WASHINGTON — In that huge pocketbook known as the federal budget, $5 million is a pittance. But a modest shift in funding for historical research is causing one of the biggest snits since scholars suggested George Washington didn't chop down the cherry tree.
Underneath lies a tale of Congress and contemporary bureaucracy trying to decide which part of the nation's past is most worthy of preservation.
The dispute surrounds a $5 million federal grant given each year for history projects. Recently the archivist of the United States, former Kansas Gov. George Carlin, and the director of the National Historic Publications and Records Commission (NHPRC), Gerald George, decided to rearrange the spending priorities of Congress's annual stipend.
The effort receiving the most funding in the past - the Founding Fathers Project, which collects and publishes the papers of Franklin, Washington, Adams, Jefferson, and Madison - was relegated to second place.
The NHPRC gave precedent to what they called "a new strategic plan." The largest expenditures will go to state archivists to unearth and preserve data and artifacts from their own regional history. This includes giving money to colleges in the South to study the Spanish colonial period and a library in Alabama to record the history of the civil rights era.
"These state projects deal with the very beginnings of US history," says NHPRC director George.
Mr. George says state archivists will be taught electronic techniques for preserving their finds. He adds that much of the material in this project is vulnerable to decay, loss, or theft, whereas the Founding Fathers' papers are secure.
TO many scholars, giving less money to Founding-Father study is the moral equivalent of fixing the crack in the Liberty Bell. Edmond Morgan, professor emeritus of American history at Yale, recently wrote: "It is disconcerting to be told that the government conceived and established by the Founding Fathers, is reluctant to underwrite the publication of their ideas."
At the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, the nine editors and researchers working on George Washington's papers are dismayed. They have published 36 of an estimated 85 volumes since the project began in 1967. "This new program is going to strangle us to death," says Jack Warren, one of the editors. "In all these projects you have a core of staff that you have to retain. If you get a funding cut this year you may lose your expert on the revolutionary war years. Your institutional memory is destroyed."
Another member of the Washington team calls the new emphasis "virtuous." But, he adds, the National Archives and the NHPRC ought to get Congress to give additional money for the new plan - not raid a budget established for a specific purpose. Indeed, project members worry that publication of their work will cease if the new agenda goes into effect in fiscal l999.
"I have no idea where that notion comes from," says George. "The amount of money they receive could be less if, say, our present appropriation gets whacked down to $1 million instead of the present 4 or 5 [million]."
The current dispute has roots in 1950, the year President Harry Truman established the NHPRC. Its main purpose was to oversee publication of the Founding Fathers' papers. The group also works with Congress to appropriate funds voted for historic research. The University of Virginia was assigned the papers of George Washington and James Madison. Princeton took on the formidable task of handling the papers of Colonial history's supreme intellectual, Thomas Jefferson. Benjamin Franklin's papers went to Yale, and the Massachusetts Historical Society was given the Adams family's documents.
The publishing of the first volumes moved President Eisenhower to comment that "written history is as important to civilization as human memory is to an individual." Both the NHPRC's new plan and the Founding Fathers Project are legitimate searches for the truth about the past. History is vast in both incidents and ideas. Scholars on both sides of the debate agree on one thing: If Congress would spend as much on history as it appropriates for the tail of a fighter jet, it would be getting a bargain of incalculable value.