Provenance of the Abraham Lincoln Papers
How did the Abraham Lincoln Papers come to the Library of Congress and when were they opened to the public? This essay, originally written for the Index to the Abraham Lincoln Papers (Washington, D.C., 1960), pp. v-vi, tells the story. (Brief references in the original text to the use of the microfilm collection are omitted here.)
The story of the Lincoln Papers has often been told, but details vary--sometimes astonishingly. The most complete account appears in David C. Mearns, The Lincoln Papers (Garden City, N.Y., 1948), I, 3-136. An article by the same author which appeared in the December 1947 issue of the Abraham Lincoln Quarterly contains the substance of the story and is reproduced in part in the following pages. 1
To what was said thirteen years ago a few facts may be added. A comprehensive edition of Lincoln's Collected Works was issued after much labor by a devoted editor and staff. 2 Many other scholars have studied the documents, and all may now benefit by their findings.
A manuscript acquired by the Library of Congress in 1958 added this new fact: Justice David Davis wrote to Edward McPherson, Clerk of the House of Representatives, on June 22, 1866, stating that the papers found on President Lincoln's person were sealed by Edwin M. Stanton, Secretary of War. 3 Later the papers were opened in Justice Davis' presence. Of this he wrote:
My distinct recollection is that all the papers of public importance were retained by Mr. Stanton & either deposited in the War or State Depts. I think copies were furnished me & handed to Mr. Nicolay who packed them together with Mr. Lincoln's private papers in secure boxes. These boxes were sent by the Secy of War under guard to Bloomington Illinois, my residence & are now in the vault of the National Bank of Bloomington. They are sealed & when they will be opened & examined has not yet been determined.
The location of the original documents that were withheld and of the copies is not now known. The original letter by Justice Davis has been restored to the McPherson Papers in the Library's Manuscript Division.
In 1959 the microfilm and the index of the Lincoln Papers which had been prepared in 1947 were re-examined. Certain omissions were found in the microfilm--primarily pages with dockets or notations or endorsements or other contemporary writing. The dates assigned to a number of documents needed correction in the light of later research. In addition, some Lincoln documents which had been unaccountably retained by John G. Nicolay were restored to the President's papers. These have been arranged as "Series Two" to assure their identification. Miscellaneous acquisitions were arranged in a third and final series. . . .
The Library began in 1940 to formulate plans which would ensure the safety of its unique and particularly prized materials. Following the attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, and the declaration of war on the United States by Germany a few days later, Archibald MacLeish, then Librarian, directed the evacuation of the specially selected materials according to plan. 4
The Lincoln Papers, along with other materials, were evacuated from the Library on December 29, 1941, under the supervision of Alvin W. Kremer, Keeper of the Collections, to the Alderman Library of the University of Virginia at Charlottesville. On August 14, 1944, they were returned to the Library. Lincoln's second inaugural address and two drafts of the Gettysburg Address, together with certain other "top treasures," were separately evacuated to Fort Knox, Kentucky. 5 They were returned in September 1944. No item was lost or damaged in the vast evacuation program. Fortunately Washington was not attacked, but the Library of Congress in 1941 was prepared for eventualities as it had not been in 1814.
In anticipation of the day when the Lincoln Papers could be opened, and in accordance with the terms of the gift, Dr. St. George L. Sioussat, Chief of the Manuscript Division, commissioned Dr. C. Percy Powell and Mrs. Helen D. Bullock to arrange and index the manuscripts. They and all others who assisted in any way in these tasks as well as in the repair, mounting, microfilming, and binding were enjoined to complete secrecy. When the collection was opened to the public just after midnight on July 26, 1947, the papers were chronologically organized, attractively bound, indexed, and microfilmed. The originals have since been available for use under the standard conditions which govern the use of manuscripts.
A succinct account of the peregrinations of the papers from 1865 to 1923 is contained in the passages from Mr. Mearns' article previously alluded to:
Immediately after the assassination, Robert Lincoln asked Associate Justice David Davis to undertake the administration of the estate. The Judge came on from Chicago, gathered up bonds, securities, and outstanding household accounts, and urged the prompt removal of the files. They were packed by Nicolay and Colonel Hay, and within a fortnight were secured within the vault of the National Bank at Bloomington. The Judge, for reasons not yet discovered, experienced a sense of relief in the knowledge that they were safely out of Washington, although he did mention his fears lest they fall into dangerous hands. It is barely possible that he infected Robert Lincoln with his forebodings, for Robert Lincoln spoke of some which 'would be damaging to men now living.' That was on April 27th, 1865; on June 6th he wrote that 'the papers relating to the Administration' were 'in such a confused state' that they could not then 'be got at.' They seem to have remained subject to the Judge's order until 1874 when Robert Lincoln directed that they be sent to Mr. Nicolay, in Washington, for use in the preparation of the authorized biography of his father. They were still in Mr. Nicolay's custody when he died in 1901 and appear to have been stored thereafter in the State Department with the approval of Secretary Hay. When Hay died in 1905, Robert Lincoln took them to Chicago, where for a time they were housed in his office in the Pullman Building and, later, in his safe deposit. When Robert Lincoln retired and came to Washington to live he kept the papers in his Georgetown home in winter, and in summer they were shipped to his country house in Manchester, Vermont. In the spring of 1919, probably as an expression of gratitude to the government for the construction of the Lincoln Memorial, and under the misapprehension that that temple was nearly completed, Robert Lincoln placed the papers in the Library of Congress on condition that their presence in the institution should not be made known. On January 23rd, 1923, he conveyed them to the Library by deed of gift, with the stipulation that they should be withheld from 'official or public inspection or private view' until after the expiration of twenty-one years from the date of his death. 6 He died July 26th 1926.
- Full citation in bibliography. Quoted with the permission of the copyright owners. (Return to Text)
- Roy P. Basler (ed.), The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln (New Brunswick, 1953-1955), 8 volumes and index volume. (Return to Text)
- David C. Mearns, "Abraham Lincoln Papers," Library of Congress Information Bulletin, 17 (December 1, 1958), 661-62. (Return to Text)
- Most of the information concerning the evacuation was supplied by Alvin W. Kremer. (Return to Text)
- Robert Penn Warren, "The War and the National Muniments," Library of Congress Quarterly Journal of Current Acquisitions 2 (November 1944), 64-75. (Return to Text)
- The deed of gift was amended on January 16, 1926, to permit the Librarian to index and otherwise to secure the safety of the originals "against the time when they shall be opened to the public." (Return to Text)