If Thomas Jefferson was the main author of the Declaration of Independence, who filled that role for the U.S. Constitution?
If Raymond W. Smock has his way, by 1987 most Americans will know that the answer is Gouverneur Morris.
Smock, the first official historian of the House, has now taken on the chairmanship of an ad hoc Committee on the Bicentennial of the Constitution and the Federal Government. The small group of agency historians is discussing ways their agencies can mark the 200th anniversary of the signing of the Constitution, two years from now.
The group is separate from the Commission on the Bicentennial of the Constitution, which will be chaired by Chief Justice Warren E. Burger. The commission is supposed to serve as the main umbrella organization for planning bicentennial activities, but its 18 members were appointed only last week, and it does not yet have an executive director. In the meantime, the historians' group has proceeded with its plans.
With unabashed enthusiasm, Smock is trying to sell a product that is generally not very flashy -- history. He operates out of a tiny enclave in the Cannon House Office Building that only a year ago was just a corridor leading to the House Barber Shop.
Now it is filled with copies of Roll Call, the Capitol Hill newspaper, books about the House and pictures of famous members of Congress.
"Morris is a perfect example of a famous American who served in the Continental Congress, but who has been all but forgotten," Smock said, grabbing a book off a cluttered shelf and flipping to a biography of the statesman.
"It is amazing to me how little has been done to preserve the history of the House," he added. "We're starting from scratch more than 190 years after this place got started."
Smock, 44, grew up in Illinois, graduating from Thornton Junior College in Harvey, Ill., and Roosevelt University in Chicago. His major, black history, led him to a professor's job at the University of Maryland. There he joined Prof. Louis R. Harlan in 1967 to edit the papers of Booker T. Washington, black educator and author.
When the project was coming to a close in 1983, Smock planned to return to teaching. But then he heard about the House historian's job.
"I really wasn't looking for a job," he said. "I had finished working on the book and had formed my own audio-visual company with my wife, in our home, making historical slides for schools."
Smock is now angling to turn his temporary post -- the historian's job is set to expire in 1989 -- into a permanent position. The Senate, by comparison, has had a permanent historian since 1976.
"I make no secret of the fact that I want a permanent historical office for the House," he said. "But I am very careful not to lobby too early. I want to show them how useful this office can be."
His primary vehicle is the bicentennial of the Constitution.
At a recent meeting of his ad hoc group, an arm of the Society for History of the Federal Government, Smock played diplomat. He moved the group away from a proposal for federal grants to agency historians, while endorsing the U.S. Postal Service's plans to issue a set of commemorative stamps.
"I don't think we can control all of the events," Smock told the group. "We shouldn't. But we shouldn't be tripping over each other, either. Or doing things that just aren't well thought out."
With the help of Roger H. Davidson of the Congressional Research Service, Smock is working to instill substance in what some participants call "Round Two" of the nation's bicentennial activities.
"Round One was festivals: that was 1976," Smock said. "This is different. It's a more thought-provoking celebration of values. I'll never promote tall ships, but I'm sure somebody else will."
The actual starting date of the celebration is somewhat nebulous. On May 25, 1787, the Constitutional Convention achieved the quorum it needed to begin drafting a document to replace the Articles of Confederation. But it wasn't until Sept. 12 of that year that a five-member committee presented the first draft of the new Constitution -- written primarily by Morris -- to the convention. And it wasn't until June 21, 1788, that New Hampshire became the ninth state to ratify the document, thus putting it into effect.
"Another opportunity like this, to celebrate a centennial, won't come around until 2087," Smock said. "By then I hope to be retired."