Publication Date

November 1, 1971

Perspectives Section



  • United States



It has been more than two decades since, in response to Harry Truman’s request, the National Historical Publications Commission (NHPC) undertook the “preliminary survey of scholarly opinion” which would lead to A National Program for the Publication of Historical Documents (1954). That survey, carried out during the summer and fall of 1950, signaled its own outcome and some of its limitations by seeking the names of American leaders whose papers should be published. Certain of those limitations and some alternatives are discussed below; but perhaps the major lesson which I have drawn from working on this report is the urgent necessity for a thorough critical review of officially sponsored publications programs.

I believe that despite pretenses to timelessness in the rhetoric of some of those who started it, the publications program is already in some ways an anachronism, a relic of the ‘fifties. Unless it is challenged, natural inertia will give us more of the same: committees are moving along, implementing an old consensus; they know where they are going, and no longer ask why or whether they should go there. So a fundamental review is necessary, not one which, like this one, is prepared hurriedly, and which inevitably reflects the special historiographical experience, interests, and gaps in information of one individual. Thus I strongly urge a thorough review which would draw upon the resources and conflicting perspectives of large numbers of people, and I present this report as a preliminary outline. Such a review would have, like this one, two parts: analysis and critique of existing publications programs, and proposal of alternative programs.

The present report is based primarily on an examination of the history and projects of the NHPC, as well as consideration of various bicentennial publications programs. It may be legitimately faulted for its impressionism. A fuller review should aim at a critical explication of the consensus within which decisions concerning what to publish are made. The proposals offered below are presented only sketchily, as suggestions of the kinds of things which should be done. What is needed is not for a single historian to devise an entire publications program, but rather for committees to be formed in various subject areas to define more precisely needs only tentatively outlined here.

Having mentioned the limitations of this report due to single authorship, I want at the same time to stress that I have assumed that it would be more useful for me to start off the review process by expressing my own views bluntly and directly, rather than by attempting to draft a document which the AHA’s Committee on the Bicentennial would readily adopt as its own. There is no reason to expect consensus within the committee, and I do not seek to impose one through this report. I write as one individual with a special interest in early American history and in history “from the bottom up.” I have attempted to speak to a diversity of needs, and although my specific proposals are restricted to early America, I believe that my critique applies to publications for all periods of American history.


I. The Papers of Great White Men


1. Politics and Publications: From the ‘Fifties to the ‘Seventies

Few historians, and certainly not this one, would deny the immense value of the various historical editing projects currently in progress, and none of what follows should be taken as a challenge to the usefulness of the new editions of the papers of Jefferson, Franklin, et al.1 But what was seen at its beginning as a broad program dealing with “all the important aspects of our national development,” increasingly exposes its narrowness: what were described uncritically in the ‘fifties simply as “the papers of American leaders” have translated, in the less rosy light of the ‘seventies, into the papers of Great White Men, with all the exclusion conveyed by each of the three words.2

The tendency to skew the publications program in the direction of white male political leaders came about through no conspiracy, but neither did it “just happen.” The NHPC’s mandate is to “plan,” “recommend,” and “encourage,” and it attempts to serve as a “promotional agency” by giving “a stamp of professional approval” to those projects it thinks worthy. Although it thus both initiates—“It cannot . . . be passive”—and responds—“to proposals that conform to the Commission’s views . . .”—it does both within the limits of its plan. That plan has been primarily to encourage the publication of the papers of leading individuals—as opposed, say, to records of and concerning non-elite groups. This has left unencouraged vast areas of social, economic, and cultural history, while giving a stamp of professional approval to a narrow definition of political history. I have found archivists, who seem somewhat blunter about these matters than historians, unhesitant to condemn the NHPC for isolation from modern research trends and unimaginative traditionalism about history, historical methods and sources; for elitism, timidity concerning controversial topics, and lack of responsiveness to the history of minority groups; for activism in areas which the commission likes and passivity or rejection in other important areas.

