Downgrading the Founders

Do you recall the battle not long ago over the proposed national standards for American history?

When it was charged, incorrectly as it turns out, that the standards omitted sufficient consideration of the great figures who led the nation to independence and wrote and adopted its Constitution, all hell broke loose. The heroes of our tradition, it was said, were being ignored and their contributions traduced. The great ideas and aspirations that they had given to the world were being contemptuously dismissed. Washington, Franklin, Jefferson, Adams and Madison had given place to unknown and less notable people–native Americans, women, workers, the many victims of our history. Moreover, the charge went, this crime against the past was being committed by leftist academics out of touch with their fellow citizens.

Well, those great figures of American history are really taking it on the chin this time–and from an unlikely source, an independent agency of the federal government, an affiliate of the National Archives and Records Administration.

This agency, the National Historical Publications and Records Commission, decided late in 1996, by a one-vote margin, to downgrade its support of the continuing publication of the writings and correspondence of the great leaders of the American Revolution, of the Framers of the Constitution, and of other leading figures of our history.  These great multi-volume editions of the writings of Washington, Franklin, Jefferson and Madison, of Thomas A. Edison, of the freed slaves after the Civil War, and of Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony and Martin Luther King, Jr., all supported by NHPRC, are to be found in every major university or public library.

Their production has been premised on making available to all Americans the enduring works of these world-historical figures of our past. Students writing papers are able to read the works of these people without traveling to distant libraries and historical societies. Since 1934, NHPRC funds have been indispensable to the complex and time-consuming process of unearthing, editing, and publishing authentic texts–and doing so not just for scholars but for all citizens.

Yet now, in place of continued modest funding of these great documentary editions, the glory of NHPRC programs, the agency has switched its top priority support to the preservation and organizing of local and county archives.  It has dropped funding for the publication of the papers of the great figures of our history to last place. Its reasoning seems to be that the documentary editions are taking too long to produce and that, in the meantime, other essential records are deteriorating.

The agency’s fear for the condition of local records cannot be faulted. Its decision to reverse priorities is another matter. The commission has done so without having conclusively demonstrated that the change of priorities won’t irreparably damage, or make impossible, the completion of these great publications series. Nor has it fought effectively before Congress to increase the budget of the NHPRC–an additional $1 million annually on top of its current $5 million would prevent the change of policy. Will Americans be proud to discover that their government has caused a halt in the publication of the papers of George Washington and Martin Luther King in the middle?

This damaging change of policy comes on the heels of sharp reductions in the budget of the National Endowment for the Humanities, which has in the past generously supported many of the projects also funded by NHPRC. In the case of NEH, however, the inability to continue to fund many of these projects arises from a simple shortage of funds, not from an ill-advised change in agency policy, as is the case with NHPRC.

One of the ironies of all this is that no sounds of horror or complaint, identical to those so loudly heard when the proposed national history standards were released, have been heard from those who so effectively, if so wrongly, challenged those standards, critics such as Lynne Cheney and William Bennett. This time, therefore, protest against the NHPRC’s injurious decision must originate with ordinary citizens. What is at stake is nothing less than their ability to read and learn about the acts and aspirations of some of the greatest figures the modern world has known.

James M. Banner, Jr. a historian in Washington, D.C., was co-founder of the History News Service. He is most recently the editor of A Century of American Historiography (2009).

April, 1997