Matthew A. Wasniewski: Appointed the New Historian of the U.S. House of Representatives

By Bonnie K. Goodman

Ms. Goodman is the Editor/Features Editor at HNN. She has a Masters in Library and Information Studies from McGill University, and has done graduate work in history at Concordia University. Her blog is History Musings

Basic Facts

Position: Appointed the 4th House Historian.
Area of Research: 19th & 20th Century United States History, Diplomatic History.
Education: Ph.D., University of Maryland, College Park, 2004.
Major Publications: Wasniewski is the author of “Walter Lippmann, strategic internationalism, the Cold War, and Vietnam, 1943–1967.” Ph.D. Dissertation, University of Maryland, College Park, 2004, 664 pages.
Matthew  Wasniewski JPG Wasniewski is the editor of Women in Congress, 1917–2006. 2d ed. Joint Committee on Printing. 2007; and Black Americans in Congress, 1870-2007. 3d ed. U.S. House of Representatives, Committee on House Administration, U.S. Government Printing Office, 2008.
Additional Info:
Formerly Historian and Deputy Chief, Office of the Clerk, U.S. House of Representatives where he was responsible for the print and online editions of the Biographical Directory of the United States Congress, the House’s website on Art and History, the print and online editions of Women in Congress, Black Americans in Congress. He is also responsible for brochures about historical, archival and art-related information, as well as other publications mandated by the House.
Wasniewski began his public history career at the Capitol Historical Society.

Anecdote

It was probably a combination of things. Like a lot of people who go into history, I’m pretty math-challenged, but I love to read, so I read a lot of history books as a kid—a lot of books on World Wars I and II, and the Civil War. We kind of bounced around a couple locations in northern Virginia, but we were never really far from Civil War battlefields and historic sites. My dad, in his spare time, had a metal detector, so we would go metal detecting on a private farm field and find these Civil War bullets, and that really got my interest going.

I actually went to college thinking that I wanted to write for a newspaper and worked for the college newspaper my entire four years. I went to James Madison University and realized that I could do a double major fairly easily. My roommates were history majors, so by sophomore year they had talked me in coming to take a few history courses. I went, realized I could do a double major, and signed up for it. I think probably the one [undergraduate] course that really got me hooked was a methods course taught by Skip Hyser. I think that was kind of the turning point where I got hooked.

It was in U.S. history. I wrote a master’s thesis on Walter Lippmann, who was a journalist. He was a critic of U.S. Cold War policy, and so I focused on kind of a narrow range from 1945-52 and his criticisms on American policy. I followed that up with a [PhD] dissertation, [which] looked at Lippmann from 1945-67 when he retired as a critic of particularly American policy and southeast Asia. The archives [National Archives II] at the University of Maryland are pretty much right on campus, and so you could go over to the archives after class and dig around for these documents. We’re spoiled here in the D.C. area because we have so many resources—the Library of Congress right next door, the National Archives.

A lot of graduate schools (a lot of the history departments I should say) don’t always do a good job advertising their ability to place people in public history jobs, and I didn’t know it going into Maryland. I kind of thought, Well, I’d go in, get my PhD, and teach somewhere. It was only kind of gradually through association—going to these different archives, getting involved in organizations, and meeting people who had graduated from the program at Maryland who had public history jobs—that I realized there was this whole network out there of people who had these great jobs where they’re doing all histories, they’re writing, they’re doing research, they’re answering reference questions. I only learned about that gradually at Maryland, kind of through my own poking around. I found that there was a real network of folks in federal history offices from the National Archives to the State Department to here on the Hill.

Well, my background in graduate school was definitely 20th century. Although in making the transition to study Congress more than a decade ago, I really came to appreciate the 19th century. In particular, I hadn’t been so acquainted with political science before studying Congress, so that’s definitely a field I’ve been reading a lot more. I’ve come to appreciate the political scientist; they’re a different kind of cat than historians. We like to tell stories, and that’s how we educate people. We’re anecdote people, storytellers and writers. They’re kind of quantifiers [and] definitely love their numbers. I find a lot of what political scientists do provides a great roadmap for what historians need to do when they think about an institution this large.

I’m part of a book group and read kind of broadly about U.S. history and some international history. At some point I’d like to turn my dissertation into a book, so I have an interest in diplomatic history as well.

My official title is a mouthful: I’m the historian for the Office of History and Preservation under the Clerk of the House from the U.S. House of Representatives, and I’m also the deputy chief for the Office.

Our office is unique in federal history in that we kind of combine functions that typically aren’t all put together under one roof. I’m in charge of the publications and historical reference side of our operation. In the last three years, we’ve published a big volume along with the Senate Historical Office. In 2006, we published the update to the biographical directory of the United States Congress, which is a print edition of a biographical reference database that’s online; it’s been online for 10 years. This is the 16th print edition. It goes all the way back to the 1860s. [This biographical directory] compiles information on all the members who have served in the House and the Senate since 1789. It also includes the Continental Congresses, so it’s more than 12,000 people total. We handle the House side of the biographical entries, and the Senate handles members of the Senate.

