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Collection Woodrow Wilson Papers

Introduction

Ordinary Americans wrote to their president to give advice, extend support, or demand change on issues that deeply affected them. Letter writers included both leaders of movements and private individuals who felt moved to write to the White House—perhaps for the first and only time. Their letters survive in the Woodrow Wilson Papers Executive Office File and provide unparalleled insights into a period of profound social and political changes in the early twentieth century. They offer a window into how ordinary Americans created, challenged, and imagined their world, nation, and the role of the president.

The four short essays that follow were written for the Library of Congress Archives, History, and Heritage Advanced Internship sponsored by the Of the People: Widening the Path initiative, which was designed to aid the national library in sharing a more inclusive American story. This particular project sought to facilitate public access to the extraordinary holdings of letters written by ordinary Americans in the presidential collections of William H. Taft, Woodrow Wilson, and Calvin Coolidge.

The four topics chosen from the Executive Office File in Series 4 of the Woodrow Wilson Papers were women’s suffrage, the early civil rights movement, anti-Japanese immigration policy, and Prohibition. These themes were selected because of the multiple perspectives and experiences captured in the letters. The Executive Office filing system groups letters by topic into numerical files. To discover other topics of interest, see the list beginning on page xxxix (image 41) of Volume 1 of the Index to the Woodrow Wilson Papers (PDF and HTML). Note the case file number and then navigate to that file number in the collection’s finding aid (PDF and HTML) and click the link provided.

The files themselves were digitized from microfilm reels, each containing more one thousand images. They can be large and unwieldy to navigate. These essays offer a starting point to exploring these topics by providing links to the beginning of each selected topical file and to particularly compelling letters therein, some of which raise the voices of the forgotten: Southern suffragist Mary L. McLendon; betrayed Black Democratic organizer James S. Stenso; Hydesaburo Ohashi, an optimistic Asian-American activist; and practical local businesswoman Mrs. Perch, and many more. Their opinions, sometimes insightful, amusing, uncomfortable, repellent, or heart wrenching to the modern reader, make up the patchwork of our history. The factory worker, the clerk, the farmer’s wife, and the teacher have been lost in the wider narrative, but they lived, loved, suffered, and fought for their place in our nation. They were moved to write to their president, and their words will survive in perpetuity as a memorial to their lives and to their passion. These essays seek to ensure their voices be heard.