The first installment of documents put online by the Papers of Abraham Lincoln project is but a sliver of things to come. But what a sliver it is.
It is easy to spend more time than planned browsing through what Lincoln wrote and what he read between his birth in 1809 and 1842, his final year as a state representative in the General Assembly. From an infamous ciphering book produced when he was a boy to a note informing the House speaker of his intent to introduce a bill allowing construction of a toll bridge, the online repository is, the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum says, the world’s most complete collection of primary documents covering the first three decades of Lincoln’s life.
Some have been published before, but not all in one place, nor in the form presented by the papers project housed at the ALPLM. The ciphering book is a prime example. The 11 known surviving pages are scattered around the world, with each page owned by a different person or institution. The papers project has tracked each one down and figured out the proper order of the pages so the book can be presented online in as close to original form as possible, with researchers even digitally stitching together a page that had been ripped in half.
“The significant thing is, for the first time ever, this group of documents has been brought together in one spot,” says Samuel Wheeler, state historian and acting director of the papers project.
The project aims to put online, to the extent possible, every document ever written or read by Lincoln. Ultimately, that could total 200,000 documents, and so researchers likely have years of work ahead of them transcribing handwritten documents so that they can be easily read and annotating them with relevant facts that add context.
Papers from Lincoln’s legal career were put online in 2009 by the ALPLM. This latest batch goes above and beyond, with 340 letters, canceled checks, receipts and other records either written by Lincoln or addressed to him that make the Great Emancipator come to life. Consider Lincoln’s 1834 note to a man who insisted on getting a receipt for one year’s worth of postage to receive a newspaper. The payment was late.
“The law requires News paper postage to be paid in advance and now that I have waited a full year you choose to wound my feelings by insinuating that unless you get a receipt I will probably make you pay it again,” wrote Lincoln, who was postmaster of New Salem. He was all of 25 at the time and just a few months away from winning election to the state House.
There also are 4,839 documents, largely from the General Assembly, that are not addressed to Lincoln, nor written by him, but are included to help add context to his life and work. Some are the essence of routine: Who, really, wants to read the 1841 law that created the town of Vienna?
“For the most part, those documents, individually, don’t tell you a lot,” Wheeler says. “But collectively, they will give scholars the first opportunity to really evaluate Abraham Lincoln’s career in the state legislature.”
Lincoln could be a political animal. In an 1841 letter to U.S. Rep. John Stuart, his first law partner, Lincoln urged that Bat Webb, who dated Mary Todd before Lincoln married her, be appointed district attorney. In that same letter, Lincoln also wrote about chances for the General Assembly to remove nine counties, including Sangamon, from Stuart’s congressional district and thought it more likely than an alternate plan “because our opponents are somewhat afraid of the latter themselves.”
“We can’t forget that this isn’t yet the Lincoln of our better angels,” Wheeler observes. “This is a party politician here in Illinois trying to advance his party’s interests in Illinois.”
The release of documents comes after a hiatus of sorts for the project, which has seen staff and budget reductions in recent years amid controversy over how the project has been administered. Expressing frustration over the slow pace of the project, which began in the 1980s as an effort to collect only legal papers, museum brass last year fired the project’s director.
An ad hoc panel of experts a year ago released a critical report, saying that the project was vital but had gotten bogged down and needed new policies, procedures and direction. The project, which had obtained federal funding in prior years from the National Historical Publications and Records Commission, did not apply for an NHPRC grant last year, with presidential museum administrators saying that a reevaluation of efforts was needed. Staffing is down to three from a high of a dozen employees a few years ago.
Wheeler said that the museum expects to hire a permanent director for the project, but he could not say when. Once a director is on board, Wheeler said he expects the project will again apply for NHPRC grants.
In the meantime, the project expects to publish documents as they are ready, with a fresh batch posted each Monday, Wheeler said.
“The world is not going to have to wait decades for new releases,” he said.