A Letter from America XXVIII: Gilder-Lehrman and the New-York Historical Society (October)

From the Rare Book Review

For the last twenty years the New-York Historical Society (they are very insistent on that hyphen) has been the sick man of American historical institutions. The long record of misjudgment and poor administration which led up to its first major crisis in 1993 is too intricate to tell here; if you want to know how to destroy a great institution, read Kevin M. Guthrie, The New-York Historical Society; Lessons from One Nonprofit’s Long Struggle for Survival (San Francisco, 1996). This Mellon Foundation funded report pulls no punches on the story to 1995. Since then the situation has improved considerably; substantial (but still inadequate) endowment has been raised, the physical plant restored, and the institution brought back from the brink.

In fact, things in general are looking up for New-York Historical on various fronts. Most importantly for the institution, two of the leaders of Americana collecting, Richard Gilder and Lewis Lehrman, have decided to move the collections of their joint foundation from the Morgan Library, where it has been on deposit, to NYHS (also on deposit). For more than a decade Gilder and Lehrman have been the largest buyers of American historical manuscripts, and their extraordinary holdings would be a major enhancement to any institution. At the same time these gentlemen have joined the board, and are urging NYHS to become more "national" in focus. With their wallets open, there is little doubt that NYHS will respond; a show on that great Federalist, Alexander Hamilton, is currently trumpeted by a giant, symbolic, ten dollar bill hanging from the façade of the building. (I was once in a cab in New York, and got in a conversation with a Pakistani cabbie about American history. He thought that Alexander Hamilton was the greatest man in American history. "You know why he’s on the ten dollar bill, don’t you?" he asked me. "No, why?" "Because he founded the New York Post!")

This being New York, no good deeds can go unquestioned. Various parties, and several articles in the New York Times (the Post doesn’t cover stuff like this without Hamilton there to write the articles) have questioned the motives of Gilder-Lehrman on two scores; their supposed conservative bent and its potential influence on the message of the NYHS, and the perceived shift in focus from an emphasis on the history of New York to a broader perspective. They argued NYHS was abandoning its "mission" of covering local history.

The first of these charges is easily refuted by the record. The Gilder-Lehrman Foundation has funded numerous programs in American history ranging from institutes at major universities to programs in secondary education to large book prizes for outstanding works in American history (some academics, accustomed to being treated like paupers, find it suspicious that anyone would actually give a $50,000 prize for a good book). In all of these programs Gilder-Lehrman has been scrupulous in keeping a firewall between their personal opinions and academic freedom of thought. Nothing happening at NYHS is likely to change that.

More important, to my mind, is the blindness of the negative commentators to the real history of the NYHS. From its founding in 1801, the NYHS strove to be exactly what Gilder-Lehrman would like it to be, a national historical society. It accumulated material relating to every phase of the history of colonial North America and the United States. If we look at the buyers at the greatest Americana sale of the 19th century, the Brinley Sale of 1879-86, we find that the institution casting the widest net was NYHS. In the mid-20th century, with the great bibliographer R.W.G. Vail as director, there was no question of the national vision of its collections and leadership. Take, for example, Gold Fever, Vail’s 1949 exhibition for the centenary of the California Gold Rush. The far-ranging show demonstrated the reach of the Society’s collections in books, printed ephemera, prints, newspapers, manuscripts, paintings and photographs- even gold samples. This is just a single example which could be repeated in virtually every area and every phase of American history. No researchers and librarians of that era would have ever doubted what is self-evident from the collections; this is one of the most important libraries for American history in the United States.

The narrow, New York City and State focus of NYHS in the last several decades is the result of its fiscal crises more than a rational use of its collections. Mr. Gilder and Mr. Lehrman should be applauded, not attacked, for trying to restore this great resource to its proper scope and stature.

– William S. Reese