Move over George Washington, Regional Histories Are Now 'In'

Article excerpt

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. …