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Collection Abraham Lincoln Papers at the Library of Congress

Editors' Preface to the Transcriptions

How did the editors choose which documents to transcribe and what editorial rules to follow? This essay provides answers to those questions and also includes a brief bibliography of sources consulted and basic background information on Lincoln’s writing style, penmanship, and preservation practices.

The Abraham Lincoln Papers at the Library of Congress contains the documents Abraham Lincoln preserved from his personal papers and those assembled by his presidential secretaries and preserved by his son Robert Todd Lincoln, totaling in all some twenty thousand items. Single or small numbers of manuscripts were subsequently acquired by the Library of Congress from a variety of sources, as were a sizeable number of reproductions of government and military documents made from originals in the holdings of the National Archives and Records Administration. Printed materials and reproductions included in the additions to the Abraham Lincoln Papers are not included in this online presentation.

The online Abraham Lincoln Papers at the Library of Congress has two basic components. First, it provides a facsimile image of every page of every document in Series 1-3 of the collection, whether a draft of one of Lincoln's own letters or speeches, a memorandum in Lincoln's hand on a particular political or legal question, a handwritten letter to Lincoln, a printed circular, or newspaper item. Second, it also provides linked transcriptions for about ten thousand items (about half of the online collection) which the editors have selected either for their historical importance or as representative of the president's unsolicited incoming mail. Transcriptions are provided for all of the documents in Lincoln's own hand and for secretarial copies of Lincoln documents contained in Series 1-3 of the Lincoln Papers. Many of the transcriptions have been annotated to aid users in identifying the people involved and in better understanding the content and historical contexts.


The personal papers of a prominent public figure such as Abraham Lincoln represent accumulations over time of documents and records. While they often contain valuable drafts or copies or fragments of documents composed by the person whose papers they are, incoming correspondence necessarily predominates. The letters Lincoln wrote to others, where they survive, are mostly to be found either in the papers of the recipients or in special repositories of Lincoln material. Except for occasional drafts and copies of his own letters he retained for his files, the correspondence in Lincoln's papers consists of the letters sent to him beginning at the time he served in Congress in the 1840s, when he first began preserving his papers. By the time he became a prominent national politician in the 1850s, Lincoln's incoming correspondence was considerable; when he was president, it was massive.

Lincoln seems to have carried on very little correspondence that was strictly personal, so the reader should expect few letters of that kind here. The pre-presidential correspondence is almost entirely legal or political. Far and away the largest pre-presidential category concerns his career as a Whig and Republican politician. There are some obvious gaps in the correspondence, such as the period when Lincoln was on the campaign trail for several months in 1858. And there are some conspicuous absences. Lincoln's law partner, William H. Herndon, for example, said he was asked by the president-elect to write him often and keep him apprised of conditions in Springfield. While Herndon testifies that he wrote Lincoln very frequently, only a few of these letters have survived. This is a reminder that Lincoln's surviving correspondence, extensive as it is, does not represent everything that was addressed to him but only that portion that has been preserved.


Reading Lincoln's words in a transcribed text is the way one usually encounters them, but seeing them in his own hand adds a meaningful dimension. Manuscript documents frequently have more to tell us than the words and symbols written on them. They often contain visual clues about when a document was written, for example, or the difficulty the writer had in finding the right words for his message. Being able to see the changes the writer made in a text can aid in understanding its meaning and the process by which the final form of the message came into being. This is the advantage that a visual image of the document has over a transcription of its text, an advantage that is constantly available to the user of the online version of the Abraham Lincoln Papers at the Library of Congress.

Linked Transcriptions

The images give the reader visual access to the real thing -- the documents themselves -- and while these documents are the authoritative sources, there are also definite advantages to having linked transcriptions of their texts. The first is legibility. The difficulties to be encountered by all readers of handwritten script -- haste in writing, bad penmanship, poor writing materials -- were often present in the creation of the documents in the Lincoln papers. This is not so much the case with documents in Lincoln's hand, as he was, typically, a careful penman, but many of those corresponding with him wrote with far less care. Damage to a document, such as water-staining, and other forms of deterioration also affect the legibility of some documents. While what is inscribed on the document is the final authority, transcriptions afford the reader recourse when legibility is a problem.

