A History of Hamilton: An Interview with Professor Maurice Isserman

By Oulsade Oyalowo

Oulsade Oyalowo: Which Side Were You On? was your first book to be published. What inspired you to begin writing histories?

Professor Isserman: My first book, Which Side Were You On? was published in 1982, and was based
on the dissertation I wrote in graduate school to earn my Ph.D. It was a history of the American Communist Party during the Second World War. Over the next two decades, as I began my career as an academic historian, I wrote a number of other political histories, focusing on the history of American radical movements in the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s. In recent years I’ve shifted the focus of my research to the history of mountaineering and exploration, including my 2008 book, co-authored with Stewart Weaver, Fallen Giants. I am currently at work on a history of American mountaineering, from the 17th century down to the present, which will be my fifteenth book when published.

OO: Based on the title, it’s pretty obvious what On the Hill is about, but could you share a little of the book’s content?

PI: On the Hill is the official bicentennial history of Hamilton College. It tells the story of Samuel Kirkland’s career as a missionary to the Oneidas, his decision to form the Hamilton-Oneida Academy, the foundation of Hamilton College in 1812, and the history of the College from 1812 down to the present. It also places the history of the College in a larger context – regional and national – discussing, for example, the role of Hamilton alumni and students during the Civil War.

OO: How do you think the college has changed since the 1995 removal of Greek houses? Have you seen any major changes at Hamilton in terms of social structures since then?

PI: One result of the Residential Life Decision of 1995 was that the college, which had a difficult time attracting women students in the 1980s, tipped to a majority female student body at the end of the 1990s. However, although Residential Life was an important change in itself, it needs to be seen as one of a multitude of decisions in recent decades that have moved the College into the front rank of liberal arts institutions in the United States. Hamilton was a first rate regional college for most of its existence; now it’s a first rate national college. I think a lot of credit for that change has to go to Admissions, which recognized some years back that it had to recruit aggressively on a national and international level. In the 20- odd years I’ve been at Hamilton, the student body has grown notably more diverse, more interesting, and more committed to their studies.

OO: How long did it take you to write On The Hill?

PI: I began writing the book in the summer of 2008, and submitted the manuscript in January 2010. It then took 18 months to design and produce the book, a process that involved many people from the College staff, as well as our professional designers.

OO: What was the research process like and what people did you contact while you were writing?

PI: On the Hill is not only a book about Hamilton; it’s also, to a significant degree, a book by the Hamilton community. That is to say, I could not have written it without the cooperation of the dozens of Hamilton faculty, staff, and alumni who are listed in the acknowledgments. To give just two examples, I could not have written the geological history of the Oriskany Valley which appears in chapter one without the help of Emeritus Professor of Geology Don Potter; nor could I have written the section on the painful experience of gay men at Hamilton in the 1960s without the memories shared by a member of the Class of 1964.

OO: What was the most interesting thing you learned during the process of writing On The Hill?
PI: Hamilton is a college slow to change, but when change comes it does so in a hurry. That can be disconcerting to people who knew and loved the College as it used to be. The lesson of the book, if it has one, is that the history of Hamilton is characterized by both continuity and change, and both are necessary to sustain a vibrant learning community. On the Hill is dedicated to Dick Couper, Class of 1944, a sixth generation Hamiltonian, a former provost, acting president and trustee of the College, who unfortunately passed away before the Bicentennial. In a Class & Charter Day address he delivered in 2004, he jokingly suggested that the College set up a “standing committee on traditions,” which would recommend new traditions, “to be sure we had the right ones.” Like Dick, I think we should be prepared to welcome change on the Hill even as we honor our past, and recognize “tradition” as something warm, alive, and growing – not cold, dead, and immutable.

If you are interested in learning more about Hamilton’s history, you can purchase On the Hill today at the College bookstore or on the store’s website. The book can also be reserved at the Burke Library here.