One person searches for ancient artifacts, another leads students through great books, while another examines long-held traditions to guide behavior. What the winners of this year's National Humanities Medal share is a belief in the relevance of understanding the past. Historian Alan Charles Kors believes looking at the Enlightenment helps shed light on our own modern struggles. "If there were common denominators of the Enlightenment," says Kors, "they were the recognition of the social, political, and moral necessity of religious toleration, of open debate, of intellectual pluralism, and of freedom of speech and expression." Among Kors's fellow medalists are a legal scholar, a Constitutional scholar, a Cold War historian, two antique specialists, two philanthropists, and a presidential papers project.
President George W. Bush presented the awards at a White House ceremony on November 11, 2005, in recognition of those who strive to deepen the public's knowledge of the humanities.
Walter Berns: Illuminating the Constitution
Matthew Bogdanos: Tracking Antiquities
Eva Brann: Exploring Great Books
John Lewis Gaddis: Documenting the Cold War
Lewis Lehrman and Richard Gilder: Preserving the Past
Mary Ann Glendon: Defining Human Rights
Leigh and Leslie Keno: Antiquing on the Road
Alan Charles Kors: Advocating Open Minds
Judith Martin: Minding Our Manners
Papers of George Washington: Documenting a Presidency
As a boy in 1920s Chicago, Walter Berns watched survivors of the Indian Wars march down Michigan Avenue during the Memorial Day parade. At school, he memorized the Gettysburg Address and revered Abraham Lincoln as "a genius . . . our greatest patriot." These beginnings sparked a love of country that has led the political scientist throughout his long and distinguished academic career.
Although he read the Constitution in high school, Berns doesn't recall the document making a big initial impression. "I didn't resolve then or have any idea of becoming a Constitutional scholar. That came later, in graduate school."
Following a bachelor of arts degree at the University of Iowa, Berns studied as a non-degree student at Portland's Reed College, where he discovered his love of politics. He then earned his master's and doctoral degrees in political science at the University of Chicago. Presently a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, Berns is the John M. Olin University Professor Emeritus at Georgetown University and has taught at Louisiana State, Yale, Cornell, Colgate and the University of Toronto.
The author of seven books, Bern's works on American governance and society have appeared in the Atlantic Monthly, the New York Times, and the Wall Street Journal.
His works are often timely. In 1992 he edited After The People Vote: A Guide to the Electoral College, and testified before the House Subcommittee on the Constitution in 1997 against Electoral College reform. He has not changed his opinion. "Essentially, it's better than any of the alternatives," Bern insists. "My attachment to it is in no way undermined by the 2000 election."
In 2001 he published Making Patriots--a subject that would become of special interest following September 11. The World War II veteran doesn't condone what he calls "blind patriotism," favoring instead a Lincolnian devotion to the principles of a liberal democracy. "A loyal citizen would see to it the best he can that the country doesn't drift away from those principles. For instance, if this country had joined the German Reich in 1940-41, that would have been a desertion of our principles," he said in a 2004 interview. "An American patriot would have resisted that mightily."
Even during wartime, Berns defends dissent. "Let me emphasize the point that a patriot can certainly disagree with his country. It depends on what that country is doing at that particular time. I would disagree with anybody who accuses somebody else of being unpatriotic because he's opposed to the war in Iraq," he insists. "I don't belong in that group. I favored the war in Iraq and I still have some hopes for it. But I can understand how someone who loves his country could be in profound disagreement with the war in Iraq and I would not accuse him of being unpatriotic, and I part company from anyone who does."
A former delegate to the United Nations Commission on Human Rights, Berns served on the National Council on the Humanities from 1982 to 1988, and on the Council of Scholars in the Library of Congress from 1981 to 1985. Although a resident of Washington for the last twenty-five years, he acknowledges a huge debt to his hometown.
"I owe a great deal to the University of Chicago," says Berns. "In a way I owe much of the happiness in my life to the university. It was there that I became aware of what my career should be; it was there that I met my closest friends, who remained my friends; it was there that I met my wife fifty years ago. And what can beat that?"
Reading Homer's Iliad at age twelve sparked a lifelong passion for the classics in Matthew Bogdanos, and led to his latest venture--retrieving antiquities looted from the Iraq National Museum during the early days of the U.S. invasion.
