Abraham Lincoln Papers at the Library of Congress
Overview | History | Critical Thinking | Arts & Humanities
The complete Abraham Lincoln Papers at the Library of Congress consists of approximately 20,000 documents dating from 1833 to 1916. Most of the approximately 20,000 items, however, are from the 1850s through Lincoln's presidential years, 1860-65. Treasures in this collection include Lincoln's draft of the Emancipation Proclamation, his March 4, 1865 draft of his second Inaugural Address, and his August 23, 1864 memorandum expressing his expectation of being defeated in the upcoming presidential election. The bulk of the Lincoln Papers consists of letters written to Lincoln by a wide variety of correspondents: friends, and legal and political associates from Lincoln's Springfield, Illinois days; national and regional political figures and reformers; and local people and organizations writing to their president.
These online exhibits provide context and additional information about this collection.
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The Civil War and Reconstruction, 1850-1877
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Biography: Abraham Lincoln's Early Years
At 21, in a blue and white striped cotton shirt, a one-bit hat, and pants rolled up six inches from his socks, Abraham Lincoln appeared to his friends to be "as ruff a specimen of humanity as could be found."
Thirty years later, Lincoln was a candidate for the President of the United States, and James Q. Howard was sent to Springfield, Illinois to gather reminiscences such as this one for a campaign biography. Howard interviewed Lincoln and a number of his friends and associates. His notes became the basis for several biographies and its anecdotes became the stuff of legend. Search on biography and autobiography for Howard's notes and other materials that provide a sketch of Lincoln's early years.
- What do the biographical anecdotes that Howard recorded suggest about Lincoln's character?
- What did Lincoln's friends and associates tell Howard about why they liked Lincoln and what made him special?
- How might Howard's mission to gather information for a campaign biography have influenced whom he chose to interview and the notes that he took?
- How have biographers portrayed Lincoln over the years? How have they used Howard's notes?
An 1858 letter from newspaper editor Charles Ray reflects the growing demand for information about Lincoln during his senatorial contest with Stephen A. Douglas. It was not until the following year, however, with talk of a presidential nomination, that Lincoln consented to write a brief autobiography, which he sent to his friend and political associate, Jesse Fell. Lincoln's cover letter to Fell is available in the collection and the transcription includes the autobiography itself.
- What does this letter to Jesse Fell, and Lincoln's reluctance to write an autobiography, suggest about Lincoln?
"We reached our new home about the time the State came into the Union — It was a wild region, with many bears and other wild animals still in the woods — There I grew up — There were some schools, so called; but no qualification was ever required of a teacher, beyond the "readin, writin, and cipherin" to the Rule of Three — If a straggler supposed to understand latin, happened to sojourn in the neighborhood, he was looked upon as a wizzard — There was absolutely nothing to excite ambition for education. Of course when I came of age I did not know much — Still somehow, I could read, write, and cipher to the Rule of Three, but that was all — I have not been to school since — The little advance I now have upon this store of education, I have picked up from time to time under the pressure of necessity —"
From "Abraham Lincoln to Jesse W. Fell, December 20, 1859," transcription of autobiographical sketch.
- What were some of the challenges of Lincoln's early life?
- Why do you think that Lincoln emphasized his lack of education in his autobiographies?
- What reasons would Lincoln's campaign biographers have had for emphasizing Lincoln's lack of education?
- According to Howard's notes, what "advance(s)" did Lincoln make upon his "store of education" and how?
- What examples of humor can you find in this brief autobiography? How does Lincoln create this humor? What does this humor contribute to the autobiography?
About six months after Lincoln sent Fell this autobiography, he wrote a longer piece, listed as "Abraham Lincoln, [May-June 1860] (Autobiographical Notes)" in the collection. This second autobiography is the final and most extensive account Lincoln ever gave of his life. Referring to himself as "A," Lincoln briefly mentions how he made fences on the frontier, commenting on the popular image of himself as a "rail-splitter," as explained in the transcription notes.
"March 1st 1830 — A. having just completed his 21st year, his father and family, with the families of the two daughters and sons-in-law, of his step-mother, left the old homestead in Indiana, and came to Illinois — Their mode of conveyance was waggons drawn by ox-teams, as A. drove one of the teams — They reached the county of Macon, and stopped there some time within the same month of March. His father and family settled a new place on the North side of the Sangamon river, at the junction of the timber-land and prairie, about ten miles Westerly from Decatur — Here they built a log-cabin, into which they removed, and made sufficent of rails to fence ten acres of ground, fenced and broke the ground, and raised a crop of sod corn upon it the same year — These are, or are supposed to be, the rails about which so much is being said just now, though they are far from being the first, or only rails ever made by A."
From "Abraham Lincoln, [May-June 1860] (Autobiographical Notes)," Page 5 .
- How do you think that Lincoln's early years on the frontier, in Kentucky, Indiana, and Illinois, might have shaped his attitudes and character?
- In 1860, Lincoln wrote that he never "had any success in life which gave him so much satisfaction," as being elected Captain of a volunteer Company during the Black-Hawk war. Why might that election have meant so much to him?
- What do Lincoln's autobiographies reveal about why Lincoln sought public office? What were his motivations?
- What do the biographical and autobiographical materials suggest about how Lincoln won election to the Illinois Legislature? Why did people vote for him?
- Why do you think Lincoln might have included the story of being attacked in New Orleans by African Americans in his autobiography?
- Why do you think the repeal of the Missouri Compromise inspired Lincoln to re-enter politics?
- What is the appeal of the image of Lincoln as a "rail-splitter?" What was Lincoln's attitude toward this popular image of himself?
- How is Lincoln portrayed in contemporary popular images? How do these images compare to those of the past?
From 1834 to 1840, Lincoln served in the Illinois Legislature. During this time, he also did surveying to support himself and studied law, eventually opening a practice in Springfield in 1837. In 1840, he declined reelection and for the next five years focused on his law practice and on beginning a family. But in 1846, Lincoln was elected to the United States Congress as a Whig and served one term, from December 1847 to March 1849.
All of the battles of the Mexican War had been fought and peace negotiations were under way when Lincoln began his term in Congress. Nevertheless, within a few days of taking his seat, he questioned the constitutionality of the war and the way it was initiated in his "Spot Resolution." In making his argument, Lincoln demanded to know the exact spot where hostilities began, earning him the nickname "Spotty Lincoln" by Congressional Democrats and other supporters of the war. Search on Mexican War for a copy of the "Spot Resolution" as well as other items, such as a speech to Congress, a letter to John Mason Peck in which Lincoln defends his position, and Lincoln's second autobiography in which he summarizes his position.
- What are the resolution's objections to the way the Mexican War was started?
- How does Lincoln articulate these objections in the resolution?
- What reasons might Lincoln and the Whig party have had for introducing the "Spot Resolution," given that the Mexican War was practically over?
- In his autobiographical notes, Lincoln refers to his voting record in regard to the Mexican War. What does this suggest about how the resolution impacted his reputation?
- What techniques did Lincoln use in his response to John Mason Peck?
The Mexican War heightened the tensions surrounding the issue of slavery. A letter from Anson G. Henry to Abraham Lincoln in December 1847 reflects the growing split within the Whig party over whether slavery should be allowed in the territories that would be ceded to the United States at the end of the Mexican War. In an effort to strike a compromise, Lincoln proposed a bill to abolish slavery in the District of Columbia . Search on 1849 bill for a draft of the proposal as well as Howard's notes of his interview with Lincoln, in which Lincoln discussed the bill.
- Why did Lincoln and his supporters want to abolish slavery in Washington, D.C.? Why didn't they call for the abolition of slavery in other states?
- How might an abolitionist such as William Lloyd Garrison or Frederick Douglass have reacted to Lincoln's proposal? Why?
- What can you infer about Lincoln's position on slavery from this proposal?
- What practical measures does the bill propose for abolishing slavery in the capital? Why do you think that Lincoln included these measures?
- How was the bill meant to create a compromise over the issue of slavery in the territories?
- Why wasn't the bill ever officially introduced?
