Publication Date

January 1, 1998


Public History

The controversy that erupted in 1994 over the Enola Gay exhibition at the National Air and Space Museum of the Smithsonian Institution made headlines in newspapers throughout the country. Members of the U.S. Congress, as well as individuals and organizations outside the historical discipline, challenged the history that professional scholars proposed to include in the exhibition. Everyone knows that the Smithsonian ultimately revised the exhibition in response to this criticism. What everyone doesn’t know, however, is that discord between historians and the Smithsonian Institution is nothing new. Historians, represented by the American Historical Association, came into conflict with the Smithsonian as early as the 1890s over issues in which scholars felt their professional integrity was at stake.

The act of incorporation granted the AHA by Congress in 1889 established that the Smithsonian Institution would publish the Association's annual report, and that the secretary of the Smithsonian would act as the final arbiter of the materials to be included in this document. AHA secretary Herbert B. Adams considered incorporation to be the capstone of his career, but worried about the power the Smithsonian secretary would have over the Association. In a letter dated October 23, 1897, he reminded AHA treasurer Clarence W. Bowen that both Smithsonian secretary Samuel P. Langley and his adjutant, A. Howard Clark, editor of Smithsonian publications, had to be handled "with great circumspection" because "if either should kick hard, our present policy would be greatly obstructed."1 In that same year, the first sign of trouble appeared when a paper on religious reformer Philipp Melanchthon, submitted for inclusion in the annual report, was rejected because, in the opinion of Smithsonian librarian Cyrus Adler, it “involves a discussion of the beginning of the Reformation, and is conceived from a point of view, which might offend a large body of American citizens.” Publishing the essay, Adler noted, “might lay the Institution open to criticism.”2

It became clear that the Smithsonian would refuse to publish any papers in the field of religious history, a policy that had immediate and serious repercussions for the AHA. In 1896 the American Society of Church History had merged with the AHA, but the Association's church history section established as a result faltered, in part because papers on church history read at the annual meeting would not be published in the annual report. One student of theological history stated bluntly in 1902 that government sponsorship of the AHA was "fatal to the scientific treatment of church history."3 The American Society of Church History dissolved its connection with the AHA in 1906, but the Association’s difficulties with the Smithsonian over religious history continued. The winners of the AHA’s Herbert Baxter Adams and Justin Winsor prizes were guaranteed publication of their essays in the annual report, but when the monographs dealt with religious history, this condition was not fulfilled. Thus the AHA published at its own expense David S. Muzzey’s “The Spiritual Franciscans” in 1907 and Edward B. Krehbiel’s “The Interdict, Its History and Operation” in 1909. The Smithsonian ban on religious history also crippled the study of medieval history, John Franklin Jameson observed from his position at the department of historical research in the Carnegie Institution of Washington, because medieval history without a discussion of the church “would almost be Hamlet with Hamlet left out.”4

The publication of not only religious but also political history in the annual report was threatened. The AHA became nervous even about presenting controversial subjects at its annual meeting. Edwin E. Sparks, Jameson's former colleague at the University of Chicago, had prepared a paper on Abraham Lincoln's racial attitudes for the 1905 meeting in Washington, D.C. Jameson asked AHA corresponding secretary Charles H. Haskins, "Do you think it would be unwise to have such a paper here?" He confessed that he did not know what Sparks would say, "but he has a large knowledge of matters respecting Lincoln, and plenty of tact and right-feeling." In the end, Jameson informed Sparks that "expert opinion" within the AHA had decided the nation's capital was an inappropriate forum for his paper and that he should consider presenting it at a later date.5

As Jameson pointed out on the occasion of the AHA's 25th anniversary in 1909, it was unlikely that the Smithsonian would agree to publish anything as candid as Albert B. Hart's "The Biography of a River and Harbor Bill," which appeared in the AHA Papers before the Association received its congressional charter.6 The truth of that observation was brought home to Jameson and other AHA officials the following year when the Smithsonian excluded nearly all of the papers submitted from an AHA panel on ethnic elements in American history, and all the papers from a session on southern history from the 1909 annual report. Smithsonian librarian and mammalogist Frederick W. True concluded that William A. Dunning’s paper on “Legislation and the Race Problem” was “historical and there is much that is interesting in it, but it is worded in such a manner as to leave a feeling of irritation in the mind of anyone to whom the question of the negro is a ‘live’ one.” Dunning observed that, in the previous 20 years, the southern states had “shown themselves as relentless and ingenious in taking away from the negro the white man’s rights, as Congress was in giving them to him.”

