Promoting Our Documentary Heritage: The NHPRC

Today’s blog post comes from Paige Weaver, an intern in the History Office of the National Archives.

The National Historical Publications and Records Commission (NHPRC), part of the National Archives and Records Administration, recently awarded 31 grants totaling more than $4 million for projects in 15 states. Fourteen of those projects seek to provide public access to historical records in archives.

The NHPRC has a history as old as the National Archives, both of which were established by Congress on the same day, June 19, 1934. Originally referred to as the National Historical Publications Commission (NHPC), the program was designed to promote the publication of the documents that tell our nation’s history.

As early as 1884, with the founding of the American Historical Association, the historical community recognized that a comprehensive archives system for the entire country was necessary. By 1891, advocates were endorsing a commission that had the power to publish national records. This became a reality in 1934 when the National Archives was created to house official Federal records and the Commission was tasked with choosing, publishing, and ultimately helping tell the rest of the story of our nation’s history.

Throughout the Great Depression and World War II, the Commission met only infrequently and sporadically. In 1950, though, a fortuitous meeting at the White House changed everything. When Julian Boyd and the Princeton University Press showed the first volume of The Papers of Thomas Jefferson to President Harry S. Truman, he was extremely impressed with its historical significance. Truman endorsed an extensive program that would publish both public and private records of people who made substantial contributions to the history of the United States.

President Truman receiving the first volume of The Papers of Thomas Jefferson from Harold W. Dodds, the President of Princeton University, May 17, 1950. (Harry S. Truman Presidential Library and Museum, National Archives)

The NHPC sent an initial report to President Truman that outlined a program for publishing the papers of national leaders. They sent additional reports to Presidents Dwight D. Eisenhower and  John F. Kennedy, which helped establish a solid foundation before approaching Congress for appropriations. In 1964 the Commission was granted funding to act as a national grants program, and by the end of the year, the NHPC awarded its first grants, which totaled $350,000.

In 1974 the NHPC evolved into the National Historical Publications and Records Commission, which marked a formal acknowledgement of its duty to preserve and publish original records through grants and other forms of assistance. With this increased responsibility, the NHPRC’s budget increased to $2.5 million in 1975.

It was also at this point that the Commission realized that, in order to efficiently and effectively attain its mission goals, it had to involve the states. The Commission began to collaborate with State Historical Records Advisory Boards across the country to review grants, develop strategies for improving archives and operations, and make local archives and records centers within the states more friendly to the public.

Since its inception, the NHPRC has awarded grants that have funded projects in all 50 states and in U.S. territories. Projects funded through NHPRC grants have been essential to identifying, preserving, and publishing the original records and papers of the men and women who helped write the history of our country.

Just one of the many notable projects to result from NHPRC-funded publications is Alexander Hamilton, the biography written by Ron Chernow that helped popularize the Founder and inspire the renowned Broadway musical that has captivated the world. If not for the NHPRC, Chernow would not have had access to the 27-volume edition of The Papers of Alexander Hamilton, which proved to be critical in his research and writing.

Letter from Alexander Hamilton, Secretary of the Treasury, to Thomas Willing, President of the Bank of the United States, 6/11/1792. (National Archives Identifier 7282507)

In 2010 the NHPRC helped create Founders Online, which further made Hamilton’s, and five other Founders’ papers, available online to the public.

For a more detailed history of the NHPRC, read the Keith Donohue’s 2004 article, “Documenting Democracy at State and Local Levels” in Prologue magazine.

Interested in seeing Hamilton documents in person? Visit the East Rotunda Gallery of the National Archives Building in Washington, DC, before September 19, 2018, to a special Alexander Hamilton exhibit.  


One thought on “Promoting Our Documentary Heritage: The NHPRC

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *