Choosing the House Historian

A UConn emeritus history professor heads a group that is reshaping the role of the House historian.

Richard Brown, Board of Trustees Distinguished Professor of History Emeritus. Photo by Peter Morenus

Richard Brown, Board of Trustees Distinguished Professor of History Emeritus, has always been interested in early American history, penning numerous books and papers spanning the time from before the American Revolution through the mid-19th century.

Now, he has a chance to assist in selecting who will be empowered to collect and use some of that history in the future: U.S. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi recently named him chairman of a search committee to find a new director for the Office of the Historian in the U.S. House of Representatives.

“I thank Dr. Brown and this distinguished group of historians for their willingness to help facilitate the selection of the next House Historian,” Pelosi said. “I look forward to receiving the recommendations of this panel, which will ensure that the historian’s position will be filled by a respected and dedicated scholar.”

Brown says he’s honored: “The House Historian should play a useful role in helping to inform debate in Congress by providing legislators with historic background on many of the issues that come before them – health care overhaul, Medicare, Social Security, and much more. This assignment is a lot more work than I thought it would be, but it’s very interesting.”

Although Congress has existed since 1789, the Office of the Historian has only operated since the early 1980s, created with an eye toward the bicentennial of the U.S. Constitution. But, after being directed for 12 years by Raymond Smock, then Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich cleaned house in the Historian’s office, installing history Professor Christina Jeffrey in Smock’s place as director. Jeffrey, however, was ousted only a week into her term when comments she had made years earlier about the Holocaust led to her resignation.

The office lay fallow for the next 10 years.

The office was reborn in 2005 when Speaker Dennis Hastert appointed the distinguished historian Robert V. Remini to lead the collection and dissemination of historical records. Remini will retire at the end of August, so the search for a successor began.

“We’re hoping for someone who will make a career of it, as in the Office of the Senate Historian,” Brown says of the job, which was advertised last month. “In 30 years, the Senate has had only two historians, and both have done outstanding work.” Applications close Aug. 16, and Brown says he would like the committee to recommend a new director in October.

The Office of the Historian is responsible for providing information and interpretation of important precedents and events for the members of Congress and their staff, the media, students, educators, scholars, and the general public. Staff conduct oral history interviews of current and former members of Congress and advise members on the disposition of their papers. The Historian’s office also works with the Office of Photography to archive hundreds of thousands of photos.

The new historian will fill a broader role than Remini. When Brown was appointed chair of the search committee, committee members were tasked not only with recommending a new director but also with integrating the Office of the Historian with the Office of History and Preservation, another Congressional office that researches the history of Congress and disseminates information and had produced important books, including the history of women in Congress, the history of African-Americans in Congress, and others. The Office of History and Preservation served the House’s historical needs during the interval between Jeffrey’s resignation and Remini’s appointment.

Brown says there’s currently substantial overlap between the two offices. Following two months of research and interviews, his committee recommended that the House Historian be in charge of the historical work of both offices. They also recommended that the House Historian be moved administratively into the Office of the Clerk of the House of Representatives, thereby taking the historian out of annual budget battles and further promoting the historian’s non-partisanship.

The new historian, Brown says, should decide how best to use the 16 positions in the two offices, assuring the most efficient use of resources.

Brown, who came to UConn in 1971, retired last year during the state’s early retirement initiative. He is currently writing a book on equal rights in the Early American Republic, which probes the extent to which there were equal rights between 1776 and the Civil War.

The House Chamber, as it appeared in 1861, the oldest known photograph of the U.S. House of Representatives. Photo courtesy of the Office of the House Historian
Speaker Thomas B. Reed (R-Me.) presides, as the House begins business in 1898. Photo courtesy of the Office of the House Historian
Representative Joseph Cannon (R-Ill.) honors Abraham Lincoln by giving the Gettysburg Address on the House floor on Feb. 12, 1920. Photo courtesy of the Office of the House Historian
Speaker Rayburn administers the oath of office to six new House members in 1952, after House Chamber renovations. Photo from the Library of Congress, courtesy of the Office of the House Historian