True concluded that "of the various articles on the negro," Theodore D. Jervey's "The Negro Problem as affected by Sentiment" was most suitable for publication, but he noted that Jervey could not "restrain himself toward the last from taking up political questions." Jervey was a lawyer whose 1905 novel, The Elder Brother, portrayed blacks as the instrument of carpetbagger control in his native South Carolina. In his paper Jervey took an opposite but equally patronizing position, commenting that while the southern white man “may be best fitted to rule [the black man] as such, he is not constituted to assist him most in the evolution to a higher condition.”7

As acting secretary of the AHA, Jameson grudgingly accepted the exclusion of these and other papers for explicitly political reasons. He could not, however, accede quietly to the removal in 1908 of Francis Davenport's bibliography of materials for the study of English diplomatic history on the grounds that it fell outside the scope of American history and was thus unsuitable for a government publication. That Davenport worked for Jameson at the Carnegie Institution added to his pique, but he nonetheless firmly believed that Davenport's work was completely unobjectionable. Jameson wrote Smithsonian secretary Charles D. Walcott, explaining that if bibliographies "are not among the most useful of historical publications I am certainly pursuing the wrong policy in my work at the Carnegie Institution." The exclusion, Jameson added in a second letter to Walcott, "has no warrant in the Act of Incorporation."8

Walcott stood his ground on Davenport's bibliography, and he took the opportunity to remind Jameson that the secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, not the AHA, provided the authoritative interpretation of the act of incorporation. Walcott noted that Jameson had referred publicly to the "censorship vested in the Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution," and suggested that if the AHA chafed under the existing relationship with the Smithsonian, "the way is open to secure a new Act of Incorporation in which the objectionable relationship of the Institution implied in your characterization of 'censorship' is done away with and the Institution will feel no resentment in the matter." Responding to this implied threat of abandonment by the Smithsonian, Jameson reassured Walcott that his letter "was not intended to touch upon the unquestioned right and duty of the Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution to exercise his discretion as to the inclusion or exclusion of each individual article considered on its merits."9

After Walcott threw down the gauntlet to the AHA, its officials never again challenged his fundamental authority to dictate the contents of the Association's annual report. Walcott's decision to exclude papers on American Christianity, popular churches after the American Revolution, and Mexican attitudes toward the United States in 1846 from the 1913 annual report provoked in Jameson "the greatest chagrin, and indeed indignation." Returning the paper on Mexico to its author, he lamented that "there is plainly nothing to be done, though it seems a pity that when Congressmen can say the most irritating things about Mexico day after day, a scientific presentation of Mexican opinion seventy years ago can not be printed for fear of offending their delicate sense of propriety."10 Jameson returned William E. Dodd’s paper on Woodrow Wilson, delivered in 1920, because “the secretary of the Smithsonian would not let it go to print in the Annual Report, and I fear I ought not print such present-day contentious matter in theAmerican Historical Review, unless I were expecting, which I am not, to throw open our pages subsequently to polemical contributions from the other side.”11

Apart from Jameson, AHA officials were ambivalent about the Association's connection with the Smithsonian. "An important course to consider is the desirability of giving up the Smithsonian grant-and the responsibility of supplying free copies to the Smithsonian Institution and members of Congress-and doing all our printing at our expense," Charles Haskins told Jameson in 1906. A commercial printer likely would charge less than the Government Printing Office and "we should at the same time gain entire freedom in the make-up of our Report."12 Cornell professor Charles H. Hull commented that the best papers presented at the annual meeting were published in the American Historical Review or other periodicals. He also noted, however, that the promise of publication encouraged presentations at the annual meeting and if the annual report were closed to these speakers, “we should get even worse papers at the meetings than we do.”13

