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.
It is hard to understand why a conservative administration should choose to deprive the nation of better self-understanding. The best definition of a conservative, after all, is that he is one who wishes to conserve and make use of the experience of the past.
Nor have the individual projects been wasteful, either of manpower or materials. Nearly all of them are partially subsidized by universities or historical societies, and their editors mostly work part-time while teaching to make a living. The commission's modest contribution has enabled them to devote a little larger portion of their time to editorial work, has encouraged institutions to underwrite part of the cost, and has helped to locate needed documents.
Even the production of the documents has been on a more restricted scale than most scholars would like. The Louis D. Brandeis Papers, edited at the University of Louisville, is an example. Only a selection of them, drawn from 184 reels of microfilm, was made available in a five-volume printed edition. However, scholars and others, wherever they may be located, can now go direct to the thought of this Supreme Court justice by means of the printed volumes, not having to understand him filtered through the perception of someone else.
If that is not enough for their purpose, by means of a 100-page guide they can locate specific reels of microfilm containing documents of interest. They can buy the film reel by reel or the entire set, or, through any public or university library participating in inter-library loan, they can borrow the appropriate reels from Louisville at the cost of postage. Such availability can be claimed for few others in our American heritage.
It is unlikely that corporations will take up the slack in documentary editing, as they are supposed to do in support of the arts. Executive suites may be decorated with a few more paintings, and it never hurts an oil company to associate its name with the Metropolitan Opera. But, much as a board chairman might profit from having the complete writings of Benjamin Franklin at his side, his standly reading is likely to remain the Wall Street Journal and Forbes.
Surely making available to an informed citizenry our collected wisdom is a proper task of government. As we long ago cut in stone over the National Archive s Building itself, "The past is prologue."