Today’s post comes from Peter A. Shulman, Assistant Professor of History at Case Western Reserve University. In 2011 he held the inaugural Legislative Archives Fellowship at the National Archives. The National Archives is now accepting applications for the 2012 Fellowship position. For an application and more information, please visit the Center for Legislative Archives.
I’d spent a lot of time at the National Archives before learning that (a) the records of Congress are housed there and (b) those records might be very valuable to my research. I’m grateful that I did, as it led last year to working in the collection as a Legislative Archives fellow.
My book examines how Americans came to think about energy in terms of security and the national interest. Many historians have written about the emergence of energy politics and the importance of energy, particularly oil, to national defense. But these works usually begin with the widespread adoption of oil fuel in the early twentieth century. It turns out that since the 1840s, Americans have been very concerned with the security dimensions of coal, both for domestic defense as well as projecting American influence around the world. My research connects these histories, exploring how the long nineteenth century experience with coal shaped how Americans dealt with oil in the century that followed.
Until last year, I had focused my research on the activities of Navy Department, the branch of government most concerned with securing both fuel and national defense, and all those Americans who advocated in its name. But once I began working among congressional records, I found the Washington that is familiar to those who have lived and worked there. It was complicated, contradictory, and chaotic, its own community and also connected in thousands of ways to the rest of the country. I realized I could not begin to tell this story without understanding what was going on in the House and Senate.
There were letters of engineers asking Congress for compensation when their inventions were adopted in the steam engines of government vessels. Other correspondence pushed Congress to investigate or adopt particular innovations. There were packets of documents debating legislation, and in which I found the unexpected connections between technological change and subjects as diverse as postal policy, Chinese exclusion, and the nineteenth century peace movement. There were reams of testimony, like on why to annex Hawaii as a coaling station. There were boxes of evidence gathered in investigations, as on east Asian communication policy and the Pacific Mail Steamship Company. There were the final drafts of committee reports, marked up with changes by their authors and on their way to becoming part of the familiar serial set. And most strikingly, there were innumerable petitions and memorials, some signed by single individuals and others by thousands, each asking Congress to pass some bill, change some policy, or provide some relief. Here was the heart of the conversation Americans have with their government.
“Highly Important Improvement in Ocean Steam Navigation and Every Purpose of Steam,” 1860; Committee on Naval Affairs; Petitions and Memorials Referred to Committees (HR 36A-G12.2); 36th Congress; Records of the U.S. House of Representatives, Records Group 233; National Archives, Washington, DC.
What surprised me most about working in the Center’s collections wasn’t that I found tons of useful documents (after all, my hope for these discoveries was why I applied for the fellowship in the first place)—but that what I found has helped reframe my own understanding of this project. I had expected congressional documents to complement my earlier research; instead, in many instances, the actions of Congress have become the center of the story.
Along the way, I had the constant support of the Center’s staff—people who know this collection inside and out. I began making connections with the historians working in both the House and Senate. At a colloquium presentation, I received invaluable feedback from scholars in and out of the federal government. It was a privilege to hold the first Legislative Archives fellowship, and I look forward to learning of the fruits of future scholars plumbing the depths of this extraordinary collection.