By CLARK EVANS
Abraham Lincoln is one of 23 presidents whose papers are housed in the Library of Congress. The Library contains one of the largest collections of Lincolniana in the world, with two of the five copies of the Gettysburg Address in Lincoln’s own hand. This material is largely found in the Lincoln Papers, housed in the Manuscript Division, and the Alfred Whital Stern Collection in the Rare Book and Special Collections Division. Lincoln material also abounds in other areas of the Library’s physical collections and in its online resources.
In 1847, a young Abraham Lincoln, newly elected to the U.S. House of Representatives from Illinois, departed the east side of the Capitol in search of living quarters. Crossing the intersection of First Street and Independence Avenue, he happened upon a boarding house under the proprietorship of Ann Sprigg. Finding the accommodations satisfactory, he made the necessary arrangements with Mrs. Sprigg to make this his Washington home for the next two years. (Lincoln never forgot his former landlady, Ann Sprigg. In a July 21, 1864, letter
to Treasury Secretary William P. Fessenden, the president recommended Sprigg
for a position of clerk of the loan branch. He wrote, “The bearer of this is a most estimable widow lady, at whose house I boarded many years ago when a member
of Congress. She now is very needy; & any employment suitable to a lady could
not be bestowed on a more worthy person.”)
Fifty years later, in 1897, the site where Lincoln once lived would become the home of the Congressional Library, which had outgrown its space in the Capitol Building. Known today as the Thomas Jefferson Building of the Library of Congress, its Northeast Pavilion is adorned with words from the Gettysburg Address: “Government of the people, by the people, for the people shall not perish from the earth.” Lincoln’s words are also featured on the “Government” mural by artist Elihu Vedder that adorns the entrance to the Main Reading Room, and his image is the model for the face of “Science” in artist Edwin Blashfield’s “Evolution of Civilization” mural in the dome of the Main Reading Room.
In 1947, 50 years after the building opened to the public, Lincoln’s papers were opened to the public in the Thomas Jefferson Building, where they are housed for posterity.
The Library’s acquisition of Lincolniana began in earnest in 1870, decades before the Library acquired the Lincoln Papers. That year the new copyright law centralized the copyright registration function in the Library of Congress, bringing in floods of published tributes, reminiscences and attempts at biography and historical assessment. These resources were outlined in George T. Ritchie’s “A List of Lincolniana in the Library of Congress,” which was published in 1903—20 years before the Lincoln Papers were donated to the Library.
The Lincoln Papers
The Lincoln Papers came to the Library of Congress from Lincoln’s oldest son, Robert Todd Lincoln (1843-1926), who arranged for their organization and care shortly after his father was assassinated. At that time, the Lincoln Papers were removed to Illinois, where they were first organized under the direction of Judge David Davis of Bloomington, Ill., Abraham Lincoln’s longtime associate. Later, Lincoln’s presidential secretaries, John G. Nicolay and John Hay, assisted in the project. In 1874, most of the Lincoln Papers returned to Washington, D.C., and Nicolay and Hay used them in the research and writing of their 10-volume biography, “Abraham Lincoln: A History” (New York, 1890).
In 1919, Robert Todd Lincoln deposited the Lincoln Papers with the Library of Congress and on Jan. 23, 1923, he deeded them to the Library. The deed stipulated that the Lincoln Papers remain sealed until 21 years after his own death, which occurred on July 26, 1926.
On July 26, 1947, at one minute past midnight, with great fanfare and after a gala dinner hosted by Librarian of Congress Luther H. Evans, the safe containing the Lincoln papers was opened. A select group of leading scholars and collectors were invited to attend the opening ceremony, which was broadcast nationally on the CBS Radio Network.
Items in the Abraham Lincoln Papers date from 1833 through 1916. But most of the approximately 20,000 items are from the 1850s through Lincoln’s presidential years, 1860-65. Treasures in this collection include Lincoln’s draft of the Emancipation Proclamation, his March 4, 1865, draft of his second Inaugural Address, and his August 23, 1864, memorandum expressing his expectation of being defeated in the upcoming presidential election.