The NHPC’s fundamental act of exclusion occurs at the point of definition: those groups whose individual members did not leave extensive records are to be largely ignored. Thus (although the NHPC has hardly exhausted the papers of black, female, and radical leaders) its hunt for large manuscript collections of individual leaders automatically sets artificially narrow limits to what it will publish concerning the history of blacks, women, lower-class whites, and radicalism. (Some of the projects earlier encouraged by J. Franklin Jameson at the Carnegie Institution—e.g. Helen Catterall’s and Elizabeth Donnan’s documentary collections on slavery—provide an illuminating contrast.3

As for the kinds of leaders whose papers the NHPC is interested in encouraging, it expressed its preference in 1951 in its initial recommendation of comprehensive publication of the papers of Franklin, John and John Quincy Adams, Madison, and Hamilton. (The papers of Thomas Jefferson were already in process at the time. The commission has traditionally described these six, plus a few others, as its “priority” projects.) Subsequently, money became available for certain kinds of projects, but not for others: Time, Inc., the New York Times, the Ford (two million dollars), Rockefeller, and Guggenheim Foundations, Presidents, universities and university presses, historians and historical societies supported the papers of a Franklin, a Jefferson, an Adams, not those of a Debs (nor do I recall that Philip Foner received Presidential congratulations on the publication a few years earlier of his edition of the writings of Tom Paine, or was invited to White House luncheons with other editors). The NHPC projects have lasting intrinsic value, but like much of the history written during those years, they can also be seen as part of the intellectual history of the ‘fifties, reflecting something of the politics and ideology of the times. The commission, wrote Chairman Wayne Grover in 1951, believed that publications of the sort it was proposing “give added strength and inspiration to the people of the United States in their struggle against the enemies of democracy.” The Korean War, wrote Truman, “seems to me to make the work of the [NHPC] more important than ever.” “In times like these, when the democratic world is seriously threatened by enemies within and without its borders,” reported the NHPC to Eisenhower in 1954 (in phrases earlier tried out on Truman), many historians “believe that an understanding of the American heritage and of the ideas and ideals upon which it rests is vitally important.” Again and again, historians approached government with arguments justifying support for the NHPC in terms of the projects’ relevance to the “national interest and security.” Editors quoted their long-dead subjects on behalf of appropriations (“This is the testimony, sir, of one of the most competent witnesses that we could bring to . . . this legislature,” said Julian Boyd), evoking from one Congressman the sensible remark, “Now, you gentlemen are well aware that Dr. Thomas Jefferson has been dead for many years, and I don’t see how it could possibly be implied that he was in favor of this bill.” Congressmen were merely buying the historians’ arguments when the former declared in 1957 that the NHPC’s program would “strengthen the defense of our country against its enemies.” Two months before, leading figures in the profession had told the House of “the immediate, practical relevance” of the NHPC’s work at a time of “colonialism, neutralism, the clash of two great contending powers, and world leadership of the United States”; that “Since our democracy places such great emphasis upon the individual it becomes more necessary than ever that we advance the various projects . . . of significant personal papers . . .”; and that publication of the papers was “particularly pertinent at a time when private enterprise as an economic system is being challenged everywhere in the world.” And the AHA’s Boyd Shafer—who would later boast of his solitary struggle to keep the AHA above politics—urged Congress to support the NHPC because “I think that history is a missile which guides our future.” The often distorting message of “relevance” and of history as instrumentality was not the invention of the New Left.

The present publications program should be seen in part as a vestige of the arrogant nationalism and elitism of the ‘fifties. American historians—left, right, and center—are welcome to their politics, but there is no denying that they have politics. And there is great danger that the entire bicentennial “celebration” will be just that, a political affair dominated by the politics of the ‘fifties, slightly updated to meet current needs. Furthermore, when it is suggested to historians that the commemoration may have a politics of its own, they generally interpret “politics” in the narrowest sense, perceiving the issue only in terms of Nixon, political appointments (the gourmets, businessmen, and Republican campaign contributors on the President’s Bicentennial Commission), and displays of “Pride and Patriotism.” But politics, as we have seen, are not the sole property of those whom historians tend to view as lightweights, and the. heavyweights—the historians themselves—may also be embarked in the direction of a political celebration. Passing over the content of historiography, consider one institutional example: describing its bicentennial program, the Library of Congress notes that “Observance of the Bicentennial can deepen the faith of American citizens in their institutions. . . .” Which institutions? The Pentagon? The Presidency? Personally, 1 believe that the American people have reason to have less faith in many of their institutions. I have my politics; LC has its politics. I do not propose to make the Library of Congress into an instrument of my politics; if it chooses to be the instrument of somebody else’s politics, I see no reason why I should not picket it in the same way that I would other organizations which aim to deepen the faith of Americans in institutions unworthy of their faith. These matters are mentioned here because of the profession’s habit of avoiding critiques coming from the left by labeling them “political” while ignoring its own politics. The proposals presented later in this report are injected into what is already a deeply political situation; far from attempting to politicize the publications program, they are an attempt to suggest what the profession might do if it were serious about that pluralism of which we hear so much and see so little. Specifically, what is proposed is that documentary publications begin to include, rather than exclude or ignore, those who were not great, not white, not men.

