Stephen F. Knott is a professor of national security affairs at the Naval War College in Newport, R.I. Knott co-chaired the Presidential Oral History Program at the Miller Center of Public Affairs at the University of Virginia. He has written several books, including Alexander Hamilton and the Persistence of Myth and Secret and Sanctioned: Covert Operations and the American Presidency. He was the Center for the Study of American Democracy’s Constitution Day speaker on Sept. 18.
In a recent speech you said: “Lin Manuel Miranda’s musical and Ron Chernow’s biography made great strides in rehabilitating [Alexander] Hamilton’s image.” Do you feel as if there’s a renewed interest in Hamilton? If so, why?
Absolutely there is a renewed interest in Hamilton. I wrote a book on Hamilton. and when it came out in 2002, I had to explain to people who this man was, including my own mother, who said to me, ‘Which president was he?’ Of course, he was never a president, but it shows you there just wasn’t a deep understanding. People might have known he was the guy on the ten-dollar bill, and they might have known he [had] been killed in a duel, and that was it. So, that’s fifteen years ago. Flash to today, he has become a Broadway celebrity. I thought for sure he would remain kind of an obscure figure.
Is there a particular element of what you call the “myth” of Alexander Hamilton that’s particularly pervasive? How would you rebut it?
That myth of him being an elitist, or being somebody who had nothing but disdain for the common man, despite the progress that is being made, is still out there. Accompanying the myth of Hamilton being an elitist is this notion that he was kind of a closet dictator, that he had these sort of dictatorial ambitions, and if he could have he would have taken all power. That persists in a lot of quarters. There is a very prominent historian by the name of Joseph Ellis, who I just watched in January giving a speech, saying that ‘If Hamilton had his way, we would have likely ended up in a totalitarian dictatorship in the United States.’ That is just so far off the mark, it’s laughable.
How did you get involved with the Ronald Reagan Oral History Project? What are the challenges of conducting an oral history, especially when textual sources are so important for studying the presidency?
In the modern presidency, they tend not to keep a lot of documents, believe it or not. There is always the chance that these documents will be subpoenaed by a congressional committee or perhaps a special prosecutor. I can’t tell you how many times doing those oral history interviews, whether it was for a Reagan official, or Clinton official, or whatever, they would say to us, ‘We didn’t put things in writing, we didn’t keep diaries, we kept our written material to a minimum,’ to avoid those subpoenas. I see oral history as a way to fill the documentary gap that has characterized the modern presidency, at least since Watergate. Now, I grant you, memories can be faulty, and people occasionally like to embellish their own role. But we always saw our responsibility as allowing people to get their story on the record. The readers of these oral histories can decide for themselves who may be embellishing and who was overlooking some important things; that was not necessarily our task.
Out impression, at least initially, was that covert actions are a fairly new innovation. From your research on the matter, could you briefly tell us about an early covert operation that our readers may not have heard about previously?
Can I tell you two? George Washington, while he was commander of the revolutionary war forces, authorized a kidnapping attempt that was directed against King George III’s son. That’s pretty sexy as these things go. The son, who was going to be the future king of England, was visiting New York City during the war, sort of a morale-boosting visit. Washington got a wind of this and set up a special unit whose sole task was to scoop this guy off the streets and bring him out to the wilderness and hold him ransom. We are not sure what the demand would have been, but that was an unusual, covert, paramilitary operation that George Washington authorized. The second one I will mention that is also kind of unusal is Thomas Jefferson. After he leaves the White House and his friend James Madison becomes president, we have the War of 1812 and the British burned Washington D.C. to the ground. Jefferson as a private citizen was furious at this insult to American honor.
He urged his friend James Madison to retaliate by sending arsonists into London to burn down Saint Paul’s Cathedral. Pretty ruthless stuff.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity. Read the full interview at kenyoncollegian.com.