After serving one term in the House of Representatives, Lincoln retired from political life and seemed content to build his thriving law practice. But when Stephen A. Douglas, Illinois Senator and chairman of the Senate Committee on Territories, introduced the Kansas-Nebraska Bill in 1854, Lincoln reentered the political arena as a candidate for the Senate in 1855. The Kansas-Nebraska Bill nullified the ban on slavery in U.S. territories established by the Missouri Compromise of 1820 and, in Lincoln's words, "aroused him as he had never been before."
Lincoln canvassed throughout the state and, according to his second autobiography, "his speeches at once attracted a more marked attention than they had ever before done." Nevertheless, Lincoln lost the election due to political maneuvering, which he explains in a letter to Congressman Elihu Washburne, who had supported Lincoln's candidacy:
"The agony is over at last; and the result you doubtless know.... I began with 44 votes, Shields 41, and Trumbull 5, — yet Trumbull was elected.... It was Gov'r Matterson's work. He has been secretly a candidate every since (before, even) the fall election. All the members round about the canal were Anti-Nebraska; but were, nevertheless nearly all democrats, and old personal friends of his. His plan was to privately impress them with the belief that he was as good Anti-Nebraska, as any one else.... We saw into it plainly ten days ago; but with every possible effort, could not head it off."
From "Abraham Lincoln to Elihu B. Washburne, February 9, 1855 (Senate) ."
Lincoln ran for the Senate again in 1858, against Democratic incumbent, Stephen A. Douglas. He ran as a Republican because the passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act ultimately caused the dissolution of the Whig Party, its members joining the Democrats, the new Republican Party, or the anti-immigrant Know-Nothing Party. Lincoln got little attention at the beginning of the campaign and in a letter to Douglas, dated July 24, 1858, challenged him to debate the issues of the day.
"Will it be agreeable to you to make an arrangement for you and myself to divide time and address the same audiences during the present canvass? Mr. Judd who will hand you this is authorized to receive your answer; and if agreeable to you to enter into the terms of such arrangement."
From "Abraham Lincoln to Stephen A. Douglas, July 24, 1858 (Debates) ."
On the same day, Douglas, a noted debater, accepted Lincoln's challenge . Search on Douglas debates for pertinent materials, including a letter from Joseph Medill to Lincoln, recommending questions for the debate. Lincoln received it on the day of the second and most famous debate at Freeport. Here, Lincoln exposed Douglas's ambiguity on the issue of popular sovereignty. Search on popular sovereignty for a draft of a speech Lincoln wrote nearly a year before, attacking Douglas's stance on the issue.
Despite Lincoln's success in the debates, Douglas returned to the Senate for another term.
- How does Lincoln define popular sovereignty, or self-government, in his speech?
- How does he define Nebraskaism?
Lincoln's 1860 Presidential Campaign
Although he lost the senatorial election to Douglas, Lincoln won national attention through the campaign and debates. A Search on Douglas debates provides a letter from Ohio politician, William Dennison Jr. to Illinois's Lyman Trumbull requesting information on the Lincoln-Douglas debates, showing that Lincoln's fame had spread beyond the borders of his home state.
As Lincoln's popularity within the Republican Party grew, he was invited to address members of his party throughout the nation. In September 1859 Lincoln gave several speeches to Ohio Republicans, and on February 27, 1860, he spoke at Cooper Union in New York City. A Search on Ohio speech provides the notes Lincoln used for his 1859 engagements. The notes articulate Lincoln's policy on slavery, and his positions on popular sovereignty and the Supreme Court's Dred Scott decision.
"We must not disturb slavery in the states where it exists, because the Constitution, and the peace of the country both forbid us — We must not withhold an efficient fugitive slave law, because the constitution demands it —
But we must, by a national policy, prevent the spread of slavery into new territories, or free states, because the constitution does not forbid us, and the general welfare does demand such prevention — We must prevent the revival of the African slave trade, because the constitution does not forbid us, and the general welfare does require the prevention — We must prevent these things being done, by either congresses or courts — The people — the people — are the rightful masters of both Congresses, and courts — not to overthrow the Constitution, but to overthrow the men who pervert it —"
From "Abraham Lincoln, [September 16-17, 1859] (Notes for Speech in Kansas and Ohio)," Page 2.
