Hardly a murmur has been heard about the Reagan administration's plan to scuttle the National Historical Publications and Records Commission at a saving of $4 million a year.
Who speaks for Jane Addams, Louis D. Brandeis, John C. Clahoun, Lydia Maria Child, Henry Clay, Eugene Debs, Frederick Douglass, Dwilight D. Eisenhower, Benjamin Franklin, Emma Goldman, Ulysses S. Grant, Alexander Hamilton, Washington Irving, Thomas Jefferson, John Paul Jones, Abraham Lincoln, Lewis and Clark, Charles Wilson Peale, Baron Von Steuben, Booker T. Washington, Daniel Webster, and Woodrow Wilson -- to mention only a few of the 80 commission projects?
Written into law in 1934 as a branch of the National Archives to encourage the editing and publication of the papers of men and women who have made a difference in American life, the commission did not begin to function until 16 years later, when it received its first appropriation. No afterthought of Lyndon Johnson's Great Society, it actually was created in the midst of the depression. It languished until Harry Truman, who understood the value of primary sources for history, was impressed by the first volume of the Jefferson Papers and nudged Conggress into funding its neglected stepchild.
Twenty-one years later the Jefferson Papers, still being edited at Princeton University, have reached 19 volumes, brining Jefferson's career only up to the year 1791.
There is a disquieting arrogance whenever elected officials by the stroke of a pen choose to bring to a halt what their predecessors thought worthy of continuing for the past generation. Oc course, the same is threatened for social programs ranging from school lunches to legal assistance. But the outcome is hardly the same. Stopping these editorial projects is more comparable to abandoning a bridge conv struction when the structure has only partway spanned the river. The remaining fragment has little value.
These projects have gathered thousands of documents from hundreds of repositories, both here and abroad, and their purpose is to make available throughout the nation the raw stuff from which history is written. By providing reliable texts they obviate the need of historians to search out, piece by piece , the same material -- assuming they had the funds, energy, and stamina to do so. Without them, the history that gets written will be poorer as a consequence.