2. How the Papers of Great White Men Limit and Channel Scholarship: “Dirty People with No Names”

If the publications programs express a politics of their own, they also inevitably express a way of looking at history. It is history viewed largely from the top down (and also generally political rather than social history), history seen from the point of view of dominant elites. No one need defend the study of dominant elites; we need their papers and can hardly expect to understand history without them. My critique is not intended to suggest that the researcher should make an exclusive either/or choice (study of elites vs. non-elites) but rather to criticize a situation so weighted in the elite direction as to discriminate against a balanced approach. To study dominant elites is not per se to espouse a particular philosophy of history; but to publish the papers of great men without publishing sources which offer a view “from the bottom up” is very definitely to favor one way of looking at history over others. Where does this leave those who hold to other views, or simply those who, having other historical interests, seek to study those whom historians have often erroneously dismissed as inarticulate?4) The kinds of sources whose publication is presently stressed present information about such people primarily as a fortuitous byproduct rather than as a primary goal. Indeed, the very imbalance in the publications program seems to confirm the “inarticulateness” of those who are excluded, the elegant volumes seeming to express in material form the profession’s ideology about what sort of studies are possible and desirable: elites are to be seen in their own terms; non-elites, if they are seen at all, are to be seen from an elite perspective.

I do not mean to suggest, to take one example, that the papers of Benjamin Franklin are not both valuable in themselves and rich in materials for the study of the “inarticulate.” Thus, among the useful first-person sources “from the bottom up” which I have found are the pleas for exchange and descriptions of conditions addressed by captured American Revolutionary seamen to Franklin from British prisons. Certainly historians of the “inarticulate” need to make use of such data found in elite sources and will find them rewarding. But the point remains that the Franklin Papers focus on, and are structured about, Benjamin Franklin, not common seamen. In other words, the publications program, as presently focused, implicitly urges me to be content with what trickles down.

Suppose the tables were turned. Suppose, after the revolution, I were made Commissar of Publications, and when you came to my office in the Library of Soviets seeking guidance for a study of, say, George Washington, I replied, “Washington? Oh, yes, Washington. I guess that stuff is around here someplace. . . . Well, you’ll just have to work hard and find what you can. You can’t expect the State to spend money on such bourgeois frivolities. You know, the testimony of Washington and his kind is very suspect, hardly the sort of stuff a professional historian would use. But there is quite a lot about him in this series of heavily-annotated seamen’s diaries which we have published. Dig the binding.” You might well see a publications program along these lines as deeply political and subversive of genuinely scholarly activity. You should not be faced with the choice of compiling, editing, and annotating the Washington papers from scratch or making do with the information trickling up from seamen’s diaries. I should not be faced with a similar choice.

I do not think we should have a Commissar of Publications deciding what historians should study, and my vision of the good society is not one in which the publication of George Washington’s papers would be considered a frivolity. Neither am I for a status quo which is similarly exclusive in its decisions as to what should and should not be published and, by implication, what should and should not be studied. The question is, as above, one of whether there might really be free trade in ideas, something approaching a genuine pluralism in publication programs.

How? When Charles Mullett characterized certain eighteenth-century Americans with whom I have some acquaintance as “dirty people with no names” in a leading historical journal he unwittingly conveyed the information that there are still troglodytes in the earth in these days. I doubt that the remark is typical of the historical profession, and yet the profession is far more tolerant of such attitudes than it is of the populist deviation: I have yet to hear the outcry from historians over Mullett’s remarks that I would expect were a major journal to publish a review of a work about John Adams in which the reviewer called Adams an “aristocratic pig with no head.” So, part of the answer to the question, “How?” is to change some basic social attitudes in the historical profession. This is too vast a project to be described here.

