"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."
By Matthew Summers-Sparks