Among the lost items were some of the world's most precious antiquities from the cradle of civilization: the world's oldest carved ritual vessel called the Warka vase, an ivory plaque adorned with lapis and gold depicting a lioness attacking a Nubian, and the forty-five-hundred-year-old hammered gold helmet of King Meksalamdug.
Bogdanos, a Marine colonel, led a recovery team into the Iraq National Museum on April 21, 2003. The team spent that first day inspecting the premises with museum official Donny George, and were overjoyed to find some of the rarest items still intact. But forty items were missing from the public gallery, 3,150 from storage rooms, and ten thousand from the basement. "It is inconceivable to me that the basement was breached and the items stolen without an intimate insider's knowledge of the museum," says Bogdanos.
A number of Iraqi citizens accepted Bogdanos's offer of amnesty and turned in more than twenty-seven hundred of the looted pieces. An additional three hundred or so are back as the result of raids and information from informers. Yet, more than ten thousand treasures are still missing, vanished behind a veil of money and mystery that is the black market.
Bogdanos documents the high-priced, illegal brokering of antiquities in his book Thieves of Baghdad. "Don't call them collectors," he says. "Call them what they are. Criminals. You should not assume that the people who are doing this are doing it because of an appreciation for art.
"Because before you're willing to spend forty million dollars for an item that you can never publicly acknowledge owning or ever publicly exhibit, you are going to get it authenticated and when you get it authenticated you are going to get it authenticated by a name, not a grad student. Someone who's written an article on this piece. Someone who's written a book. Someone who's head of an institute, someone who's department head at a university, or a museum. And there are, sadly, no shortage of those people."
Setting up the task force to search for antiquities in Iraq was complicated. There were concerns for the safety of his team, which included personnel from the Customs Service, the FBI, the CIA, and the Drug Enforcement Agency. Then there were the difficulties of explaining how a criminal investigation could be conducted in a war zone, and worries about degrading other important counter-terrorism missions.
"So there were three major objections, all of which were legitimate. I ultimately believed that it was worth it, to get to Baghdad as quickly as possible in order to stop this cultural catastrophe, and to start recovering whatever we could."
Bogdanos received the go-ahead to start pursuing stolen artifacts from a general with whom he had worked before. "He trusted me," says Bogdanos. "He said, 'That pit bull thing you do in New York? Do that in Baghdad. And don't get killed.'"
The general was referring to Bogdanos's role as senior homicide trial counsel in the New York County District Attorney's Office, where he has presided over nearly two hundred trials. A Marine reservist, Bogdanos was recalled to active duty for Desert Storm and then again in 2001 when the attacks of September 11 destroyed the World Trade Center--as well as the lower Manhattan apartment Bogdanos shared with wife Claudia and their children.
The prosecutor is also a pugilist, sparring out of court as a middleweight boxer with a 23-3 amateur record. Bogdanos brings that fighting energy in his search to recover stolen artifacts. Currently on leave from both his military and civilian responsibilities, he envisions a global task force to take on the black market in illegal antiquities.
Eva Brann calls herself a latecomer to St. John's College and its great books program. "I've been here only forty-eight years," she says, laughing.
When Brann arrived on the Annapolis campus of St. John's in 1957, fresh from Yale with an archaeology PhD in hand, she found herself a student all over again. "I fell in love with it at first sight," she says. "Our tutors learn along with students. It is an all-required program for the students but it is also all-required for the teachers."
"I read my way and discussed my way through four years worth of great books," says Brann. "It's never boring. It's sometimes strenuous, but it's never boring. I can't remember ever being bored."
St. John's is a rarity in American higher education. It is the only nondenominational institution based solely on the study of a great books curriculum. There are no majors and no departments at St. John's. There are no textbooks. Rather, students go straight to the source of Western tradition, read ing and discussing the classics of literature, philosophy, theology, psychology, political science, economics, history, mathematics, laboratory sciences, and music. In addition, faculty members are called tutors rather than professors, and do not give lectures. Every class is discussion-based, with students talking to each other as much as responding to tutors. "By and large, everything is done in common, which means that they can always talk to each other. And they do."
The first year's reading list includes a veritable Who's Who of Greek thought: Homer, Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides, Plato, Aristotle and Lucretius, to name just a few. Required to take four years of mathematics, students begin by studying Euclid. In astronomy, they read Ptolemy and move onto Copernicus. In four years of language classes, they learn Greek and French. But as Brann points out, students go deeper than merely learning a language. "We don't think of these as Greek and French classes, but as classes enquiring into the nature of language."
Students begin with books originally written in Greek. "We are really convinced that these are things that everyone ought to know something about," says Brann. "The reason is that these are the root foundations of what you might call the two important influences in our common lives--namely, democracy and technology. Our students come out having some set of clear, and not so clear, notions about where they came from, intellectually speaking, what is behind them, how things came to be the way they are, and have some appreciation of the scientific foundations of our lives."
"It's a chancy thing to be doing," says Brann, referring to the fact that St. John's is not a typical university or college, and can be difficult for some students and even some faculty. "We don't have a high rate of appointment. They come to us and they lose contact with the ordinary academic world. In American higher education, there are some firmly established ways. Publication is important. They aren't important for us. Specialization-we don't specialize. So it's a huge step for an individual or for even an institution to take."
Brann has been able to follow her own interests. This is reflected in her list of publications: Homeric Moments: Clues to Delight in Reading the Odyssey and the Iliad; The Music of The Republic: Essays on Socrates' Conversations and Plato's Writings; The World of the Imagination; What Then, Is Time?; and The Ways of Naysaying: No, Not, Nothing, and Nonbeing. Her latest book is Open Secrets/Inward Prospects: Reflections on World and Soul in which she has compiled observations and maxims from the past thirty years on subjects as varied as "Domesticity: At Home and at Work," "Ages: Very Young to Pretty Old," and "Intellectuals: Sheep in Wolves' Clothes."
"These books are not scholarly books," says Brann. "They're reflections and thoughts and discoveries. They're intended to be read by people who are generally interested."
St. John's instills in its graduates a fearlessness when confronted with the unknown. About alumni, Brann says, "They have great courage when it comes to learning new things. If they come into a firm and it's necessary to learn statistics, they sit down to learn statistics. They learn to learn."
Further, Brann believes graduates leave with an even more important trait. "They seem to me to have a conscience," says Brann. "They may not always behave like angels, but they know that one ought to do the right thing."
Over the past for decades, John Lewis Gaddis has made a name for himself in academic and policy circles for his incisive examination of the Cold War.
Interested in the intersection between current events and history--and the process by which current events becomes history--Gaddis gravitated toward diplomatic history early on. "I started working on the Cold War when the Cold War was still very much current events," he says. Gaddis used the first release of documents from the early years of the conflict to write what he calls "the first draft of history." The resulting book, The United States and the Origins of the Cold War, won the Bancroft Prize.
He followed it up with Russia, the Soviet Union, the United States: An Interpretive History, which traced the relationship between the two powers from Catherine the Great through Mikhail Gorbachev. Next came Strategies of Containment: A Critical Appraisal of Postwar American National Security Policy, which urged historians to look beyond political, economic, and military factors to understand America's role in the Cold War.
For Gaddis, part of the attraction of working on the Cold War has been the ongoing reassessment of the conflict as a result of the opening of the archives in the former Communist bloc. "I never expected to be in a position to draw on Soviet, Chinese, and East European documents, but it is now possible to do that. It really requires going back and rethinking many of the things that we thought we knew before the Cold War ended." In 1991, he helped launch the Cold War International History Project, which translates and publishes documents, encourages governments to allow archival access, and supports scholarship using previously untapped archives.
Gaddis encouraged his students, first at Ohio University, and then at Yale, which has been his home since 1997, to write "second drafts and third drafts" of history. As their assessments piled up, he sensed the need for a synthesis, leading him to write We Now Know: Rethinking Cold War History. "It was very much a book that stands on the shoulders of my students who were doing this work," he says.
The sea of new archival material has resulted in Gaddis being revised by his students more than once. Rather than feeling threatened, he sees it as part of his job as a teacher. He professes to love "that spark that you see, when students start talking back at you, when you know that you have not produced clones, but you have produced thinking people who have their own independent thoughts and will be courageous enough to say them in front of you. I think that's very important."
Teaching students how to be historians, however, is not an easy task. Looking for an explanatory framework, Gaddis found himself drawn to geology, paleontology, and astronomy, fields in which scientists theorize, account for complex factors, and assess the role of time. These observations became the basis for Landscapes of History: How Historians Map the Past.
The attack on the United States on September 11 prompted many to reflect on the course of American foreign policy and Gaddis was no exception. In Surprise, Security, and American Experience, he considered other instances, such as Pearl Harbor, in which American assumptions about the nation's security were altered by a surprise attack. President Bush read the book and invited Gaddis to the White House to talk with policymakers.
The next few years will give Gaddis the opportunity finally to work on what he calls his "dream project," a biography of diplomat George Kennan. "I didn't want to do it unless I could do it as a posthumous biography because good biographies cannot be written with the subject looking over your shoulder," Gaddis says. "It turns out that he felt the same way." But neither of them anticipated that Kennan, who died in March 2005, would live to be 101. "In the last decade of his life it became a joke between us, because he would call up and apologize for delaying the biography."
"We recognized that in America, the great documents of its history are often in private hands, not public institutions," says Lewis Lehrman. "These private owners generally do not exhibit them or make them available to scholars, researchers, and students."
"We saw this as something we wanted to correct," says Richard Gilder. "The documents we purchase are part of a business plan, really."
Lehrman and Gilder teamed up more than twenty years ago and have collected more than sixty thousand letters, diaries, and other documents detailing the political and social history of the United States. These documents--which include a signed copy of the 13th Amendment abolishing slavery and General Lee's farewell address--are the foundations of the Gilder Lehrman Collection and two educational institutions dedicated to helping students and scholars learn more about American history.
Founded in 1994, the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History promotes the study of American history.
"The problem is, in many schools today, history doesn't receive its due attention," says Gilder. "If a student is out sick, he or she might miss the entire Civil War." In response, the institute supports both schools and academic research centers that focus on the period from the nation's birth through the Civil War.
The Gilder Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery, Resistance, and Abolition was established in 1998. The two institutions offer seminars for teachers in fifty states, as well as publications, traveling exhibitions, and public lectures by historians.
Successful business careers have enabled Gilder and Lehrman to put their energy towards philanthropy. Gilder is the founder of Gilder Gagnon Howe & Co., LLC, a New York City-based brokerage company, and Lehrman is the founder and senior partner of the investment firm L. E. Lehrman & Co. Both men serve on the board of the New-York Historical Society, and they are the founders and sponsors of the Lincoln Prize, the Frederick Douglass Book Award, and cosponsors of the George Washington Book Prize.
Gilder and Lehrman met in the late sixties, when Lehrman was president of the Rite Aid pharmacy chain and Gilder was a potential investor. Gilder invested and a friendship grew.
"Dick and I noticed our philosophical agreements on certain political questions, such as the importance of growth for the American economy and people," Lehrman says. "So our relationship and vision inaugurated a partnership, which has found its way into public life, politics, and the teaching of American history."
They had collected independently for years--Lehrman began with early American documents when he was a history teacher at Yale University in 1961, and Gilder had accumulated Civil War battle maps.
"Even back when we first began purchasing documents together, we had two criteria when making a purchase," Lehrman says. "Any document had to say something important about American history that others would profit from studying, even elementary or secondary school students. Also, a document needed an investment value, because that often is a very good test of how much a document will be appreciated by the market."
Gilder sees value in being able to view documents written by both the famous and the less well-known.
"They allow us to picture American history," Gilder says. "They're handwritten, contain spelling errors--they're very personal. When you read them, you really get a sense of the people who put them together."
A career spent in law and human rights led Mary Ann Glendon to her most recent book, A World Made New: Eleanor Roosevelt and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
"I have come to see the story of Mrs. Roosevelt and her colleagues as one that gives encouragement to those of us who want to believe, with the authors of the Federalist Papers, that human affairs need not forever be governed by force and accident--they can be affected to some extent by reflection and choice," says Glendon.
In connection with her teaching and writing in the human rights field, Glendon became curious of what the declaration's framers thought, yet found very little written on 1948, when the document-modeled, in part, on the Bill of Rights--was being drafted. During her research, she discovered another gap, this one concerning the role of Eleanor Roosevelt.
"She considered her work on the resolution to have been the greatest achievement of her long and remarkable public life," says Glendon, the Learned Hand Professor of Law at Harvard University. "Diplomatic historians, however, have given short shrift to her role, and most of her biographers leave off with the death of F.D.R. Yet the years 1945 to 1953, when she served in the U.N., were when she really came into her own as the most admired woman in the U.S. and in the world."
Glendon's book illuminates Roosevelt's role in framing of the U.N.'s Declaration of Rights while also looking at Roosevelt's public life after her husband's death. "The more I learned about the challenges she faced, the more my admiration for her grew," Glendon says. "My conclusion is that her role in the framing of the U.D.H.R. was similar to George Washington's at the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia. Others did the actual drafting, but it was Roosevelt's prestige and personal qualities that carried the day."
Writing the book was not Glendon's first exposure to Eleanor Roosevelt. As a freshman at Mount Holyoke College in 1956, Glendon saw Roosevelt speak at a lecture at a nearby campus. "It was a great experience seeing her," says Glendon. "She was certainly among the most distinguished female figures at the time."
Her sophomore year, Glendon transferred to the University of Chicago, where she decided to study law. "A professor from the law school gave a lecture about Plato," Glendon recalls. "I thought, 'what a wonderful world law school must be if it has such creatures in it. They talk about Plato there.' I was attracted initially by the speech then after I started classes, I realized that I enjoyed law for its own sake."
Glendon earned her bachelor's and law degrees from the university. She practiced law in Chicago from 1963 to 1968. Glendon became a professor at Boston College Law School in 1968 and began teaching at Harvard in 1987. In 1995, she served as Pope John Paul II's emissary to the Beijing Women's Conference, the first woman to lead a Vatican delegation.
Glendon's books explore a range of legal perspectives. Her titles include The New Family and the New Property; Abortion and Divorce in Western Law, Comparative Legal Traditions; The Transformation of Family Law; Rights Talk: The Impoverishment of Political Discourse; and A Nation Under Lawyers.
Glendon finds that her students continue to want to talk about the big questions: What is the human person? How do we use our specialized disciplines, such as law, in the service of a deeper understanding and a more humane society? "I find myself still coming back to the questions that Plato raised for us," says Glendon. "What is the good life, how do I live it?"
When twin brothers Leigh and Leslie Keno were just twelve years old, they declared themselves in a joint diary: "We are antique dealers."
It was in their blood. When they were very young, their mother ran a small antiques shop out of the house. Their earliest memories are of traveling with their parents to antique shops and flea markets. In their twelve-year-old hand, they wrote, "We actually owe part of the intelligence that we have in antiques to . . . our Mother and Father. They got us interested in this fabulous hobby. We think that they deserve a good hand. We want at least 1/2 of the credit to go to our fantasticly wonderful parents."
"Collecting is very primal," says Leigh Keno. "Observing objects, picking them up, taking them home, categorizing them and comparing one to the next is a natural thing to do. It goes back even to collecting shells on a beach." Growing up in upstate New York, far from accessible shells, the Keno brothers began by setting out on their Suzuki trail bike and exploring the ruined barns and houses around them. They amassed quite a collection of late-eighteenth and early-nineteenth-century wrought-iron door handles and hinges.
From that, they moved onto collecting stoneware.
"Once we found an object, we wanted to learn as much as we could about it," says Leslie Keno. "We loved looking up the maker, doing research on when they worked, trying to figure out how a piece was made, how it was turned on a potter's lathe. We were very interested and in awe of the craftsmanship that was inherent in these beautiful objects that we call antiques."
Today, both Leigh and Leslie Keno are foremost experts in Americana antiques. Formerly vice president in the appraisal department at Christie's, Leigh now owns Leigh Keno American Antiques. Leslie Keno is senior vice president and senior specialist of American furniture and decorative arts and director of business development at Sotheby's in New York. They have been involved in the discoveries and sales of important pieces that have broken records for prices. They are perhaps most well known for their many appearances on PBS's popular Antiques Roadshow, as well as their own PBS show, Find.
Leslie Keno credits Antiques Roadshow for popularizing the appeal of collecting antiques. "The best part of the show is hearing what the owners have to say about the pieces," says Leigh Keno. "We make a point of letting the person talk and tell their story."
"The Antiques Roadshow really illustrates that these objects don't exist in a void," says Leslie Keno. "They are part of a sometimes very rich and complex history. The show is not just about the objects but also the stories and storytelling that accompany them."
"It's a show that you can watch and walk away from having learned something," says Leigh Keno. "Not only are you more versed in what you're looking at, but you can also possibly find a sleeper yourself."
A sleeper is a piece that's undervalued when found. It is the gold at the end of the treasure hunt, albeit faded, tarnished, worn, or broken. With their keen eyes, the Keno brothers have come across many sleepers in their careers. They have been especially adept at finding highly prized seventeenth-century furniture made by two distinguished Newport cabinetmaking families, the Goddards and Townsends. Pieces that have sold for millions of dollars at auction were found in such surprising places as chicken coops and rental houses. Often the owners had no idea of their rarity.
"The great thing in this field," says Leigh Keno "is that pieces turn up all the time that have never been documented or never been cataloged. You never know what's around the next corner."
Alan Chalres Kors is a busy man. On one side is his scholarly work on the Enlightenment, and on the other is what he calls "the civic side of my academic life," his work as an advocate in the defense of academic freedom.
"You don't choose the historical moment into which you were born," says Kors. "If you find yourself in higher education and at universities at moments of unfairness and abuse of power, then you have a moral responsibility both to higher education and to your students and to a free society to do something about the state of rights and liberties. But I never let that take me away from my scholarly and teaching obligations. I adore teaching."
Professor of history at the University of Pennsylvania since 1968, where he now holds the George H. Walker Endowed Term Chair, Kors is a distinguished historian of the Enlightenment. He has published numerous books and articles on the conceptual revolutions of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries and served as editor in chief of the Oxford Encyclopedia of the Enlightenment, which was published in 2002. In addition, he has received two distinguished teaching awards: the Lindback Foundation Award, and the Ira Abrams Memorial Award.
"The Enlightenment was a phenomenon that worked for greater tolerance," says Kors. "It was marked by a belief in the need to end the presumptive authority of the past and to open all significant questions up to new debate, new inquiry and new perspectives. And it was an age that encouraged the freest possible intellectual life."
Kors's interests in the Enlightenment, in academic tolerance and the free exchange of ideas coincided with his entrance into American higher education in the 1960s. "I entered a university system that I loved," he says. "For me, it was built around intellectual openness and pluralism and a deep respect of students as young adults who were to be educated in circumstances of freedom and dignity and individual rights."
However, in the decades since, he has witnessed an unwelcome change on American campuses. "I watched with growing concern and fear and moral uneasiness," he says, "as I saw the generation that had given us the free speech movement now give us speech codes." Born out of a desire to create a harassment-free environment on campuses, universities have prohibited speech that might be found offensive. Kors is not a proponent of offensive speech but an advocate for free speech, in whatever form it takes.
"There is certainly, at some level, a connection between what draws me to the Enlightenment and what draws me to my interest in what has befallen higher education," he says. This has led Kors to coauthor The Shadow University: The Betrayal of Liberty on America's Campuses with civil liberties attorney, Harvey Silvergate. It has also stirred them to found FIRE: Foundation for Individual Rights in Education. According to Kors, the mission of FIRE is "to defend people who are the victims of unfair abuses of power at universities and to educate the public about the state of liberty and rights on college campuses, to educate students about their real rights and dignities, and to provide a clearinghouse of accurate vetted information on a university by university basis."
Kors believes that the study of the ideals of the Enlightenment may be more pertinent now than ever. "If there were common denominators of the Enlightenment, they were the recognition of the social, political, and moral necessity of religious toleration, of open debate, of intellectual pluralism, and of freedom of speech and expression," he says. "The Enlightenment also addressed, however confusedly, the tension between fear of government power and the need for government to work on behalf of securing 'life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness' for free citizens. To say the least, every one of these issues remains at the center of contemporary needs and concerns."
Judith Martin is watching us. For almost thirty years, as "Miss Manners," she has written on etiquette, offering advice on everything from befuddling forks to greedy brides and grooms. Her twice-weekly column originated in the Washington Post and is now syndicated. She has penned ten books, including Star-Spangled Manners, a historical study of etiquette in American democracy, and two novels.
Martin rejects insinuations that 'etiquette' is snobbish, stuffy, or elitist. "It's the language of human behavior," she says passionately, "in which you can express goodwill and friendliness and all kinds of attributes that make the stranger feel welcome. It smoothes over a great deal of uglier impulses with acceptable packaging."
The child of a U.N. economist, her upbringing in foreign capitals prepared Martin to understand differing manners and mores. "You become aware of manners as a cultural thing when you go abroad, because otherwise you think people are doing things 'in the natural way.' So I became aware at an early age that behavior was a cultural thing. It was fascinating."
After graduating from Wellesley College, she joined the Washington Post, covering social events before becoming a film and theater critic.
