The American Historical Association takes great pleasure in presenting its Theodore Roosevelt-Woodrow Wilson Award for Public Service to Sandra Day O’Connor, associate justice, Supreme Court of the United States (retired). The Roosevelt-Wilson award honors individuals outside the historical profession who have made a significant contribution to the study, teaching, and public understanding of history.

Sandra Day O'Connor

Sandra Day O’Connor

The AHA has long recognized that historical understanding must be shared to be useful to society, and that public figures who embrace the importance of history are vital to the work of all historians. Academics, educators, and researchers rely on outstanding, public-spirited individuals like Justice O’Connor in order to do their work. In a variety of active roles over a long career, she has championed the cause of a historically aware citizenry as fundamental to the functioning of American democracy. Justice O’Connor is one of those leaders whose work helps to foster and maintain the very conditions under which future generations are able to learn from the past.

Since her retirement in 2006 Justice O’Connor has tirelessly promoted public understanding and teaching of history through civics (and civics through history), especially at the secondary school level.  She has consistently placed historical knowledge and understanding at the center of civic competency, and argued that the ability of citizens to guide their society thoughtfully into the future depends on actively educating people about their history. In a major effort to live by these ideals, Justice O’Connor took on the unexpected role of digital innovator: she inspired the creation and maintenance of, a sophisticated website for children to learn about U.S. government and history through online games.

Justice O’Connor has been active in the Campaign for the Civic Mission of Schools, a valuable ally of the history education community in our continuing quest for support of professional development for our precollegiate teachers.  Good civics requires historical context, and Justice O’Connor has been a crusader for good civics. Just as her jurisprudence evinced a significant recognition of the importance of context, she has championed the cause of rigorous, universal civics curriculum that complements and builds on history education, rather than replaces it. While civics subject areas are not coterminous with the discipline of history, O’Connor’s work on behalf of the reproduction of civic values has highlighted the necessity of history in democracy. She has reinforced an appreciation of history and its importance to our civil society. Her efforts underscore that historical knowledge and understanding are fundamental components of social engagement. O’Connor has dedicated her time to educating children for civic competency, and has argued that everyone needs to have a strong history education for the public good.

The same faith in historical knowledge and understanding informs Justice’s O’Connor’s campaign to maintain the independence of courts, both state and federal, in the United States. In her speeches on judicial independence, she invokes episodes from history—for example, Franklin Roosevelt’s attempt to pack the Supreme Court—when this principle was threatened. In the same way, Justice O’Connor, during her time on the Supreme Court bench, employed historical analysis in her opinions not only to describe the context in which a particular legal question arose, but also to establish the historical roots of the rule of law at issue in the case. In these opinions she taught historians a valuable lesson: No “single mode of historical analysis” (Michael H. v. Gerald D., 491 U.S. 110 at 132 (1989)) suffices to arrive at a correct interpretation.

Sandra Day O’Connor has also demonstrated her commitment to history through her work with numerous institutions, including the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History, the National Park Service, America’s 400th Anniversary, and the National Constitution Center.  Her participation with historical institutions began well before her appointment to the Supreme Court in her hometown of Phoenix, Arizona, with the kind of local history orientation that is central to historical consciousness among millions of Americans but often missing from the experience of public figures.

Recognizing that one of the key functions of history in American public life is to reproduce civic values, we are proud tonight to award Sandra Day O’Connor with the Roosevelt-Wilson Award for her reminder that history should be a living legacy and ongoing responsibility for all citizens.