statesman, financial expert, and administrative genius – Alexander Hamilton is honored today by the College which bears his name.
‘As an undergraduate in Kings College in 1775, you brilliantly defended the rights of the colonists. Equally skilled with the sword and the pen, you served George Washington in the field and as his aide. Dismayed by the weakness of the Confederacy, you arranged for the calling of the Constitutional Convention and by your eloquence and logic persuaded an unwilling Assembly in Poughkeepsie to ratify the Constitution.
‘Your analysis of the Constitution in the Federalist papers remains to this day the most profound commentary on American constitutional law. It explains how national unity was possible without destroying states’ rights and without invading individual liberties. … The vast expansion of the powers of the President’s Office in the twentieth century vindicates your ideas of administrative power and efficiency.
‘Friend and foe alike agree that you established firmly the credit of the United States by bold and constructive measures. Always the realist and practical man, you also had a dream of America as a great industrial giant in which merchants, manufacturers, and farmers alike would cooperate in raising the general standard of living, all under the friendly direction of a strong national government. Has not this dream, like the democratic vision of your political adversary, Thomas Jefferson, become a reality?
‘We realize that today you must be rescued from the mythmakers among both your friends and your foes: … those so bedazzled by Jefferson’s fine phrases and noble ideals they have typed you as the tool of the privileged classes. Let us rather recognize you as an enlightened conservative, holding firm to the proven values of the past but anticipating the needs of the future. As [a] biographer said, ‘If a contrast we must have, then Jefferson stood for rights, Hamilton for responsibility.”
‘Hamilton College is proud to bear the name of one of its first trustees, a man who was also one of the first trustees of his country’s future.’”(By David M. Ellis ’38 in Hamilton: Man and College, by Walter Pilkington, 1957).
Chris McKay, corporate historian and museum curator at the Bank of New York Mellon and the mother of Andrew ’01 and John ’04, and Susan Skerritt of the Bank of New York Mellon, a member of the Kirkland Class of 1977, the chair of the honorary degree committee and a member of the college’s board of trustees joined President Stewart on stage.
President Stewart presented the diploma to Skerritt, who accepted it on behalf of Secretary Hamilton. McKay will convey the diploma to the Bank’s museum this week. The Bank of New York was founded in 1784 by Alexander Hamilton.
President Stewart presented the degree of Doctor of Laws “to include him among the ranks of educated men and women of the College that bears his name.” She added, “The citation that Mr. Lafley just read was, as he noted, composed by a member of the Class of 1938, historian David Ellis, who wrote it in 1957 on the 200th anniversary of Alexander Hamilton’s birth. Or was it the 200th? As you may know, historians cite contradictory evidence: there is some question about whether Hamilton was born in 1757, as he claimed, or a couple of years earlier, in 1755.”
Skerritt accepted the diploma with these words:
“Thank you President Stewart, my fellow trustees and Hamilton College. Chris and I are humbled to accept this honor because it recognizes one of this nation’s most influential and important visionaries. His legacy as a writer and orator is personified by the College that bears his name, and his creation of the financial system that enabled the United States to become the world’s economic leader is represented by the banking institution he founded in 1784. On behalf of BNY Mellon, thank you for entrusting this great honor to our museum. We will be contacting a descendant of Alexander Hamilton with whom we can share this special recognition. Thank you.”
Following the presentation, the Reunion Choir sang. Julie Ross returned to the stage to present the Bell Ringer Award posthumously to Patricia Tolles Smalley P’93, a trustee and the daughter of former Dean of the College Winton Tolles. Her husband David accepted the award. The Bell Ringer Award recognizes exceptional service to Hamilton, its alumni and the community over the course of the recipient's lifetime.
Ralph Oman ’62, P’04, presented the Half-Century Annalist’s letter. The Half-Century Annalist Letter represents the continuation of a tradition that began in 1865 when George Bristol prepared the first one for the Class of 1815. Almost every year since Bristol wrote, an annalist has reminisced about classmates, the College and its faculty as they were in his undergraduate days 50 years earlier.
The film Hamilton: The First 200 Years, a moving glimpse at life on the Hill, was screened before the Reunion Choir performed again and the audience joined in closing the event with Carissima. Led by the Mohawk Valley Frasers, alumni from all classes then gathered for the annual parade across campus to a bicentennial cookout on Dunham Green.
The Bicentennial Meeting served as a keynote feature of the reunion festivities and marked the conclusion of the yearlong celebration of Hamilton’s first 200 years.