Correspondence relating to these treasures is also included in the collection. (Lincoln’s first draft and reading copy of the Gettysburg Address is in the John Hay Papers at the Library of Congress.) The bulk of the Lincoln Papers consists of letters written to Lincoln by a wide variety of correspondents: friends, and legal and political associates from Lincoln’s Springfield, Ill., days; national and regional political figures and reformers; and local people and organizations writing to their president. Included in the papers are documents written after Lincoln’s assassination on April 14, 1865, such as letters of condolence to his widow, Mary Todd Lincoln, and correspondence between Robert Todd Lincoln and others.
The Lincoln papers were microfilmed in 1947. Given their rarity, until recently the papers were usually only available for use in microfilm format. A project to digitize the papers from the microfilm was begun in 1999 in collaboration with the Lincoln Studies Center at Knox College in Galesburg, Ill., and with support from Donald G. Jones, Terri L. Jones and the Jones Family Foundation. Under the direction of the Library’s National Digital Library Program, a division of the Online Computer Library Center Inc., scanned the papers. Under contract to the Library, editors in the Lincoln Studies Center created annotated transcriptions for all documents in Lincoln’s autograph, and for approximately 11,000 other items such as incoming correspondence. These annotated transcriptions are linked to the digital images of each item.
The online collection of Lincoln Papers, which was first made available in its entirety in 2002, comprises 61,000 images.
Additional Family Donations
In 1928, Mary Harlan Lincoln, Robert Todd Lincoln’s widow, gave the Library of Congress both the Bible from Lincoln’s first inauguration and the family Bible, which contains the Lincoln family record, part of it in Lincoln’s hand. President Obama was sworn in on the Lincoln inaugural Bible. (See Information Bulletin, January/February 2009.)
In 1937, Robert Todd Lincoln’s daughter donated to the Library the contents of Lincoln’s pockets on the night he was murdered: two pairs of eyeglasses, a penknife, a watch fob, a cuff link, a monogrammed handkerchief and a wallet (containing newspaper clippings and a Confederate five-dollar bill). In 1975, former Librarian of Congress Daniel J. Boorstin discovered these priceless items in a safe in the Librarian’s Office.
The Lincoln Bibles and the contents of the president’s pocket on April 14, 1865, are on display in the Lincoln Bicentennial Exhibition “With Malice Toward None.”
Alfred Whital Stern Collection
In 1923, the year that Robert Todd Lincoln deeded the Lincoln Papers to the Library of Congress, Alfred Whital Stern (1881-1960) made the initial acquisition for a collection that by 1950 would become the largest private assemblage of Lincolniana held in private hands. While vacationing with his family in Atlantic City, N.J., Stern discovered that his seven-year-old son John had forgotten to bring his school texts and proceeded to a nearby bookshop in search of a reading primer. Instead he stumbled upon Gilbert Tracy’s “Uncollected Letters of Lincoln (1917), which impressed him with the power and intellect of the Great Emancipator.
A native New Yorker, Stern migrated to Chicago as a young man and quickly established himself as a successful manufacturer. In due course, his insatiable interest in the 16th president led him to acquire books as well as all types of memorabilia—manuscripts, broadsides, portraits, political cartoons, newspapers, medals, artifacts and sheet music.
With Illinois as a base of operations, Stern was well-positioned to acquire Lincolniana. The majority of the noted Lincoln collectors that preceded Stern tended to specialize in one particular format. For example, Daniel Fish collected books; Oliver R. Barrett, manuscripts; Frederick Hill Meserve, photographs; and Andrew Zabriski, numismatics. Stern appears to have commenced his avocation by following the bibliographic example of Fish. This direction was further reinforced via a friendship with Joseph B. Oakleaf, compiler of the highly esteemed “Lincoln Bibliography” (1925).
While Stern was primarily a book collector, the quality of Lincoln manuscripts he gathered is extraordinary. Of particular note are two letters: the Aug. 17, 1863, letter to actor James Hackett, in which the president expounds upon his love of Shakespeare, and the Jan. 26, 1863, letter to General Joseph Hooker offering the command of the Army of the Potomac. Purchased by Stern in 1941 for $15,000, this second letter is universally regarded to be among Lincoln’s greatest compositions.