"Etiquette," she says with a laugh, "is drama on a larger stage."
Her columns are beloved for their dry wit and unflinching attention to detail. And in spite of taking to task overindulgent parents and gift-hustling hosts, she feels that American manners are on the upswing.
"There's a huge interest in formality," she explains."That's why prom teenagers go bananas and people holding weddings get so excited." But looking beyond black limousines and evening clothes, Martin sees more substantive success. "The outward expression of bigotry and hate is no longer acceptable in this country," she notes. "I'm not saying we've gotten rid of bigotry--I only wish--but the expression of it is no longer accepted. We have the amusement of watching people who don't realize this--politicians and others--self-destruct by not realizing that this is no longer acceptable to disparage other people.
"It's not acceptable in general public if people make bigoted remarks. That's tremendous progress.
"When you think how various groups--women, African Americans, gays, and so on—were routinely put down and insulted and people got away with it, it's an enormous advance that this is no longer tolerated."
She says she'll retire "when everyone behaves," and stands firm against the flouting of some hard-and-fast, albeit arbitrary, rules, such as wearing black for weddings. "Most etiquette is arbitrary, but that doesn't make it any less important," she insists. "Wearing black still looks very sad to a lot of people. Therefore, the weddings look as if they're in mourning, which is kind of pathetic. But if everyone felt that black is a festive color, it would change."
And if it does change, will Miss Manners write a column, and let us know? "Yes," she says. "I will."
On his deathbed, George Washington held his secretary's hand and asked him to fulfill one last duty. In his account, Tobias Lear wrote, "He said to me, 'I find I am going, my breath can not last long. I believed from the first that the disorder would prove fatal. Do you arrange and record all of my late military letters and papers. Arrange my accounts and settle my books, as you know more about them than any one else, and let Mr. Rawlins finish recording my other letters which he has begun." Six hours later, Washington was gone.
To say that Washington considered the preservation of his papers important is an understatement. "Washington had a sense of history," says Theodore Crackel, editor in chief of The Papers of George Washington. "He had a sense that the Revolution was an extraordinarily important event in the history of this nation and that he was going to play a very important role in this. And that preserving the papers--his papers and the papers of the Revolution--was an extraordinarily important goal. So it was something that he began to do from the very beginning."
Even before Washington had a staff to make copies of the documents that flowed through his headquarters, he had already begun to collect his personal papers. There were the detailed records of his farming, trading and land interests, as well as the letter books he retained from his time as commander of the Virginia Regiment in the 1750s. As one of the nation's very earliest commercial farmers, he also kept a meticulous diary recording the weather, the state of his crops, and any visitors to Mount Vernon. There were financial account books, orders and invoices from British merchants, lists of slaves, books, and extracts from treatises on agriculture. In a wartime letter to his cousin, in the same sentence, Washington requests a safe place for Mrs. Washington and his papers. That so much of it has survived attests to Washington's careful preservation. That so much is available to us now is a testament to the great work done by the staff of The Papers of George Washington project at the University of Virginia.
The project was begun in 1969 by the University of Virginia and the Mount Vernon Ladies' Association. In addition to the papers that were housed at the Library of Congress, a search was instituted to find other documents. "One of the things that was done when the project was launched was that while the editors began work on the diaries, they were also, in parallel to that, conducting a search all over the nation and all over the world for Washington's documents. They found them in more than three hundred repositories and libraries around the world. It was a massive search. We continue to find documents."
To date, there are 135,000 documents in photographic form at the project's offices. Of the projected ninety-volume series, fifty-four have been published. "We have moved very rapidly through the work," says Crackel. "But, we've also had a reputation of being extraordinarily careful about what we do and extraordinarily precise."
Precision is important in this endeavor because the papers reveal not only Washington as farmer, commander in chief, and president, they reveal the man himself. "These papers are the embodiment of Washington that we have today," says Crackel. "They are the closest thing to the real live George Washington because they are his words."
Crackel has been most struck by Washington as a visionary. "What I have come to find in this since I've been reading his letters is his vision," he says, "his vision of America, his understanding of what this nation could be, his sense that this nation was not bounded by the Appalachian Mountains or even the Mississippi. He had a sense that this nation was going to expand, and though no one had done much exploring of the west, that this nation was going to be much larger and extend well beyond the original thirteen colonies. He had a marvelous vision of the future of this nation."