By Bruce Cole
We the People. With these words, the framers of the Constitution declared that the government they were creating was built on the consent of the governed, not around titles, bloodlines, or state religion. They had just overthrown British rule and envisioned a democracy—and they, the people, would nurture the nation as it struggled, grew, and triumphed.
Five years ago, when the National Endowment for the Humanities launched an initiative to improve the teaching and understanding of American history and culture, we decided to call it We the People. The words signaled our determination to help Americans learn about the principles and ideals that governed our country's founding and its history. We also wanted to encourage the study of people who helped to forge our nation, the humble and the great, the immigrant and the native born, and the soldier and the mother at home.
The idea for the initiative developed in the months following 9/11. It became apparent to me and others that defending America requires more than a strong national defense. We also need to know our founding principles, our nation's history, our institutions, and our rights and responsibilities. Citizens who cannot define their liberties cannot defend them.
Many others agreed. On September 17, 2002, President Bush announced the launch of We the People at a Rose Garden ceremony. Fittingly, it was Constitution Day. Congress also lent its support, providing NEH with more than $51 million for the program over the next five years. We used that money to strengthen our programs in research, education, public programs, and preservation and access, while introducing new efforts focused specifically on our nation's story.
As part of the Landmarks of American History and Culture Workshops, each summer more than a thousand teachers spend a week studying with scholars and exploring historical sites, such as Mount Vernon and Ellis Island. The We the People Bookshelf program provides thousands of school and public libraries across the country with free sets of fifteen classic works of literature for young readers that convey themes important to American history and culture— “Courage,” “Freedom,” “Becoming American,” “The Pursuit of Happiness,” and “Created Equal.” In the coming year, another three thousand schools will receive bookshelves.
We the People also provides Americans with opportunities to learn about American history in their communities. One hundred libraries across the country are hosting "Forever Free: Abraham Lincoln's Journey to Emancipation," an exhibition documenting Lincoln's role in abolition. Other libraries will be hosting “Benjamin Franklin: In Search of a Better World,” an exhibition exploring Franklin's contributions to the founding of the nation.
We the People grants also support documentaries, bringing history into living rooms across the nation. Ken Burns's The War chronicles the nation's transformation as it fought the Axis powers. The War That Made America looks at the role of the French and Indian War in moving the colonies toward revolution. Other films profile sharp shooter Annie Oakley, naturalist John James Audubon, and statesman Alexander Hamilton. All of these documentaries are accompanied by Web sites, allowing viewers to continue learning online.
We the People Challenge Grants launch new centers of learning and help bolster and sustain established institutions well into the future. These grants encourage private-sector giving through the use of matching funds and are an effective means of leveraging public support for the humanities. Kansas State University, for example, is creating an institute devoted to the study of twentieth-century military history. The institute will conduct symposia, offer faculty and graduate fellowships, and establish a chair in military history.
The state humanities councils use We the People funding to develop an impressive array of programs. They sponsor special reading-and-discussion programs, lectures, exhibitions, and other activities that illuminate our nation's history and culture. The state councils are important partners in We the People, and I have been very gratified by the scope and success of their grassroots efforts.
In conjunction with the Library of Congress, the Endowment launched the National Digital Newspaper Program. More than thirty million pages of American newspapers dating from the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries will be made available through the “Chronicling America” Web site. With the click of a mouse, anyone can search the “first draft” of our nation's history. The newspaper program is also part of the Endowment's broader digital humanities initiative, which harnesses the power of digital technology to make the humanities accessible to all Americans while promoting innovative research.
At the beginning of 2008, we made the first awards for Picturing America, the newest We the People program. More than fifteen-hundred school and public libraries received forty large-scale reproductions of masterpieces of American art and a teachers guide. A companion Web site will also be available in the spring. It is our goal to provide Picturing America to thousands of additional libraries, giving millions of students a unique way to encounter the people, events, and places that constitute our nation's history.
In his farewell address from the Oval Office, President Ronald Reagan cited the need for an “informed patriotism.” “If we forget what we did,” he said, “we won't know who we are.” He also warned against the “eradication of the American memory that could result, ultimately, in an erosion of the American spirit.” This is neither a Democratic or Republican view, nor a left or right message—nor is it one that advocates an uncritical view of our history, which is not unblemished. Rather it is a plea to future generations to remember what Lincoln called the “mystic chords of memory,” the tenets and ideals that bind the nation together, sustain our national spirit, and ensure the nation's survival.
Without knowledge of where we came from or who we are, we cannot hope to protect the freedoms upon which this country was founded. With We the People, NEH is giving Americans tools and resources to practice informed patriotism.