The second obvious advantage of a transcription in an electronic medium is searchability. Locating a name or certain important words and phrases -- for example, "Seward," "slavery," or "popular sovereignty" -- ordinarily presents a serious problem in a collection as large as this. By employing the search function, the user can easily specify and very quickly locate relevant words and passages. This can save hours of manual searching and thus make the use of these papers far more efficient.

Literal Transcriptions

Users of the Abraham Lincoln Papers are advised that the texts offered here are literal transcriptions. An attempt has been made to represent the written matter as closely as possible to the way it appears in the manuscript. This means that even the most obvious misspellings remain uncorrected, and that equally obvious lapses in phrasing and sentence structure have been left undisturbed. It means further that stricken material -- what the writer puts down and then strikes out -- is always included as part of the transcription.

In the interest of a literal presentation of the inscribed text that appears in the image of the document provided, editorial intrusion has been kept to an absolute minimum. This is particularly evident in matters of punctuation. In Lincoln's day, the dash was used more commonly and in more ways than in more recent times, including its use to indicate a full stop at the end of a sentence. Lincoln himself often used the dash as a full stop, sometimes more frequently than he used the period. Editors of printed editions commonly treat all full stops alike, and thus render them all as periods. Here, because the editors of the online Abraham Lincoln Papers are committed to a strictly literal transcription, all punctuation marks, including Lincoln's full-stop dashes, are shown as they appear in the manuscript. Because these transcriptions have not been editorially altered, the reader will find that they often differ in such particulars from the Lincoln texts printed in standard editions.

Editorial Procedures for Transcriptions

The primary rule of transcription adhered to in the online Abraham Lincoln Papers at the Library of Congress has been to replicate the inscribed texts of the documents as literally as possible.

  1. The text of each document is transcribed word for word and letter for letter, insofar as it is possible to render handwritten matter into existing typography.
  2. Stricken material is shown thus: cancelled text.
  3. Matter inserted by the author in the margins or by interlineation is shown as part of the running text in the order apparently intended by the author. Where the word order of revised or rewritten text may serve to confuse readers, editorial clarification is usually provided in a note.
  4. Editorial intrusion has been kept to a minimum and is shown underlined and displayed within square brackets: [editorial comment].
  5. Words that are not clearly legible are treated as follows: if unreadable, the matter in question will be represented within square brackets by the word "illegible": [illegible]. If there is a good indication of what the unreadable word might be, the likely word is shown, followed by a question mark, in square brackets: [word?].
  6. Matter not written by the author of the document but added later by an editor or curator, is not transcribed. Such inscription is sometimes noted or discussed in the annotations. Endorsements, as explained below, are an exception to this rule.
  7. Marginal matter by the author, not apparently part of the running text, is shown within square brackets, thus: [Marginal note: text of note].
  8. The text of an enclosed item is preceded by [Enclosure:].
  9. An ordinary endorsement is preceded by [Endorsed:]. Lincoln's own endorsements on the document are preceded by [Endorsed by Lincoln:]. His endorsements on the file envelope are preceded by [Endorsed on Envelope by Lincoln:].
  10. Ordinary dashes are transcribed with a space on either side. Lincoln's characteristic final stop, which has no counterpart in modern typography but resembles a dash at the level of a period, is shown as a dash immediately following the terminal letter of the word.
  11. Inside addresses are usually not transcribed.


The following is not an exhaustive list of all the works consulted for the purpose of preparing the annotations for the Library of Congress project. Instead, it highlights those that were most frequently relied upon and most useful.