Mullett also suggested a somewhat more specific difficulty when he wrote, “the ambition [of writing the history of dirty people with no names] is worthy, [but] its achievement must be left to God.” Writing the history of such groups is a difficult task, and if sources are unavailable, then it really is up to God Herself to decide whether She will undertake it. But I believe that mere mortals might be able to write such history if practical steps were taken to make sources more available. In the remainder of this report, I would like to suggest some general principles and then to offer some specific examples of publication projects.

II. Alternative Directions

Groups which are presently excluded should receive, as much as makes sense, treatment similar to that which has been accorded the great white men. Obviously, this does not imply a literal translation from existing programs; in general, it means that information about excluded groups should be the central organizing principle rather than a secondary byproduct. More specifically, this means that high priority—although not exclusive attention—should be given to the publication of annotated collections of first-person testimony. If we are to study politics, ideology, culture and society, and to ask of people on the bottom of early American society the kinds of questions which we presently ask of a Jefferson or a Franklin, there is no substitute for first-person testimony.5 Implementing the latter principle is difficult, which is why we must seek out such sources deliberately and self-consciously. And at a time when fruitful discussion is in progress concerning “literary” as opposed to other kinds of sources, especially quantifiable ones, it is essential to bear in mind that while we need and should seek quantitative data (See below, II-3) for all levels of society, we will be preserving the existing immense imbalance in the literary evidence if we bypass sources in which excluded groups present their thoughts and describe their actions in their own words.

1. Popular Protest in Early America: A Collection of Source Materials

Given the relative scarcity of sources for a history of the “inarticulate,” we will not get very far if we seek correspondence and autobiography and give up when they do not appear; we must seek situations in which the thought of the “inarticulate” is especially likely to have been expressed. “Riot” was a pervasive phenomenon in early America and a major vehicle of political expression. Studying such activities is a rich, although sometimes limited, means of approaching popular politics. We cannot read back with total precision what was on people’s minds by examining what they chose to attack. On the other hand, the selection of targets for destruction or harassment tells us a good deal about popular politics, and sources concerning such events usually contain much information in the way of slogans, shouts, signs, effigies, and conflicting testimony about what was going on, who led and who followed. At present, the scholar attempting to study colonial protest must start more or less from scratch and construct his or her own source collection. (It is amazing that no one has collected in one place the various accounts even of such a major episode as the Stamp Act protests.) It is essential that historians have many accounts from many different perspectives if we are even to begin to make sense of what happened: apparent chaos when viewed from the walls of a fort may in fact be good order when sew from the street (and vice versa). What might have seemed unknowable and mysterious becomes knowable through the simple and unmysterious labor of assembling many conflicting accounts of the same event. Most accounts are brief. A fraction of the money, time, and labor spent on the papers of individual great men would produce an extremely valuable collection concerning popular political behavior in early America.

2. Reminiscences and Diaries of Early America and the Revolution: A Proposal for Assembling, Annotating, and Publishing in Paperback

A collection of materials dealing with Americans in British prisons during the Revolution would be very useful in itself, but I mention it here by way of introducing the larger topic of diaries and reminiscences for early America in general. Seeking first-person sources for study of seamen in the prisons taught me that there is a large number of contemporary diaries, mostly scattered and some unpublished, and also that one who wants to see the American Revolution “from the bottom up” will rapidly find himself or herself turning to books published in the 182os, ’30s, and later, when there seems to have been an outpouring of reminiscences. These reminiscences usually focus on the war itself but begin before it and end after it. Together, the contemporary records and later ren1iniscences provide an abundance of first-person testimony, both about the Revolution itself and about early America in peacetime. These sources are rich and diverse enough to enable us to ask some highly sophisticated questions about values, politics, and ideology, the kinds of questions which we have previously asked of leaders. We can speak with some authority on such matters as collectivism and individualism in early American thought, the quality and content of early American religion, class and group consciousness, deference and radicalism: the seemingly unknowable becomes knowable when the sources are assembled.