- Why did Lincoln argue that slavery must not be disturbed in states where it exists?
- Why did Lincoln call for the enforcement of the Fugitive Slave Act?
- According to Lincoln, what is the reason for prohibiting slavery?
- What distinction does Lincoln make between popular sovereignty and what he calls "Douglas popular sovereignty?"
- Why does Lincoln argue that Douglas and his position present more danger to the Republican Party than Jefferson Davis and his position?
- What techniques does Lincoln use to portray Douglas as a real danger?
- How does Lincoln define the purpose of the Republican Party? What does Lincoln suggest should be the first priority of the Republican Party?
- If you had been a Republican in Lincoln's audience, how would you have felt about Lincoln's speech? What opinion might you have formed of Lincoln?
Lincoln's speech at Cooper Union was received so well that he was recognized as a serious candidate for the presidency. Search on Cooper Union for reactions to Lincoln's speech, including remarks by James A. Hamilton, the son of Alexander Hamilton, who became an enthusiastic Lincoln supporter.
Despite Lincoln's growing fame, Lyman Trumbull, whom Lincoln had helped win the Illinois Senate seat in 1855, wrote Lincoln a discouraging assessment of his prospects of becoming the Republican nominee. He wrote, "...I am inclined to believe as between you and Gov. Seward, if the contest should assume that shape, that he would most likely succeed...."
Lincoln and his staunch supporters recognized the difficulty in winning the nomination but were not deterred by the challenge. As popular support for Lincoln grew, Wide Awake Clubs were formed to promote his nomination and election. Eventually, Republicans decided that Lincoln would be perceived as less radical than other contenders and nominated him for the presidency at the Republican National Convention in Chicago in May 1860. Search on wide awake, 1860 presidential nominee, and 1860 campaign for materials that reflect the major events and political landscape of the time. Explore the sheet music from The Alfred Whital Stern Collection of Lincolniana to analyze campaign songs about Lincoln.
- What do these letters reveal about the kinds of activities that were involved in campaigning in 1860?
- Who were Lincoln's opponents in the race for president?
- What factors did the Republicans consider in nominating their presidential candidate in 1860?
- What were the most important issues of the 1860 presidential race?
- What strategies were employed to gain support for Lincoln?
When the Democrats held their National Convention in April 1860, several delegates, mostly from the South, walked out and the convention adjourned without nominating a presidential candidate. Two months later, the two factions of Democrats held separate conventions in Baltimore, one nominating Stephen A. Douglas for president, and the other nominating Vice President John C. Breckinridge. This split in the Democratic Party virtually insured Lincoln's victory. Search on 1860 congratulations for the many letters Lincoln received for his election.
Secession and Inauguration
As soon as the results of the 1860 presidential election were in, South Carolina called for a state convention to vote on secession. North Carolina congressman John Gilmer was just one of several southerners who asked President-elect Lincoln to publicly explain his policies in order to avert secession. In Lincoln's "strictly confidential" reply to Gilmer's December 10 letter, he refused to issue any public response to the questions he raised, writing, "Is it desired that I shall shift the ground upon which I have been elected? I can not do it."
Two days later, Nathan Sargent reported to Lincoln that certain congressmen also felt that Lincoln should make a public statement:
"Mr Pearce said that your speaking out now would do no good in the cotton states, but if you would speak what he had no doubt were your sentiments, it would have a powerful effect in the Northern slave states, and might arrest the epidemic now so fearfully & rapidly spreading: he knew not, he said, what else would arrest the disease.... We all feel as if an awful calamity was impending over us: as if we were in an ocean steamer about to be engulfed in the fathomless deep."
From "Nathan Sargent to Abraham Lincoln, December 12, 1860 (Reports on opinions of Congressmen regarding secession)," Page 2 .
