How Hamilton Nudged Washington on Education in 1796

As he composed his farewell address, President George Washington enlisted feedback from one Alexander Hamilton (before his Broadway fame, obviously).  An early draft of the address was missing reference to the new nation’s education system, Hamilton thought.  He writes to Washington with the suggested change:


I return the draft corrected agreeably to your intimations. You will observe a short paragraph added respecting Education. As to the establishment of a University, it is a point which in connection with military schools, & some other things, I meant, agreeably to your desire to suggest to you, as parts of your Speech at the opening of the session. There will several things come there much better than in a general address to The People which likewise would swell the address too much. Had I had health enough, it was my intention to have written it over, in which case I could both have improved & abriged. But this is not the case. I seem now to have regularly a period of ill health every summer.

I think it will be adviseable simply to send the address by your Secretary to Dunlap. It will of course find its way into all the other papers. Some person on the spot ought to be charged with a careful examination of the impression by the proof sheet.

Very respectfully & Affect I have the honor to be   Sir   Yr. very obed serv

A Hamilton

The result?  The outgoing President includes the following paragraph on education:

Promote then as an object of primary importance, Institutions for the general diffusion of knowledge. In proportion as the structure of a government gives force to public opinion, it is essential that public opinion should be enlightened…

It’s worth asking on what grounds does Washington justify the establishment of an education system? While economic need is often emphasized, he argues differently.  That is, he (Washington, and Hamilton too) seems to suggest that the value of education for the nation is to make “public opinion” more enlightened and therefore forceful in ensuring that public government serves collective need.

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