Prizing History

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And beyond the next twenty years? Have you made plans to keep it whole in perpetuity?

Gilder : We want to. We own it privately, but we’re in the process of transferring it to a tax-free organization, which will give us a number of options. We can keep it at the Morgan—and the people have been wonderful there—but they and we are not sure it’s the right repository to have thousands of teachers and schoolchildren going through. We have pledged to each other to keep the collection in New York City. Whether we build our own building or find another fine institution will be decided in the next few years.

Lehrman : But it will be a perpetual educational resource. All the documents, all the maps, all the treaties, every one of the first editions, nothing will ever come on the market again. Not a single document. Dick’s comments about the creation of a teaching library or repository is a modest comment. The Gilder Lehrman Institute for American History is already making very extensive use of the collection. There’s been a major book published with the collection as its basis, The Boisterous Sea of Liberty.

Gilder : We sponsor lectures all over the country. We sponsor three history high schools in New York City, one parochial and two public. Students don’t have to take a test to get in, so they have a real cross section. They’re doing awfully well. We also have a number of Saturday academies, where traditional American subjects—literature, free market economics, history—are all taught by board-certified teachers. We’ve sponsored museum exhibitions and fellowships at the New-York Historical Society, Columbia University, and the Morgan; the fellows’ job is to use the Gilder Lehrman Collection for their research. We sponsor a series of summer seminars at Yale, Gettysburg College, the University of Virginia, Brown, Amherst, and Harvard, and we may do one at Barnard, each one with middle and high school teachers or National Park rangers attending for up to two weeks. Recently we started the Gilder Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery, Resistance, and Abolition, at Yale. Of course we have the Lincoln Prize. And we’ve just set up a Frederick Douglass Book Prize for the best book on slavery and abolition. Lew and I are now considering a Founders’ Prize, to honor work done in earlier history.

What inspired the decision to launch your first—and biggest—prize, the Lincoln Prize?

Lehrman : I always loved Mr. Lincoln, so when Gabor Boritt proposed a prize for the finest work on American history in his era, I just said, “Let’s get this done.” Dick thought it was a good idea too. We had all the muscle we needed—Dick, Gabor, and Gettysburg College—to launch it very quickly, and we inaugurated the prize with a luncheon at the National Portrait Gallery less than a year later.

Did you intentionally make it the most lucrative prize by far in the field?

Gilder : At first Gabor had in mind a five-thousand-dollar prize because, as he explained to us, the Pulitzer was three thousand dollars. I pointed out to Gabor that people would pay three thousand dollars to get the Pulitzer Prize—it wasn’t about money—but that we had to make a mark. Lew, with his retailing background, sensed that as well. He had said to me earlier that what would really blow everyone’s socks off would be to give fifty thousand dollars. Lew, do I embellish?

Lehrman : No. That’s right. But the interesting thing was when Gabor was sitting there in his polite, academic way and mentioned five thousand dollars and Dick said, “No, it will have to be fifty thousand.” There was total silence.

Why a Lincoln Prize and not a prize in, say, Jeffersonian studies?

Gilder : Well, Gabor Boritt teaches Lincoln. He’s an entrepreneurial historian with the audacity and courage to think of something new, and it hit Lew in the sweetest of sweet spots. I just like action. We did have one debate. I’m interested in the common soldier, and I wanted it to be called the Lincoln and Soldiers Prize. I believe that markets have a certain wisdom. When hundreds of thousands of men get behind a cause, that is the market speaking, so Mr. Lincoln, for all his vision, would not have prevailed without the market of soldiers behind him. Lew argued that the Lincoln Prize has a splendid ring to it. He suggested, “Let’s create the Lincoln and Soldiers Institute, and it will present the Lincoln Prize.” And that seemed a very fair compromise.

 
This could be the last chance to put together something really big.”

Lehrman : We created a one-page constitution, not much longer than the Gettysburg Address and not strictly constructed, so there was enough room to give the first prize to the great PBS series on the Civil War by Ken Burns. The reason we chose that was that while there are many books that are every bit as eloquent, what Ken Burns did was to quicken the imagination for some forty million Americans, getting them to focus on the centrality and momentousness of Lincoln and the Civil War.

As businessmen did you believe the Lincoln Prize would stimulate the field through the basic business principle of competition? And has that annual competition been one of the reasons for the huge revival in Lincoln scholarship in the 1990s?