  • Basler, Roy P. et al., eds. The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln. 9 vols. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1953.
  • Basler, Roy P., ed. The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln: Supplement 1832-1865. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1974.
  • Beale, Howard K., ed. The Diary of Edward Bates 1859-1866. Washington D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1933.
  • _______________. Diary of Gideon Welles. 3 vols. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1960.
  • Benner, Martha L., and Cullom Davis, eds. The Law Practice of Abraham Lincoln: The Complete Documentary Edition. Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2000.
  • Bergeron, Paul H. and LeRoy P. Graf, Ralph W. Haskins, et al., eds. The Papers of Andrew Johnson. Vols. 4-8. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1976-1989.
  • Boatner, Mark Mayo. The Civil War Dictionary. New York: Vintage Civil War Library, 1991.
  • Bruce, Robert V. Lincoln and the Tools of War. New York: The Bobbs-Merrill Company Inc., 1956.
  • Burlingame, Michael, ed. With Lincoln in the White House: Letters, Memoranda and Other Writings of John G. Nicolay, 1860-65. Carbondale and Edwardsville: Southern Illinois University Press, 2000.
  • ________________. At Lincoln's Side: John Hay's Civil War Correspondence and Selected Writings. Carbondale and Edwardsville: Southern Illinois University Press, 2000.
  • Burlingame, Michael, and John R. Turner Ettlinger, eds. Inside Lincoln's White House: The Complete Civil War Diary of John Hay. Carbondale and Edwardsville: Southern Illinois University Press, 1997.
  • Carman, Harry J., and Reinhard Luthin. Lincoln and the Patronage. New York: Columbia University Press, 1943.
  • Castel, Albert. A Frontier State at War: Kansas, 1861-1865. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1958.
  • Diamond, Robert A., ed. Congressional Quarterly's Guide to U. S. Elections. Washington, D.C.: Congressional Quarterly Inc., 1976.
  • Donald, David H., ed. Inside Lincoln's Cabinet: The Civil War Diaries of Salmon P. Chase. New York: Longmans, Green and Co., 1954.
  • _______________. Lincoln. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1995.
  • Garraty, John A., and Mark C. Carnes, eds. American National Biography. 22 vols. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.
  • Heitman, Francis B. Historical Register and Dictionary of the United States Army. 2 vols. 1903. Reprint, Gaithersburg, Md.: Olde Soldier Books Inc., 1988.
  • Hesseltine, William B. Lincoln and the War Governors. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1955.
  • Johnson, Allen, ed. Dictionary of American Biography. 22 vols. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1946.
  • Mearns, David C., ed. The Lincoln Papers. 2 vols. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday & Company Inc., 1948.
  • Miers, Earl Schenck, ed. Lincoln Day by Day. 3 vols. Washington, D.C.: Lincoln Sesquicentennial Commission, 1960.
  • Murdock, Eugene C. One Million Men: The Civil War Draft in the North. Madison: The State Historical Society of Wisconsin, 1971.
  • Neely, Mark E., Jr. The Abraham Lincoln Encyclopedia. New York: McGraw-Hill Book Company, 1982.
  • ______________. The Fate of Liberty: Abraham Lincoln and Civil Liberties. New York: Oxford University Press, 1991.
  • Niven, John, et al., eds. The Salmon P. Chase Papers. Vols. 3-5. Kent, Ohio: The Kent State University Press, 1996-98.
  • Parrish, William L., ed. A History of Missouri. 3 vols. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1971.
  • Sears, Stephen W., ed. The Civil War Papers of George B. McClellan: Selected Correspondence, 1860-1865. New York: Ticknor and Fields, 1989.
  • Turner, Justin G., and Linda Levitt Turner, eds. Mary Todd Lincoln: Her Life and Letters. 1972. Reprint, New York: Fromm International Publishing Corporation, 1987.
  • U. S. Interior Department. Register of Officers and Agents, Civil, Military, and Naval, in the Service of the United States, on the Thirtieth September, 1861. Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1862.
  • ___________________________. Register of Officers and Agents, Civil, Military, and Naval, in the Service of the United States, on the Thirtieth September, 1863. Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1864.
  • ___________________________. Register of Officers and Agents, Civil, Military, and Naval, in the Service of the United States, on the Thirtieth September, 1865. Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1866.
  • U. S. War Department. The War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies. 128 vols. 1880-1901. North Carolina: Broadfoot Publishing Company, 1995. CD ROM
  • Van Deusen, Glyndon G. William Henry Seward. New York: Oxford University Press, 1967.
  • Warner, Ezra J. Generals in Blue. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1964; 1996.
  • Williams, T. Harry. Lincoln and the Radicals. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1941.

Online Resources

Editorial Staff

  • Rodney O. Davis
  • Matthew Norman
  • Joel Ward
  • Douglas L. Wilson
  • Terry Wilson

Created 2002; revised 2017