Over at the St. Louis Dispatch, Washington University English professor Abram Van Engen reminds us, in the wake of possible cuts to the National Endowment of Humanities, that the United States has always been in the business of funding the study of history.
Here is a taste of his piece:
The first ever federal grant for historical research was recommended by the Continental Congress in 1778. The United States had declared its independence two years before, but it was still fighting to make it stand. In the midst of the American Revolution, with plenty on their minds, Sam Adams, William Duer and Richard Henry Lee approved a $1,000 grant to a man named Ebenezer Hazard to collect, edit, introduce and publish American historical papers.
Founding Fathers lined up to support Hazard. Thomas Jefferson praised his project as “an undertaking of great utility to the continent in general.” When Hazard created a subscription for his collection in 1791, it was signed by the most notable figures of the day, beginning with President George Washington and including the vice president, Cabinet members, senators, representatives and others.
In recommending the grant, Continental Congress determined that Hazard’s “undertaking is laudable, and deserves the public patronage and encouragement, as being productive of public utility.” That was a common view in those days. A good knowledge of history (both American and otherwise) gave people perspective and enabled them to use their liberty well and prosper the republic. The Founding Fathers and the early republic considered history a “practical” subject essential for citizenship. It doesn’t take much looking in the writings of John Adams, Thomas Jefferson and many others to find them praising the good of history.
Jefferson, for example, believed that knowledge of history would enable citizens to resist the encroachments of tyranny. In illuminating “the minds of the people at large,” especially with “a knowledge of those facts, which history exhibiteth,” Americans would “be enabled to know ambition under all its shapes, and prompt to exert their natural powers to defeat its purposes.” Historical studies were the best way to understand how societies rose and fell, providing real life moral and political lessons. A study of history was necessary for the defense of liberty.
Read the entire piece here.