13 February 2024

Hamilton on the Nature of Genius

A Lesson in Sourcing

Many publications credit Alexander Hamilton with a statement that any genius he possesses is rooted in diligent study and a bit of obsession. Genius is "the fruit of labor and thought". This quote caught my interest last night while I was was reading a biography of a well-known twentieth century industrialist.* I went in search of a source, encountering mostly many quote aggregators that proliferate online with no sourcing information, each one simply presenting the same quotes as all the others with different lace surrounding the words.

One such farm, however, claimed to source all the quotes it had aggregated. LibQuotes claims, "278 sourced quotes" ( Most of the sources among those that I checked are eighteenth century letters, essays, or reports authored by Hamilton, or early nineteenth century compilations of the same. But the quote on the nature of genius is sourced to an early twentieth century business education group that called itself the Alexander Hamilton Institute. The institute served to educate, principally through printed texts, business leaders. Their 1919 Modern Business Report List is the source referenced by LibQuotes. It neither is a credible source for the expressions of an eighteenth century political leader, nor the earliest readily available publication with Hamilton's alleged words. The quote appears on the back cover of the pamphlet.

I made a screenshot of the back cover and posted it on Facebook, noting the lack of credible evidence that Hamilton said or wrote it. I awoke to several comments, including several comments from fellow historian and blogger, Larry Cebula. Cebula notes that the quote, "appears nowhere attributed to Hamilton until the early 20th century." 

Following Cebula's comments, I spent some time searching Google Books. The earliest reference turned up so far is The Detroiter (24 January 1916), 5. It appears in a box. Surely the quote was in circulation earlier, but where did it appear?

The Detroiter January 1916
It appeared in many business publications as early as 1916 and into the 1920s, and continued to appear in similar publications up to our day. Tracing it to Hamilton is another matter. More than likely, the quote is fake. But it was fabricated more than a century ago. By whom? For what purpose? The search goes on.

*R. L. Wilson, Ruger & His Guns: A History of the Man, the Company and Their Firearms (1996). The Hamilton quote appears on page 97.

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