Saving History

tags: NEH, NEA

Abram Van Engen is a professor of early American literature at Washington University.

With lawmakers threatening to eliminate the National Endowment for the Humanities along with other cultural institutions, editorials have explained once again the importance of the National Endowment for the Arts and the NEH. Such articles focus on the good of these programs in the present. But it’s also important to realize that taxpayer support for the humanities goes a long ways back.

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.

Read entire article at St. Louis Post-Dispatch

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