On June 17, 1963, President John Kennedy hosted a luncheon at the White House for the editors and sponsors of the historical documentary editions of the papers of the Founders and other leading figures in American history. At the luncheon, he endorsed the idea of funding for the National Historical Publications Commission (as the NHPRC was then called). He had written a letter in response to a Commission report (see image) calling for Federal funding for a grants program.
“I want to welcome all of you and express a very warm appreciation to this combination of unlimited wealth and scholarship. [Laughter] It’s a very happy occasion-both groups are happiest when with each other, so that I think it’s appropriate that we meet together today.
I want to express the high esteem I feel for the National Historical Publications Commission. President Truman gave it a new life in 1950. And I think that the work they have done since then, and this very exceptional report which I would hope would be read by a good many Americans who are interested in the past and the future. I think it tells the story of what the Commission is trying to do and what our unfinished business is and what our responsibilities are.
The Commission has made three proposals which I have strongly endorsed and which I think the American people will, as they become increasingly acquainted with the extraordinary accomplishments of the men who began the priority projects [of the founding era].
I don’t know the complete explanation of why these extraordinary men appeared on the scene at one time in a very small country, a very distant country from the center of what was then regarded as Western civilization. But they came and they have left a very lasting imprint on all of our actions. I run into the results of their work every day. The more we can know what they really thought, the more we can follow their extraordinary careers, almost day by day, the more, it seems to me, the American people are given a certain sense of confidence in their past which in turn gives them confidence in their future. If we don’t know anything about our past, then we don’t really have any base from which to move in the days ahead…”
Our colleagues at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library have digitized the papers related to the event, including the Report to the President, the invitations and responses to the lunch at http://www.jfklibrary.org/Asset-Viewer/Archives/JFKWHSFSLF-024-001.aspx as well as editor Julian Boyd’s remarks, Arthur Schlesinger Jr.’s memorandum and talking points at http://www.jfklibrary.org/Asset-Viewer/Archives/JFKPOF-079-005.aspx.
The President’s remarks were recorded, and you can listen to his address to the editors at http://www.jfklibrary.org/Asset-Viewer/Archives/JFKWHA-194-004.aspx
A year later, on July 28, 1964, Public Law 88-383 was passed and signed by President Lyndon Johnson, establishing the NHPC grant program. Congress appropriated $350,000 in grant funds, and the Commission has been awarding grants for the past 50 years.