There are many problems with such sources: some later accounts are boastful and partly erroneous products of faulty memories. Nor are those who came to be in a position to publish their memoirs “typical.” But similar criticisms could be made of the autobiographies of a Franklin, or Henry Adams, which are not dismissed as historical sources; instead we try to use them critically. How might we best make diaries and reminiscences of the non-elite available for critical scholarship? The Arno Press (New York Times) series, Eyewitness Accounts of the American Revolution, has reprinted facsimiles of “the best available editions” of one hundred and one such titles. This is an important series, and we must be grateful for having so much rare and out-of-print material made available. But the series is seriously deficient from a scholarly point of view. It fails to annotate the volumes (beyond what was in the original edition), to seek out the original manuscripts, or to inquire into authenticity. Such omissions further institutionalize the second-class citizenship (in a scholarly sense) of these articulate representatives of the “inarticulate”; it is as if we were given a facsimile of an edition of Franklin’s autobiography edited and annotated in the nineteenth century and told that Franklin had now been “covered.” If binding is the only thing distinguishing a reprint from the earlier edition, what we have is useful, but it is not scholarship.

A deliberate search for such sources should be made and criteria devised as to what should be reprinted. The paperback book seems the most appropriate and useful form of publication, with the generally shorter contemporary diaries published together, several to a volume. Current standards offer a model for editing and annotating, but with one major difference: since we are interested in the authors of these volumes both for themselves and for what they tell us about life and thought among non-elite groups, editing should be undertaken accordingly. This does not mean that there should not be necessary biographical information, but the annotators should probably see themselves more nearly as editor-social historians than as editor-biographers. In this way, the annotating itself would constitute a significant contribution to social history.

3. Basic Social Data

If we can computerize an index of the papers of the Continental Congress, we should also computerize the kind of basic social, political, and economic data which quantitatively oriented historians are using so fruitfully. But whether we put the material in computers, books, microfilm, or whatever, we need to assemble and make more readily useable a variety of records which are presently scattered and often endangered: tax and land records, vital records, wills, censuses, genealogical information, city, town, and church records, military records, lists of immigrants and other groups, data on occupations and wages, medical and legal records, election data. Such sources have their drawbacks: people on the bottom of society may be under-represented in many of these records, just as they are in literary sources. And since social structure on the one hand does not determine culture and consciousness on the other hand in any simple way, we must beware lest we make too mechanistic a leap from solid information about the former into the complex world of the latter. But, if we are attentive to such caveats, only our inventiveness would seem to limit the uses which we can make of such sources, once they are assembled so that the information which they contain is readily retrievable. We can describe the realities of social structure and change, make solid statements about various kinds of mobility, and construct biographies of people otherwise “anonymous.”

4. Racism and Sexism in Documentary Publications: The Exclusion of Blacks, Women, and Indians

Were there no blacks in early America? I see no indication of it in the major bicentennial publication programs. This is almost beyond belief, institutional racism in the most literal sense. In 1963 the NHPC stated that “The records of Americans” of various backgrounds, including African “—particularly the last because the neglect, understandably, has been greater—should be explored and made accessible in appropriate form.” By 1971 the commission’s explorations had (understandably?) produced only these results: some support for the papers of Booker T. Washington, strong interest in support for the papers of Frederick Douglass; the judgment that the Ohio Historical Society’s microfilm publication of the papers of Paul Laurence Dunbar “wholly or substantially” meets “the standards expected by the Commission”; and a plea for more funds in order “to do more . . . with respect to ethnic and minority groups . . . .” The closest they have come to specifying what this might mean for black history (aside from the Washington and Douglass papers) is to state that the antislavery movement in the Revolutionary period deserves attention; if they can give it attention, they seem to intend to view the movement primarily from the perspective of white manumission and abolitionism. In my contact with the commission I have found an alarming passivity in the area of black history. Hampered by an elitist perspective which seeks extensive collections of single individuals, the commission has been unable to see the obvious: major documentary projects on blacks throughout American history are long overdue; bicentennial publications concerning blacks in early America should be seen as a partial contribution to such a larger series.

Institutional racism, institutional sexisn1. Women are another group which is not so much historiographically mute as unheard. By 1971, the NHPC reported, “to its chagrin, the Commission has not yet been able to spur the publication of the papers of a woman leader in American life.” There were and are women leaders, and we need their papers. What with all that chagrin, we can assume that eventually the commission will do something about it (although, given its past record, perhaps in the future it should be reminded from time to time that it is now basing part of its request for a proposed two million dollar per year annual budget on a statement of good intentions in this area). But we need more than the papers of leaders, and again the commission’s elitist perspective severely limits what it can do in this area while legitimizing the refusal to do more. Those who have worked in other areas of early American history know that they have passed by abundant materials on the life, work, conduct and thought of women in the period. It is not materials that are lacking, but the deliberate quest for them.

