From the Timelines column of the October 2009 issue of Perspectives on History
The AHA and the George Washington Bicentennial in 1932
William M. Ferraro, October 2009
On December 2, 1924, President Calvin Coolidge signed a joint resolution that established a commission to oversee the bicentennial of George Washington’s birth in 1932. That resolution, which was introduced by Senator Simeon D. Fess of Ohio, a Republican and former college president, launched activities both to mark the occasion and to increase understanding of Washington. To ensure intellectual rigor, the commission employed Alfred Bushnell Hart, Harvard University professor and former AHA president, as advisory historian. Under the leadership of Representative Sol Bloom of New York, a Democrat and experienced entertainment promoter, the Bicentennial Commission overcame the Great Depression’s financial woes and initiated or inspired thousands of commemorative events.1
The AHA’s contribution to this celebration was a special meeting featuring speakers on George Washington. The idea for this meeting surfaced in the fall of 1931. The AHA executive committee asked diplomatic historian Samuel Flagg Bemis, then a professor at George Washington University, to take charge of the arrangements. Bemis agreed and suggested as principal speaker J. Franklin Jameson, a former AHA president and a widely respected American historian.2
Although Chief Justice Charles Evans Hughes declined an invitation to introduce Jameson, Bemis evidently secured a panel easily.3 John C. Fitzpatrick, then editing a new edition of Washington’s writings after a long career in the manuscripts division of the Library of Congress, agreed to speak about his current undertaking. Urban historian Charles Moore was slated to address “The Potomac Environment of George Washington.” Edmund C. Burnett, editor of Letters of the Members of the Continental Congress, would talk on “Washington and Committees at Headquarters.” The special meeting was scheduled to begin at 3:00 p.m. on Saturday, May 7, 1932, in the Library of Congress auditorium. Jameson’s address, advertised as “Washington as Exemplar,” was to be the highlight of the evening program.4
Seeking a distinguished audience, the AHA mailed engraved invitations to the vice president, cabinet members, and other government officials. Regrets, however, far outweighed acceptances, and local secondary school teachers filled many seats.5 Further souring matters, Jameson suffered a heart attack in late March and had to be replaced as principal speaker by University of Chicago professor William E. Dodd, whose paper was titled “George Washington, Nationalist.” The streak of ill luck continued when May 7 dawned hot in Washington, D.C.—a serious problem before air conditioning—and the city reached a sweltering 91 degrees.
Despite these inauspicious developments, the special meeting was held. Coverage in the next day’s Washington Sunday Star emphasized Dodd’s treatment of Washington’s romantic feelings for the already married Sally Fairfax. Unremarked upon then, but now intriguing, were Fitzpatrick’s opening observations praising Hart and Worthington C. Ford, another former AHA president and editor of the previous edition of Washington’s writings, for gaining support from the George Washington Bicentennial Commission for Fitzpatrick’s work.
Of the many vicissitudes that idea encountered I cannot speak without telling tales out of school, but I can assure you that if I could bring myself to retail the progress of that idea to the point where it became a definite decision this paper, instead of being a staid, informational one would be spicily interesting even to sober-minded historians. Strangely, too, the objectionable factors did not vanish with the decision, but erupted unexpectedly in new forms and guises when it was reasonable to suppose that the last hurdle had been topped. Some of these later difficulties were amusing, some were pitiful, and some so disagreeable that a very small amount of pessimism would justify the thought that could George Washington himself return to us, he would be unequal to the task of saving America from those whose pet prejudices are more important to them than liberty and union.
But despite opposition and obstruction the editor’s work of the Bicentennial Edition of Washington’s Writings began in April 1930.6
More probing may expose all of Fitzpatrick’s veiled references, but he certainly alluded to two failed attempts to pass authorizing legislation despite favorable Senate action under Fess’s guidance and especially the House debate that preceded the measure’s successful passage in February 1930.7 Republican majority leader John Q. Tilson of Connecticut initiated that debate on February 18 when he asked unanimous consent for a third Senate bill to back the editorial work. House minority leader John Nance Garner of Texas—later Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s controversial first vice president—objected to the bill’s costs, and he sought assurances that Congress would not be asked to fund any other aspects of the George Washington Bicentennial celebration.
Garner’s remarks were tame in comparison to those of William Henry Stafford, a Republican from Wisconsin. He first blasted the initiative as a bad precedent. The federal government should not assume tasks formerly shouldered by private enterprise. Stafford then asserted that Hart and Fitzpatrick could never command from a publisher the $56,000 designated for preparing the edition. Trying to maintain decorum, Tilson described the proposed figures as “very moderate.”
Angered, Stafford denounced the prospective editors as “hack writers” unworthy of “any such compensation.” Tilson rebuffed Stafford and steered the measure to a favorable decision with only minor amendments. In his last comments, Stafford reiterated that $56,000 was “an outrageous appropriation” and announced his wish that this precedent should lead to an Abraham Lincoln edition. On February 21, President Herbert Hoover signed the authorization bill for a 25-volume edition that eventually became the 39-volume Writings of Washington, completed in 1944, four years after Fitzpatrick’s death.8
Sensitive about having only a high school diploma and never attending college (his “Dr.” came from honorary degrees), Fitzpatrick could be prickly toward professional historians. “I am sorry to report,” he replied to a request for a copy of his special meeting paper, “that the noble effort displayed before the American Historical Association meeting on the ‘Significance to the Historian of the Bicentennial Edition, etc.’ has not been printed nor does it seem likely to be. It was very short for when I am told to confine myself to twenty minutes I try to do so. Parenthetically I was the only one who spoke at that meeting who kept within bounds.”9
It turned out that Fitzpatrick was wrong, and the AHA published the special meeting papers in late 1934 in the association’s Annual Report for 1932.10 During this period, a funding crisis delayed all AHA publications because a longstanding congressional appropriation for these productions had been zeroed out in 1932 after being $7,000 annually since just after World War I and spiking to $12,000 in 1931. With this money, the AHA had published not only its official proceedings but also edited works identified by a standing committee on historical manuscripts.
While the AHA no longer published edited volumes after the Depression, it pushed in 1934 for the creation of the National Historical Publications Commission (NHPC) within the new National Archives. The NHPC became the National Historical Publications and Records Commission (NHPRC) in 1974, and that entity has been a cornerstone of modern documentary editions, with important support from the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) in recent decades. True to its own commitment to make available primary sources, the AHA—directly and indirectly—has continued to advocate for maintaining government funding for documentary editing.
—William Ferraro is an assistant professor at the University of Virginia, where he is also an assistant editor with the George Washington Papers project.
8. For the remarks of Tilson, Garner, and Stafford, see Congressional Record, 71st Cong., 2nd sess., 3897–900. The AHA supported the successful legislation with a memorial distributed to members of Congress. AHA clerk Patty W. Washington sent one to Fitzpatrick in a letter of February 7, 1930. Box 2, folder “Jan.-May 1930,” John C. Fitzpatrick Papers, Library of Congress.