Dr. Stephen Knott is a Professor of National Security Affairs at the United States Naval War
College. Prior to
accepting his position at the Naval War College, Dr. Knott was Co-Chair of the
Presidential Oral History Program at the Miller Center of Public Affairs at the
University of Virginia. His books include The Reagan Years; Alexander Hamilton
and the Persistence of Myth; Secret
and Sanctioned: Covert Operations and the American Presidency; At Reagan’s Side: Insiders’ Recollections
from Sacramento to the White House; Rush to Judgment: George W. Bush, the War on Terror, and His
Critics, and Washington
and Hamilton: The Alliance That Forged America (2015).
1. How and/or when did you get you hooked on history?
I got hooked at quite a
young age. My father loved history, and I remember him reading to me out of
children’s history books when I was a child. He would also take me to historic
sites such as Gettysburg, Fort Ticonderoga, and to a number of sites throughout
New England. I grew up in Massachusetts, so I happened to be born in a state
with a rich history, especially from the revolutionary war-era.
Lexington-Concord were not all that far removed, as was the Freedom Trail in
Boston. So in a sense I was born into a ready-made historical environment.
2. What role does history play or has it played in your personal life?
My father was older than
most dad’s when I was born, and he had a great-uncle who had fought in the
American Civil War (for the South, ironically). He also remembered having his
hair cut by a Civil War veteran when he was a child. The personal connection my
father had with the Civil War had quite an impact on me.
Our love of history was
a deeply shared bond between the two of us. My Dad was a skilled painter, so I
would occasionally find a photo or a painting in a book that I liked and I
would asked him to do a copy for me. He would, and the walls of my bedroom were
lined with these paintings of battles from the American Revolution or the Civil
War. I still have many of them, and they are treasured heirlooms.
3. How is/How was history a part of your professional life/career?
When it came time to
enter college it was an extremely close call whether I would major in history
or political science. I ended up majoring in the latter, but only because some
advisor told me that political science would be more “marketable.” So my
doctorate is in political science, but American history has always been my
first love. My books tend to focus on
the American presidency, but with an historical focus. In fact, the way I teach
American government, and the entirety of my research efforts, are all conducted
through the lens of history. I tell my fellow political scientists that I am a
4. Why is studying/knowing history important?
It’s a cliché, but there
really is nothing new under the sun. Our toys and our trappings may change, but
human nature is fixed in my view. Therefore, I believe we can learn a lot from
the actions and actors of the past. That said, I am sometimes shocked at the
lack of historical knowledge on the part of political scientists; it strikes me
as next to impossible to be a good teacher of American politics or
international relations without having a deep understanding of history.
5. What is your favorite period or aspect of history to learn about and why?
1776-2015. OK, that was a weak attempt at humor. But I do love the entirety of
American history, although I am probably the weakest on the Gilded Age and
somewhat on the progressive era. My favorite period would be the founding era
and the early American republic, the Civil War, and the 20th century
from World War II to the present. My love of history comes naturally to me; I
honestly don’t understand people who seem to care less about it. That is very
alien to me….
6. What was the basis of the bond between Washington and Hamilton?
Theirs was an unlikely bond, for Washington and
Hamilton could not have been more different. Washington was a gentleman-farmer
from the patrician colony of Virginia and the owner of a great estate enriched
by the labor of African slavery. Hamilton,
on the other hand, was as John Adams brusquely put it, the “bastard brat of a
Scotch peddler” and an immigrant from the West Indies. A self-made man, he made his way to America
on his own and earned his positions in the army and in the government. Despite their differences, Washington and
Hamilton shared a lot of common ground. Unlike many of their great
contemporaries, Washington and Hamilton saw war up close and personal; they
were brothers in arms in a sense, and as any combat veteran will attest to,
combat is a bonding experience like no other. As a result of their wartime experience, they
concluded that the collection of states that fought the American Revolution
needed to take the next step and begin, in Hamilton’s words, to “think continentally.”
They wanted Americans to think of themselves as Americans, not
as Virginians or New Yorkers. They were both guided by a sense of
American nationalism and worked closely together to assist in winning the
American Revolution, adopting the Constitution, and creating the institutions
necessary to secure liberty at home and respect abroad.
7. How would the U.S. have been different if Hamilton didn’t exist?
vision was contrary to that of Jefferson’s, and as such the United States might
not have moved (or at least not moved as quickly) in the direction of becoming
a manufacturing nation. I would also argue that Hamilton’s economic policies (a
national bank, tariffs to protect American manufacturing, and the stabilization
of the nation’s finances which enabled the nation to establish a good credit
rating) all contributed to the overall rise of the United States as an economic
superpower. It is also possible
that the Union might have disintegrated more rapidly than it did had there been
no Washington and Hamilton. Their vision of an America where its citizens
thought “continentally” was accomplished in part by creating institutions which
would bind the people to the national government, not their respective states.
For example: the aforementioned national bank; or the assumption by the
national government of the state debts from the Revolutionary War; or
Washington’s proposal for a national university (which did not come to pass). All
of these steps contributed to a sense of American “nationhood.”
laid the theoretical blueprint in The
Federalist Papers for an “energetic executive” – a blueprint followed
closely by the first president. From the beginning to the end of this most
important first presidency, Washington followed Hamilton’s advice, much to
Thomas Jefferson’s distress. Remove Hamilton from Washington’s cabinet, and you
would have set a number of very different precedents. Interestingly, Washington
understood how vital Hamilton was to his presidency, supporting Hamilton
through the embarrassing revelation of his extra-marital affair, while at the
same time cutting off all contact with Jefferson, who had deceived him on