Edgar Lee Hewett and the Political Process

Hewett's Role

It took a quarter of a century for Congress to respond to efforts to protect archaeological resources on federal land. Or, as Edgar Lee Hewett (fig. a) more diplomatically put it: "For a quarter of a century certain thoughtful people have been calling attention to the matter" (1905c: 590). His ability to make points forcefully but delicately was one of the many reasons he played a major role in bringing that long campaign to a successful close. Lee (1970: 68, p. 236, this volume), in his excellent narrative of that effort, credits Hewett's "unusual combination of western background, farming and teaching experience, firsthand knowledge of ancient ruins on federal lands in the Southwest, and experience as an archaeologist and administrator." Rothman (1989: 48-49), who provides another useful account of the struggle to pass antiquities legislation, notes that "Hewett succeeded when other more prominent professionals had failed." Many other authors agree on the importance of Hewett's contribution to the political process that ultimately succeeded (Bloom 1939; Chauvenet 1983; Collins and Michel 1985; Cunningham 1999; Euler 1963; Ferdon 1993; Forrest 1965; Fowler 1986; Fowler and Wilcox 1999; Ise 1961; Mackintosh 1985; McConnellogue 1998; McManamon 1996; Rogers 1987; Springer 1917; Walter 1939, 1947). The Historical Society of New Mexico has honored him by naming its Edgar Lee Hewett Award for Service to the Public after him, and Steven LeBlanc (1985: 117) has suggested that an annual Edgar Hewett Award be established to honor individuals for work on archaeological preservation.

Yet, Walter's (1939: 45) observation that "Hewett's contributions…to the safeguarding of the antiquities of the Nation, and especially in the Southwest, are not as widely known as they should be" is still an accurate one, because most writers simply record the fact of Hewett's achievement without exploring the process involved (Rothman 1989: 243-44). Hewett brought to the task some special personal qualities: prodigious energy and the ability to use it productively, well developed organizational skills, a superb sense of timing, an ability to identify quickly and define clearly the key elements in a problem, total but diplomatic perseverance in the pursuit of a goal, and a keen insight into the nature of the human condition. Although the basic facts of his accomplishment are reasonably well-known, it is difficult to reconstruct how and why he was so successful, partly because of other facets of his personality. Hewett was an inveterate note taker, but once he had used his notes, he discarded them (Chauvenet 1983: 41, 220). Moreover, despite his great ambition (Rothman 1992: 100), he was a "modest, unpretentious person" (Ferdon 1993: 11; Walter 1939: 44), especially when it came to reporting his own accomplishments. He mentions the Antiquities Act briefly in his Ancient Life in the American Southwest (Hewett 1930: 184) and reprints three papers concerning the campaign to pass the Antiquities Act (Hewett 1904b, 1905e, 1906b) in his Pajarito Plateau book (Hewett 1938: 155-72), but reveals nothing of his role in that campaign. Hewett's autobiographical writings are largely philosophical and anecdotal and provide almost no information on his professional activities (Hewett 1943, 1946). The record of his often informal and unofficial lobbying activities, which Frank Springer (1917: 6) suggested was "for the most part buried in the archives of the executive departments at Washington," is yet to be found.

The passage of the Antiquities Act was the result of a political process. Hewett realized more than any of his contemporaries that the long struggle was not a scientific or cultural problem, but a political one. He realized very early that the main product of the legislative process was policy with all other matters, including the details of procedure, secondary (Rothman 1989: 49). From the very beginning, the efforts to preserve the nation's archaeological resources embraced two approaches that were both complementary and competitive. On the one hand, there was a desire to protect all the ruins on federal land, the "general bill" approach, and on the other, the temptation to save a few spectacular places, the "national park" approach. The tension created by these seemingly opposite thrusts helped to prolong the campaign for antiquities legislation. At the same time, these approaches were potentially compatible. Part of Hewett's success stems from his recognition and exploitation of that potential.

The petition of the New England Historic Genealogical Society in 1882 contained elements of both approaches in that it used a single place, Pecos, to focus attention on the need to protect a larger group of similar ruins. As Lee points out, the saving of Casa Grande represented a more limited effort. If Congress would not protect all ruins on public lands, perhaps it could be persuaded to preserve "one conspicuous ancient landmark, at small expense" (Lee 1970: 18, p. 208). At least such action would establish the principle that the government has a responsibility toward the ruins on the land it controls.