In 2007 we published a congressionally mandated book, Women in Congress, which was an update to a series that began in the 1970s. This was the third edition [that] we greatly expanded. Of course there were a lot of women to write about because the last edition of the book came out in 1990-91. If you broke the number of women in Congress in half, which is above 250 at this point, that is the halfway point. More women have served post 1990 than had served in all history up through that point. Just a couple of months ago, we published the third edition of Black Americans in Congress, a book that also goes back to the 1970s. These two volumes are now part of a series of four books on women and minorities in Congress. We’re just now beginning to turn our attention to the last two books in the series: a book on Hispanic Americans and a book on Asian Pacific Americans in Congress. All of them cover not just the House but also the Senate side, so we work pretty closely with the Senate Historical Office.
We answer a lot of reference questions, deal quite a bit with member offices, and get a number of reference questions from the general public. In fact, the general public is probably our number one inquirer. We also deal a lot with press questions.

In 2004, we started up the House’s first oral history program where we interview long-time staff members—people who worked on committees, people who work on the floor. Our first interview was a reading clerk in the House who actually read the roll call for the Declaration of War on December 8, 1941. So he had all these memories of people on the floor, he had memories of Jeannette Pickering Rankin, who cast the lone no vote against war. It’s been interesting. We’ve now got roughly about 100 hours of recorded memories [from] a couple dozen folks. We’re really looking forward to expanding that program.

Oral history is a very powerful tool for kind of putting a human face on an institution. I think part of the public’s misperception of Congress is [that] people don’t understand it; it’s an intimidating thing to study. The presidency is kind of at a human scale—we’ve had 44 presidencies. The House and Senate combined are in excess of 12,000 people— it’s a huge institution. One of the challenges when I got interested in studying Congressional history was to take that to an individual level, to be able to understand the institution, to humanize it. That’s a little bit of what we do, that’s what oral history is. [We] try to put a human face on what goes on here—scaleable history so that an individual can kind of connect with it.

I actually used to work at the Capitol Historical Society. I was in graduate school at the University of Maryland, working on a degree in 20th century U.S. history, minding political and diplomatic history. I finished with my coursework and decided that I needed to have some financing to support me working on my dissertation. I wanted to move outside the department to get some practical experience. There was a job posting for a part-time position at the historical society for an associate historian who would do research, and so I applied and got the job. [I] did some historical work [and] also handled their publications. I have a background in journalism, and so I was responsible for the newsletter and catalogues and talking to the press.

When this office was created in 2002, I saw the job advertisement and put my application in. [I] was very fortunate that it worked out.

Originally published as part of “Jobs and Careers in History: Matt Wasniewski Interview – Part 1 & Part 2, By Jessica Pritchard, AHA’s History Today, 2-23-09

Quotes

By Matthew Wasniewski

  • Despite these flaws and frequent reversals, there were powerful and persuasive consistencies that animated Lippmann’s writings on foreign policy and the Cold War. Lippmann constructed a conceptual framework early in his career that eventually served as the centerpiece of his postwar analyses. The historian’s curiosity which I soon cultivated for Lippmann was no less intense than my attraction to him as a journalist. As I pursued graduate degrees in 20th century political history and international affairs during the 1990s, the context of what was occurring around me imparted an entirely new dimension to Lippmann’s columns. Sadly, straining to decipher 50-year-old Today and Tomorrow installments (on a microfilm reader of only slightly more recent vintage) proved a world more enlightening than the op-ed pages of most modern daily papers. The decade after the Cold War, with all its promise, contradictions, and disappointments badly needed a Lippmann-esque figure-but one never materialized.The 1990s in America, to borrow one of Lippmann’s phrases, were years of drift rather than mastery. Soviet power receded revealing long-neglected domestic institutions and concerns. The Cold War, Americans realized, had been waged at significant social cost: crime-ridden and decaying inner cities, obsolete public transportation systems, declining schools, a compromised environment, and massive national debts. Americans gladly forfeited their global concerns for the pursuit of prosperity at home. Televised popular culture and the news media-often indistinguishable enterprises-served as a potent opiate for a surprisingly eager audience. The public knew more about the broken marriage of a football star accused of murdering his estranged wife, than it did about a Balkan war that killed thousands of civilians, threatened peace in Europe, and eventually required NATO’s first military offensive. Americans gawked at presidential peccadilloes, but were blasé about the very same president’s failure to act upon horrific genocide on the African sub-continent. American intellectuals fared little better, participating in their own myopic surfeit of “irrational exuberance” spawned by post-Cold War triumphalism.4 One prominent scholar-cum-policymaker even adopted Hegel’s line that history was politics and, that since democracy had vanquished its 20th century rivals, communism and fascism, that history itself was perhaps nearing an “end.” Even those whose approach was more tempered, surveyed the “American Century” and argued that the Wilsonian mission of creating stability by fostering democracy had been internalized implicitly-if not explicitly-by U.S. policymakers, and, moreover, was a successful program worth emulating in the 21st Century. — Matthew Wasniewski in “Walter Lippmann, strategic internationalism, the Cold War, and Vietnam, 1943–1967.”
  • “The answer I’ve got is about as convoluted as the 50 state election laws themselves. I had to call over to the Senate Historical Office for an answer as to governors’ appointment powers. Here’s the gist of my conversation with them and what I know from my research for the Women in Congress book:First, the general trend is as your reader suggests: governors have the power to appoint only until the next general election. But that general rule is subject to the vagaries of a lot of complicated state election laws. There is no federal law that uniformly determines that a governor may make an appointment only up until the next general election. Women in Congress 1917-2006 JPG Moreover, in some instances, the actual swearing-in of a senator-elect to the remainder of a term can be delayed for personal scheduling reasons (for instance, the senator-elect may be occupying another elective or appointed office), thus extending the term of the appointee for a short amount of time.There are other examples of earlier and later women appointed to the Senate who, in fact, unlike Eva Bowring, served beyond the general election following their appointments (if only for a few weeks or months). One example is Elaine Edwards of Louisiana:

