For his presidential address at the October 1961 meeting of the Society of American Archivists (SAA) in Kansas City, Philip Hamer took his title from a statement written by Ebenezer Hazard in 1791 that proposed the publication of a collection of historical documents entitled “American State Papers.”  Hamer began working at the National Archives in 1935, and he became the Executive Director of the National Historical Publications Commission (NHPC) in 1951 — a position that he retained until his retirement in 1961.  His papers are housed at the South Carolina Historical Society.  His address was published in the American Archivist in January 1962.

Rather than focusing on the work of archivists and records managers themselves, as had most of his SAA predecessors, Hamer called attention to the importance of having access to the materials in archives.  He quoted from a letter that Hazard wrote to a friend in 1774, in which he stated,

“The time will doubtless come when early periods of American history will be eagerly inquired into, and it is the duty of every generation to hand to its successor the necessary means of acquiring such knowledge, in order to prevent their groping in the dark, and perplexing themselves in the labrinths of error” (3-4).

Hamer also cited a 1791 letter written by Thomas Jefferson to Hazard.  One particular gem from this letter became the cornerstone of Hazard’s fundraising efforts to support his work publishing historical documents:

“Time and accident are committing daily havoc on the originals deposited in our public offices: . . . the lost cannot be recovered; but let us save what remains; not by vaults and locks, which fence them from the public eye . . . but by such a multiplication of Copies as shall place them beyond the reach of accident” (5).

(Who knew that Jefferson was an early proponent of the principle that Lots of Copies Keeps Stuff Safe!)  This idea for publication was certainly popular around the time of the birth of the United States as well as in the years following, when state historical societies, such as those in Massachusetts and New York, spearheaded efforts to publish collections of documents from their holdings.  When the National Archives was chartered, the National Historical Publications Commission was also created to pursue this work at the national level and to continue encouraging it at the state level.  Hamer challenged the archives and historical societies of the states to

“recognize in the future, even more effectively than they have in the past, the importance of documentary publication as a function for which they have a major responsibility — a responsibility comparable to that which they have also for their accessioning, preservation, and reference service functions, with which publication is so closely and importantly associated” (6).

Hamer acknowledged that the use of microfilm could address the concern about having multiple copies of prize documents, but he contended that it paled in comparison to “well-edited and beautifully printed volumes of historical documents” (11).  With this focus on the added value of editing, Hamer honed in on the “scholar-editor,” whose role was “to advance the understanding of a man and his times and by this interpretation of the man in his setting to throw light on the world we have inherited from him” (12).

A search in WorldCat produces 510 printed books authored by the National Historical Publications Commission — though this number includes reports as well as volumes printed with the financial support of the NHPC.  (One such report from 1981 is entitled Documentary Editing in Crisis.)  Since the National Historical Publications Commission began providing grants in 1964, it has funded 296 publications projects that produced almost 900 volumes and over 9,000 reels of microfilm.  (See the NHPRC website for more information.)  The NHPRC also supports an online portal to the papers of the founding fathers: Founders Online.

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