Stern’s collection also includes more than 200 pieces of sheet music that represent Lincoln and the war as reflected in popular music. These songs are about Lincoln’s campaigns, beliefs, political platforms and his assassination. They provide a unique view of his popularity during his years in the White House and reflect the mythology that developed around him following the assassination.
Stern was noted for having a magnanimous and egalitarian nature. Whether prince or pauper, Lincoln enthusiasts visiting Stern’s Chicago apartment on Lake Shore Drive were greeted warmly and welcomed to freely examine his treasures. As Stern entered his sixties, it was only natural that he contemplated leaving his collections to institutions where they would be accessible to the larger public. Having served as chairman of the board of trustees of the Illinois State Historical Library in Springfield, Stern donated his library of some 2,000 volumes dealing with the American Civil War to that repository in 1943. This altruistic action was followed soon thereafter by a gift of 1,000 Lincoln books to the Hebrew University in Jerusalem.
When the Library of Congress opened the Lincoln Papers to the public in 1947, Stern was one of the collectors in attendance. The idea of donating his Lincoln collection to the nation’s library may have originated then. After several years of negotiations, and with the additional advocacy of his son, Thomas Whital Stern, the Library announced Stern’s gift to the nation on Nov. 19, 1950—four score and seven years after Lincoln’s immortal Gettysburg Address.
In 1953, the Library acquired the Alfred Whital Stern Collection of Lincolniana, comprising more than 11,000 items. The collection documents the life of Abraham Lincoln (1809-1865) both through writings by and about Lincoln as well as a large body of publications concerning the issues of the times including slavery, the Civil War, Reconstruction and related topics.
Stern generously included an endowment that permitted the acquisition of new materials and the “publication of catalogs, bibliographies, and studies designed to increase the collection’s usefulness.” This made possible the 1960 publication of “A Catalog of the Alfred Whital Stern Collection of Lincolniana in the Library of Congress.”
A portion of the Stern collection was recently digitized. This online release presents more than 1,300 items with more than 4,000 images and a date range of 1824-1931. It includes the complete collection of Stern’s contemporary newspapers, Lincoln’s law papers, sheet music, broadsides, prints, cartoons, maps, drawings, letters, campaign tickets and other ephemeral items. The books and pamphlets in this collection are scheduled for digitization at a later date.
Upon accepting the Stern donation in 1950, former Librarian of Congress Luther H. Evans sent a letter of acknowledgment to the donor that read in part:
“Please let me repeat the expression of gratitude and gratification which your munificent and public spirited gift inspires. There is a profound satisfaction in your assurance that the national collection of Lincolniana shall possess the dignity, resourcefulness, meaning and primacy to which it and the people of the United States are so eminently entitled.”
More Lincoln Treasures
In addition to the Manuscript Division, which houses the Lincoln Papers and those of Lincoln’s associates (such as William Herndon and John Hay), and the Rare Book and Special Collections Division, which holds the Alfred Whital Stern Collection, various Library divisions boast Lincoln treasures.
The Library’s General Collections hold thousands of volumes about the 16th president, including countless biographies.
The historical collection of the Law Library of Congress houses materials that illustrate how the law played a prominent role during the Lincoln era. A web presentation on Lincoln and the law may be found on the Law Library’s website.
The Prints and Photographs Division houses many of the renowned images of the Civil War era by Mathew Brady and Alexander Gardner. With only 130 photographs of Lincoln known to exist, the discovery of previously unknown Lincoln photos is cause for celebration. Such was the case with the discovery in 2008 of “new” images of Lincoln at Gettysburg and at his second inauguration. (See Information Bulletin, March 2008.) More than 1 million photographs, including those of Lincoln, can be found on the Prints and Photographs Online Catalog.
Depictions of Lincoln in motion pictures, radio and television are represented in the Motion Picture, Broadcasting and Recorded Sound Division.
A guide to the Library’s online resources pertaining to Lincoln can be found on the Library's website. These allow children and adults to learn more about Lincoln.
Clark Evans is head of the Reference Services Section in the Rare Book and Special Collections Division. Center for the Book Director John Y. Cole contributed to this article.