What written sources we have for Indian tribes are scattered and fragmented in the records of various colonies. Thus, if a tribe signed treaties with two different colonies in one year, their related meaning for Indian politics has been obscured by the division of the documents to fit white political boundaries. To the factor of space is added that of time; it has been difficult to trace Indians through white documents in which they appear at irregular intervals. Finally, since in this area we are so dependent on white sources, one way of at least lessening the bias is to assemble and collate conflicting accounts of the same event from different sources—e.g. French and English records. Under these circumstances, it has taken an almost superhuman diligence and patience painstakingly to trace the activities of Indians from one colony’s records to another and over time. What we need for Indians, as in the other areas discussed above, is the assembling of documents in which the Indian is central rather than peripheral.

Each of these three vast areas is worthy of the more detailed attention which I have given elsewhere in this report to subjects with which I am more immediately familiar; in each, specialists should be invited to draw up publications programs.

5. Selected Documents on Various Trades in Early America

The current publications program is deficient in the area of labor history. Some of my proposals in social history overlap with labor history, but the latter field has a dignity and importance of its own, and the relative inattention to the field in the early period in recent years has brought us to the point where there is a pressing need to follow up leads suggested by an earlier generation of labor historians. I am struck by our general ignorance of the basic facts about different trades: wages, patterns of employment and unemployment, advancement, conditions of work, social relations on and off the job, and residence. We rely at present on very important work by Richard B. Morris, Carl Bridenbaugh and, more recently, Jackson Main, Staughton Lynd, and Alfred Young. But none of these would claim that their work has exhausted the field. It would stimulate research—and perhaps help to bring about a fruitful marriage between an older labor history and a newer social history—to issue, in paperback, a series of brief books containing selected documents and commentary aiming to get at some of the basic facts of the different trades.

6. First-Person Testimony in Legal Records

Many people otherwise unknown to history appear in legal records. Such records can be among the richest sources for social and labor history. They have their drawbacks: people in court are people in trouble, and thus not ”typical”; what appears to be precise description is often simply the following of form with names filled in and facts tailored to fit the form. Conceding these and other drawbacks, it remains true that court records contain a wide range of information about those activities defined as criminal. And, especially in depositions, many of the groups least favored by other kinds of sources speak for themselves. If we approached legal sources deliberately seeking out their words, we would have extensive collections of first-person testimony from the allegedly ”inarticulate.”

7. The Construction of Source Materials from Early American Newspapers

As with legal sources, colonial newspapers are rich in first-person testimony and, in general, in information for the study of non-elite groups. And, also as with legal records, the availability of newspapers themselves does not automatically assure the accessibility of all the data buried within: it must be deliberately sought and collected. Force and Niles made good use of newspapers in constructing collections of primary sources; the same could be done with special attention to the immense amount of data for social history in colonial newspapers. (Indexing of newspapers is another important way in which their contents can be made accessible; we need much more of this.)

8. Radical Papers

”A scholarly and comprehensive edition of the papers of Thomas Paine, to whom the Nation owes an immense debt of gratitude, should be published” (NHPC, 1963). And what of the papers of John Adams’ cousin Sam? We might also assemble what papers there are of lesser radical leaders by cities (e.g., Sears, Lamb, and MacDougall for New York). Also: the records of committees of correspondence, Sons of Liberty, committees enforcing non-importation, committees of observation, inspection, and safety.

A few other projects: an updated and fully scholarly collection of songs and ballads of early America; various projects in art, archeology, architecture, and city planning, with a special focus on the expression and physical environment of non-elite groups; documentary histories of the ratification of state constitutions; guides to manuscript collections with special attention to records dealing with the ”inarticulate.”


Editor’s note: This report was prepared for the AHA’s Committee on the Commemoration of the American Revolution Bicentennial by Jesse Lemisch, Mr. Lemisch, who is an associate professor of history at Roosevelt University and a member of the committee, wishes to emphasize that the report in no way represents the committee’s viewpoint or policy.

