Prizing History

PrintPrintEmailEmailRichard Gilder, sixty-six, a hugely successful New York investment counselor, and Lewis Lehrman, sixty-one, a Pennsylvania-born businessman who ran for governor of New York in 1982, joined forces in 1990 to become the decade’s most unlikely but arguably most influential partners in the field of American history. Together they have all but cornered the market on both spending and giving away money in the pursuit of history. In a single decade they have amassed a colossal collection of original manuscripts and artifacts and created a variety of ways to share that collection with scholars and the general public. They have funded public exhibitions, created a learning center at Yale and the Lincoln and Soldiers Institute at Gettysburg College, sponsored publications, hosted lecture series, endowed magnet history schools, championed adult education, financed research, and endowed the most generous prizes ever created for achievement in writing American history.

This year they mark their tenth anniversary as a joint collecting juggernaut as well as the tenth anniversary of their first and best-known effort in behalf of historical scholarship, the Lincoln Prize, a fifty-thousand-dollar annual award given through Gettysburg College for the best book or other contribution on the Civil War era. The winners (who also receive a large bronze replica of a Saint-Gaudens head of Lincoln) have ranged from the Ivy League professors David Herbert Donald, Barbara Fields, and James M. McPherson to the filmmaker Ken Burns. Three lifetime achievement awards have also been presented, to the historians Kenneth Stampp, Don E. Fehrenbacher, and Richard N. Current.

To mark the twin milestones, we asked Gilder and Lehrman to look both back and ahead and to discuss the rewards as well as the challenges of keeping history alive. The conversation took place in Gilder’s office high above midtown Manhattan, a compact, utilitarian, glass-windowed room in a hive of brokers and investors.

Gilder—tweedy, bow-tied, perpetually half-bemused-looking—clasped his hands across his large, cluttered desk, working hard to ignore the frenzy of activity humming around us. Lehrman, lean, silver-haired, immaculately dressed, and serious, sat calmly in a chair opposite.

First of all, how and why did each of you become so interested in American history?

Lehrman : Well, I started my professional life as a teacher of history, an assistant instructor at Yale. I originally thought I would be a history professor for the rest of my life. I had been born and raised just half an hour from Gettysburg, and I had had a wonderful teacher when I was in the sixth grade who often took me and a few others to the battlefield, at a time when you could find not only Civil War bullets but arrowheads in Devil’s Den that had been left behind by eighteenth-century Indian tribes. I spent a lot of time on that battlefield literally finding history.

The key thing was the need to honor the teaching of American history.”

Gilder : I signed up to major in economics at Yale, hut the economics professor was so horrible, so abstruse, that I moved first to English and then finally to history. My father had occasionally taken me on Civil War battlefield day trips and had taught me that the Civil War and Mr. Lincoln were worth recollecting. Since I revered everything he told me, that piece of advice stuck with me.

Lehrman : I have to add that my grandfather was a self-educated immigrant who was an unself-conscious, completely unapologetic apostle of the American idea. While I was a student at Yale, I considered leaving the United States for the first time to do what college men often did, take a tour of Europe. My grandfather was scandalized. Having left everything there happily behind, he could not understand what I could possibly be looking for in Europe. I never forgot that. And I developed a particular interest in Lincoln.

How did you get introduced to each other?

Gilder : Back in the late sixties I had just started my investment firm, and Lew was then running the Rite Aid drugstore company. Some friends and I went down to Pennsylvania to view the company and meet the principals. We were impressed with Lew, so we bought some stock. I think I sold it about a month later. That was a bad mistake; it went a lot higher. Later, when Lew decided to move to New York, he was re-introduced to me by mutual friends, this time as a potential client. I recommended a stock, and Lew placed quite a nice order. About a month later the stock dropped ten points. Elinching, I called Lew to tell him, but he just said, “Why don’t we buy some more?” So I realized he was a very superior fellow, with enough confidence in me to screw up not once but twice. After that we started comparing notes on a lot of things.

Lehrman : We grew closer in the seventies. I had established the Lehrman Institute for Economic and Foreign Policy Studies, and we believed in the same things. When 1 decided to run for governor of New York, one of the first people I went to was Dick. I remember, of all the friends and acquaintances I could gather, only three or four thought running for governor was a sane idea.

Gilder : I was not among them. [Laughs.]