Lincoln’s Mailbag

The election of Nov. 6 was big news, to put it mildly. In the days following, newspaper headlines screamed it from one city to another, across the not very united states. As Adam Goodheart wrote earlier, the telegraph allowed the results to be known nearly as quickly as we would know today. Now, thanks to another marvel of technology — the Internet — we can see the private telegrams and letters that Lincoln himself was seeing, as Americans exhaled and realized, to their amazement, that he had pulled it off. In the days following the verdict, an enormous range of Americans, from all walks of life, wrote to their president-elect to express their feelings about where the country was headed. These letters present a remarkable documentary portrait of a nation at a crossroads.

Most of Lincoln’s correspondence is housed in the Library of Congress, just off the East Portico of the Capitol, where he gave his two great inaugural addresses. (They are there, too.) The Library is a national treasure, both for its holdings and for its robust commitment to make these priceless artifacts available to all. That means putting them online, for free, which the Library has been doing since February 2000, with scholarly support from the Lincoln Studies Center at Knox College.

By visiting the Library of Congress Web site, you can now read Lincoln’s mail more or less as he did. What a story these pieces of paper tell! They recreate the drama of election night, from anxiety over the election (will he win?), to joy at the result (he did!), to a new kind of anxiety (now what?). As Americans from all backgrounds wrote to Lincoln, you realize just how much depended on this one man. They bared their emotions to him, sometimes in surprising ways.

William F. Smith, a proud citizen from Germantown, PA, wrote in to say that his wife had given birth as the results were being announced, and their son would be henceforth be known as “young Abe.” A neighbor of Lincoln’s in Springfield, Henry Fawcett, wasted no time asking for a job, as his personal servant in the White House, the first of a torrent of similar letters to come.

An anonymous person, who identified himself only as “one of those who are glad today,” wrote, “God has honored you this day, in the sight of all the people. Will you honor Him at the White House?”

More disturbingly, “a citizen” in Pensacola, Fla., sent a telegram to say “you were last night hung in effigy in this city.” Undoubtedly many regretted the words “in effigy.”

This online collection is all the more astonishing for the fact that its contents have often been severely restricted from view. Robert Todd Lincoln supervised the removal of his father’s papers immediately after the assassination, and asked a trusted judge in Chicago, David Davis, to take care of them. Judge Davis stored them in a bank vault in Bloomington, Ill., but they were moved several times after that, by order of Robert T. Lincoln; to Washington, to Chicago, back to Washington, to Manchester, VT (Lincoln’s summer home). In 1919, he finally placed them in the Library of Congress, but on condition that they not be revealed to be there.

In the confused aftermath of the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, Lincoln’s documents were removed again for safekeeping. Most went to the University of Virginia, but several documents were deemed so central to American history, and therefore to national security, that they were sent to Fort Knox in Kentucky (these included the two inaugural addresses and the Gettysburg Address). All of the papers were returned in 1944, and the entire Lincoln collection opened to the public for the first time in 1947.

But still they were not as open as they could be. The people granted access to these precious papers, generally, were the small number of specialists in the highest stratosphere of Lincoln scholarship. It is only in the last decade that they have been truly open, in the sense that the Internet provides, allowing every American — indeed, every person on Earth — to access them from home. The collection contains both soaring oratory and the ordinary dross of everyday governance. But its unfiltered availability to all is itself a tribute to Lincoln’s insistence that government of the people, by the people, for the people shall not perish from the Earth.

Source: The Abraham Lincoln Papers at the Library of Congress.

Ted Widmer is director and librarian of the John Carter Brown Library at Brown University. He was a speechwriter for President Bill Clinton and the editor of the Library of America’s two-volume “American Speeches.”


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