In the interests of economy and space most of Mr. Lemisch’s scholarly documentation has been omitted. Except where otherwise noted, information concerning the National Historical Publications Commission may be found in commission materials for the period 1951-71: reports to the President, descriptions of proposed and actual programs, catalogs and lists of publications; and a Congressional report and hearings. The author appreciates the help and criticism of Alfred Young, Francis Jennings, Joel Shufro, Naomi Weisstein, and John K. Alexander.


  1. One does, however, hear a variety of criticisms, especially on the question of microfilm vs. letterpress, Producing books is more expensive; but books are also more ”democratic,” i.e. accessible. I have no final thoughts on this matter; some forms are appropriate to some projects, others to others. But it is relevant in the present context that microfilm publication has meant, in the words of a recent chairman of the NHPC, ”’second level’—materials that are . . . not quite important enough to justify . . . letterpress publication . . .” (Wayne Grover, Journal of American History, March 1966). Historians will disagree about what is important. Discussions about whether to make available the kinds of materials described below, whatever the form, should acknowledge such disagreement rather than ignoring or suppressing it by dealing with the question as if it were simply a matter of economics. A poor-mouth response to a proposed partial shift in content and perspective would seem both evasive and discriminatory, and the more blatantly so now, when various organizations have special bicentennial publications programs, and the NHPC is for the first time actually receiving its full federal authorization ($500,000 per year) and is seeking to quadruple the figure—offering as partial justification an imprecise expression of desire to move into some of the areas advocated in this report. (See below, Il-4). []
  2. Obviously there are exceptions to the Great White Men pattern, but it is certainly the dominant theme of the NHPC. The actualities of the program offer an ironic contrast with the statement of intent at its inception: ”The work should be free from partisan bias and should be carried on without racial, religious, or other prejudice.”

    Although the program outlined in 1954 was narrowly conceived within an elitist framework, even that program looks almost broad in certain respects when compared with what had in ”fact worked out by 1971.. If in its original choices the NHPC was to give white male political leaders and public officials far more attention than any other group, it nonetheless seemed at least interested in projects involving men and a few women, which would provide information ”not only about our political and military history but also about our economic, social, and intellectual development.” When the NHPC had narrowed the list of 361 names submitted down to 112 (by this time they were down to one black and four women), occupational groups represented still included:

    agriculture, architecture, city planning, education, engineering, exploration, finance and trade, the fine arts (including music, painting, and sculpture), graphic arts, industry and transportation, invention, journalism, jurisprudence, labor leadership, landscape architecture, literature, medicine and public health, military and naval leadership, philanthropy and social welfare, political leadership and public service, religious leadership, natural science, and social science.

    This promise has not been fulfilled. []

  3. Sec Jameson’s preface to Catterall (1926):

    Anyone . . . who is solicitous for the secure and orderly progress of American historical studies will readily perceive that this chapter of American history [slavery and the Negro] is very insufficiently documented. Of the hundreds of volumes of historical materials which the federal and state governments and our numerous historical societies have poured forth, almost none concerns the history of the American negro [sic] and of American slavery. Political and other reasons make it unlikely that in the immediate future—apart from the excellent work which is being done, with limited means, by the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History—such organizations, governmental or private, will do much toward illuminating by documentary publications this large and momentous chapter in our history. []

  4. The term is clearly an inadequate one, and ironic at that: the people so dismissed were often more articulate (understandable, coherent, eloquent) than many historians, and the use of the term may express more of a hearing defect among historians than historiographical reality. It is especially out of place in a context which contends that first-person sources for the study of such groups do exist. Until we have a better term, it is hoped that the use of ”inarticulate” in quotation marks will convey some of these ironies and complexities, (For fuller discussion, see Jesse Lemisch and John K. Alexander, ”The White Oaks, Jack Tar, and the Concept of the ‘Inarticulate,’” William and Mary Quarterly [January 1972]. []
  5. Not all the projects suggested below focus directly on first-person testimony. Other kinds of sources are of unquestionable value, and, conversely, first-person testimony (as with first-person testimony of elites) can be seductive while sometimes presenting less valuable material than other kinds of sources. []

Jesse Lemisch is an associate professor of history at Roosevelt University, Chicago.