    Edwards (one of two women appointed by her husband to the Senate; Dixie Bibb Graves of Alabama was another) succeeded Allen Ellender after his death in 1972. She served from Aug. 1 to Nov. 13, when she resigned (a week after the general election) to give John Bennett Johnston, who had been elected on Nov. 7 to the full term commencing in January 1973, a seniority advantage.

    It may be that the election statute governing this example was peculiar only to Louisiana and, moreover, that it may have changed since Edwards served. I’m no expert on state election law. But there are several historical examples that would seem to provide the exceptions for which your reader was inquiring.” — Matthew Wasniewski about “Women in Congress: 1917-2006.” in “Ready, Ames, Fire: The Iowa Straw Poll”, NPR, 8-7-07

    About Matthew Wasniewski

  • “Dr. Wasniewski brings enormous experience and energy to the job of House Historian. His knowledge of congressional history, and his familiarity with cutting edge research and archival techniques make him the perfect candidate for this position. I want to thank Leader Boehner for working cooperatively throughout the appointment process, and supporting the work of the non-partisan, independent Search Committee.” — Nancy Pelosi, Speaker of the House of Representatives (D-Calif.)
  • “I’d like to thank the Speaker for working in a collaborative way throughout this process. Dr. Wasniewski’s interest in the history of the federal government, and his long-time association with the House, make him an excellent choice who will continue to find innovative ways to not only help the public be better engaged with their House, but to help Members better perform their duties through an understanding of the history of the institution.” — House Republican Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio)
  • Women In Congress 1917-2006 is an impressive book . . . . There are many stories in this book, both individual and collective. … Even the appendices disclose intriguing tidbits . . . This is not a bedtime reading or a beach book, but it is more than a research volume. Elegantly designed and modestly priced for a book this big, it’s also a suitable graduation present for an ambitious young woman. Getting it might giver her a few ideas about what she can aspire to.” — seniorwomen.com
  • Wasniewski (House Office of History & Preservation) has compiled the first comprehensive guide to the 229 women who have served in the U.S. congressional system, from the pre-suffrage era (e.g., Jeannette Rankin of Montana) to the present day. In the segment highlighting former congressional members, striking, full-page sepia- toned photographs precede profiles averaging three to six pages. Each entry is concluded by further reading titles, references to pertinent manuscript collections, and abundant primary-source material. Part 2 offers one-page alphabetical profiles of current members, while an appendix provides condensed entries on 74 first-year 109th congressional members. Meticulously researched and extremely well organized; highly recommended for political science and women’s studies collections. — Savannah Schroll Guz, formerly with Smithsonian Inst. Libs., Washington, DC, Library Journal
  • Black Americans in Congress, 1870-2007 JPG This beautifully prepared volume provides a plethora of information about African-Americans who have served in the Congress. Part I provides four chronologically organized chapters under the heading “Former Black Members of Congress.” Each chapter provides a lengthy biographical sketch of the members who served during the period addressed, along with a narrative historical account of the era and tables of information about the Congress during that time. Part II provides similar information about current African-American members. There are 10 appendixes providing tabular information of a variety of sorts about the service of Black members, including such things as a summary list, service on committees and in party leadership posts, familial connections, and so forth. The entire volume is 803 large folio pages in length and there are many illustrations. The book should be part of every library and research collection, and congressional scholars may well wish to obtain it for their personal libraries. — Ron Peters, Regents’ Professor of Political Science, University of Oklahoma
  • Posted on Thursday, October 21, 2010 at 10:34 AM

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    3 Comments

    1. Linda Fraili

       /  November 5, 2010

      We are very proud of you Matt!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

    2. Charlotte Hammack

       /  February 26, 2012

      Mr. Washniewski committed an egregious mistake when talking about the “black members of congress” on C-Span who were elected in the South before 1878, because ALL Southern men who had fought for the Confederacy were disenfranchised!!!!!! Since women couldn’t vote then, pretty much ALL white men COULDN’T VOTE!!!!!!!!! My father-in-law, who was born in 1899, remembered his father talking about the celebration in their small Mississippi town on the night of the election where men who had fought for the Confederacy could FINALLY vote again!!!!!!

    1. History Buzz January 31, 2013: Matt Wasniewski: House of Representatives Historian Launches Website « History Musings
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