Despite the anguish he experienced in dealing with the Smithsonian, Jameson was unswerving in his commitment to government sponsorship. "That the act [of incorporation] tended to place an expert body in the position of adviser to the government in historical matters was no small gain in a democratic country," he insisted, "imperfectly as the attribution has yet been realized." Government subsidy gave the AHA freedom to spend its money on other worthwhile projects, and "if there is anything that distinguishes the American Historical Association (anything, we may add in parenthesis, which can be pointed to as the main cause of its remarkable harmony), it is the abundance of the organized scientific activities which it has added to the mere reading of papers in annual convention."14

No one denied the value of publishing the reports of the Historical Manuscripts Commission and the Public Archives Commission, or the annual bibliography, Writings on American History, in the annual report, and it was on behalf of these activities that Jameson continued to defend the government subsidy and work for its continuance. The connection between the Smithsonian and the AHA continues today, although for many years the annual report has been restricted to a brief summary of the Association’s work. Given the proliferation of journals and other sources of publication, there is no need for the imposing tomes of previous years, but those volumes remain as a testament to work accomplished and to the inextricable connection between government funding and government influence.

The AHA's contentious relationship with the Smithsonian Institution illustrates the difficulties historians have faced in attempting to establish a sphere of professional autonomy in a politically charged environment. In a recent issue of the Journal of American History focusing on the Enola Gay episode, editor David Thelen reminded historians of their responsibility not to disengage themselves from public controversy. The lack of fortitude the Association displayed over the contents of its annual report may be the most troubling aspect of its earlier encounter with the Smithsonian. Rather than openly debate the AHA’s relationship with the Smithsonian when the question of censorship arose, its leaders, including Jameson, simply acquiesced. Because of this, the political nature of the Smithsonian remained obscured for nearly a century, so that Martin Harwit, the former director of the Air and Space Museum, could declare without fear of contradiction in that same issue of the JAH that “the Smithsonian has always prided itself on upholding the freedom of scholars to publish.”15


1. Herbert B. Adams to Clarence W. Bowen, October 23, 1897, Box 6, American Historical Association Records, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

2. Cyrus Adler to Samuel P. Langley, April 21, 1897, Record Unit 31, Box 4, Smithsonian Institution Archives.

3. [John Franklin Jameson] to Wallace N. Sterns, April 5, 1907, Box 48, John Franklin Jameson Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress; Francis A. Christie to Jameson, December 18, 1902, Box 71, Jameson Papers.

4. Jameson, “The American Historical Association, 1884–1909,” American Historical Review 15 (October 1909): 14, 15.

5. Jameson to Charles H. Haskins, November 10, 1905, Box 8, AHA Records; [Jameson] to Edwin E. Sparks, November 13, 1905, Box 57, Jameson Papers.

6. Jameson, “American Historical Association,” 14.

7. [Jameson] to William A. Dunning, December 14, 1910, Box 13, AHA Records; [William F. True], [Comments on papers submitted for the 1909 AHA annual report ], attached to [Charles D. Walcott] to Richard Bartholdt, February 13, 1911, Record Unit 45, Box 2, Smithsonian Archives. See also AHA, Annual Report, 1909, 35–37.

8. [Jameson] to Walcott, July 6, October 25, 1909, Box 129, Jameson Papers.

9. Walcott to Jameson, November 26, 1909, Box 129, Jameson Papers; [Jameson] to Walcott, December 4, 1909, Box 129, Jameson Papers. See also Jameson, “American Historical Association,” 13.

10. [Jameson] to Justin H. Smith, October 23, 1914, Box 128, Jameson Papers.

11. [Jameson] to William E. Dodd, March 3, 1920, Box 296, AHA Records.

12. Charles H. Haskins to Jameson, October 8, 1906, Box 51, Jameson Papers.

13. [Charles H. Hull] to William A. Dunning, December 9, 1907, Box 2, Charles Hull Papers, Cornell University Archives.

14. Jameson, “American Historical Association, 1884–1909,” 15.

15. David Thelen, “History after the Enola Gay Controversy: An Introduction,” Journal of American History 82 (December 1995): 1035; Martin Harwit, “Academic Freedom in ‘The Last Act,'” Journal of American History 82 (December 1995): 1082.

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