Prizing History

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Lehrman : The key thing, I still think, was the need to honor the teaching of American history. The Nobel prizes are given for a certain kind of distinction. The Pulitzers are given for certain other distinctions. But a really substantial prize dedicated to American historians had not yet been created.

Gilder : We’re fighting just to get schools to think about history at all. A prize, a competition, always makes the blood run and always brings out the best in people. Certainly competition is at the heart of it, but the real idea is to urge people to stand up and take notice.

Do you pick the winners yourselves?

Lehrman : No. We wanted the winners to be chosen by a jury of the most distinguished American historians, and they have been. The Lincoln Prize board hears the jury’s recommendations and acts on them.

Gilder : Lew and I do at least get a chance to chew over the finalists. We have a discussion with the jury, and anyone who has a view of Lincoln other than Lew’s is certainly in for a vigorous discussion. It’s interesting to hear a layperson catechize the teachers. The hearty ones enjoy it.

Here is an inevitable question for a presidential election year. Could Lincoln have succeeded as a candidate for the White House today?

Lehrman : Absolutely. He was a man for all seasons, in the most earthy aspects of American politics as well as the most sublime.

Gilder : His dignity and natural, poetic instincts would have come across on television just magnificently.

Is that why interest is still so high in Abraham Lincoln? It seems to be growing.

Lehrman : The intrinsic honor of his career and his achievement and sacrifice capture the imagination of every man or woman who comes in touch with him. If I may look backward, it’s increasingly clear that if the Union armies had not won the Civil War, and Lincoln had not persisted and prevailed, and slavery had not been abolished when it was, then the American model would never have inspired emerging nations around the world. We became what Lincoln called the “last, best hope of earth” because of Lincoln.

Gilder : I would add that the reason that Americans are so emotionally involved in Lincoln is that they know that ours is the only country founded on an idea, and the idea is that all men are created equal. It took Lincoln to extend that promise. Six hundred thousand people died in the process, but the idea goes forward.

At a recent Gilder Lehrman Lecture, a professor conceded that most professional historians don’t stimulate audiences the way they should, that there’s a gulf between academic and popular history. Is that a concern of yours? Can it be bridged?

Gilder : We’re now working with the American Association of Retired Persons, offering lectures, and they sell out. There’s enormous interest among people over forty. It may be less among young people who have to worry about how to pay for college and make a living, but they’ll be over forty soon enough. There can be a perfect consanguinity between scholarship and popularity if people are given a proper chance.

Lehrman : I think things are changing. Even the elitist character of the professor-historian is changing. When I was an instructor, there was a total focus on graduate students and publications, and the undergraduates were ignored. Now I have the impression that historians are beginning to write for a much larger constituency. I would like to think we’ve encouraged that.