History as a Public Good

Feb 26, 2018


Across North Dakota I enjoy friendships and associations with local historical societies, most of which struggle to carry on. Many get modest mill levies from their counties. Private donors often assume, well, that takes care of the historical society. Meanwhile, again and again, the historical societies have to make their argument for continued funding.


At the state level, the state historical society receives appropriations from the legislature, but more and more, the legislature declines to fund major works and sends the society out to seek corporate gifts. Specific interests who pay the bills do so with specific expectations.


Such discussions today take place in a particular ideological and rhetorical setting. Sometime in the late twentieth century, a neoliberal wave swept in and called into question the idea of the public good--insisting there were few or no public goods worthy of public funding. History as a public good lost ground, its advocates counting themselves fortunate to survive the new political climate.


What I have said thus far is prologue to consideration of a speech given in Fargo on 7 June 1906. The legislature of 1905 had passed a funding bill for the State Historical Society of North Dakota. Opponents had asserted that History is not a public good, but rather a private matter.


So the society brought in a heavy hitter--the constitutional historian Andrew C. McLaughlin, of the University of Chicago. I see in this the hidden hand of Orrin G. Libby, secretary of the society, and himself a constitutional historian; he would have realized he needed a constitutional scholar to make the case. And McLaughlin was an excellent constitutional historian; he would go on to win the Pulitzer Prize for History.


“The American mind is declared to be a peculiarly practical mind,” McLaughlin begins. “We are often told that we pay attention only to the present and the tangible and have no patience with idealistic theory or with the unattained future.” As for the matter of funding a state historical society, McLaughlin says, “we are peculiarly apt to stop and say, ‘What is the use?’ What is the use we may say of an historical society?


“Is it to be established and supported for the gratification of a few antiquaries who have a strange fondness for brushing the dust from uninteresting documents? Is it to be supported as a mere acquiescence to the dilettanti. . . . Is an historical society to be founded and encouraged simply because a few ernest souls are eager for the past? Or is there a broader and more rational basis which makes an historical society an object of public support?”


As you must already have conjectured, McLaughlin’s answer is yes, there is good reason for public support of History. “My chiefest proposition,” he states, “is that an historical society is decidedly and significantly an object of public concern. . . . beyond all question the value of historical study is that it widens and lengthens the experience, extends and deepens the sympathy of the student. No man can be wide-minded who allows himself to be hemmed in by a narrow circle of interests and conceptions.

“In considering the work of an historical society, we realize that it is interested in the life of the state. Especially in a new community there is need of building up a public consciousness and a sense of historical continuity. This gives dignity, sobriety and earnestness, and adds conservatism to optimism and energy. . . . we should see our place in history.” ~Tom Isern