Eight days later, by a unanimous vote in their state convention on December 20, South Carolina seceded from the Union and called on other southern states to do likewise. Between Lincoln's election and inauguration Congress considered, but ultimately rejected, the Crittenden Compromise as a solution to secession. Search on Crittenden Compromise for several items regarding compromise efforts. Though Lincoln was not yet in office, his actions and opinions were influential. He received numerous letters about the secession crisis, asking for his position and offering advice. Search on secession for over 450 related items.
Within forty days, Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, and Texas followed South Carolina's lead. They established the Confederate States of America and inaugurated Jefferson Davis of Mississippi as their president, all before Lincoln took office.
- What is the tone of Gilmer's letter to Lincoln and of Lincoln's response?
- Why does Lincoln refuse to answer Gilmer's questions in a new statement?
- Do you think that Lincoln's response was diplomatic? Why or why not?
- What does a January 8, 1861, letter by Julie Matie reveal about southern perceptions of Lincoln?
- How do other letters portray and explain such perceptions?
- What did Sargent mean when he wrote in his report that "Mr L.'s election was not the cause of all this, it was but the pretext?"
- What do you think triggered the secession crisis?
- Do you think that Lincoln handled the crisis well? What would you have done and why?
On March 4, 1861, Lincoln delivered his inaugural address to a divided Union. Lincoln prepared a first draft of his address in January and February, and submitted it for review by William H. Seward, who recommended changes . According to William Herndon, Lincoln's law partner in Springfield, Lincoln had consulted several texts in preparing his address. Herndon said that Lincoln asked for a copy of Henry Clay's great speeches, Andrew Jackson's proclamation against South Carolina's nullification proclamation, and a copy of the U.S Constitution. He also consulted Webster's reply to Hayne in their debate over nullification.
- Why do you think that Lincoln submitted a draft of his inaugural address for Seward's review?
- How much did Lincoln change his address through the course of preparing it? What kinds of changes did he make? What do they suggest about Lincoln?
- Can you find evidence in the inaugural address of Lincoln's study of Clay, Jackson, Webster, and the Constitution?
Contemporary letters reveal what issues the public was debating at the time of Lincoln's inauguration, and provide a context for better appreciating Lincoln's inaugural address. On October 29, 1860, Scott sent Lincoln his "views suggested by (the) imminent danger" of secession. He writes, "To save time, the right of secession may be conceded & instantly balanced by the correlative right, on the part of the Federal Government — against an interior State or States — to reestablish, by force, its former continuity of territory." Scott predicts that the use of force to reestablish the Union would result in terrible violence and concludes that it would be better for the Federal Government to allow the Union to reorganize as four separate confederacies.
- What does Lincoln say in his inaugural address about what Scott calls "the right of secession?"
- What arguments does Lincoln make to support his conclusion that "no State, upon its own mere motion, can lawfully get out of the Union, — that resolves and ordinances to that effect are legally revolutionary, according to circumstances?"
- Does Lincoln articulate an official policy toward the new Confederacy? What might his view of secession imply about how the Federal Government could legally and morally respond to the Confederacy?
- How do you think Scott would have reacted to Lincoln's inaugural address? What messages does Lincoln convey to the southern states in his address? How does he convey each message? What techniques does he use?
(For more on the history and significance of the inaugural ceremony and address, as well as Lincoln's inaugurations, see the Teachers Page Feature, Inaugurations and the Collection Connections for " I Do Solemnly Swear...": Presidential Inaugurations .)
Civil War Battles and Strategy
Soon after the Confederate States of America was formed in early February 1861, it began to take over federal forts, arsenals, and other property in the South. Only Fort Pickens in Pensacola, Florida and Fort Sumter in Charleston, South Carolina remained in federal hands. On the morning after his inauguration, however, Lincoln received a February 28 report from Major Robert Anderson at Ft. Sumter, warning that he needed reinforcements to maintain his occupation of the fort.
Lincoln questioned General Winfield Scott, commander of the United States Army, about the feasibility of reinforcing the fort in a letter dated March 9 . On the 11th and 12th, Scott advised that timely reinforcement was impossible and that Anderson should evacuate the fort. On the 13th, however, former Navy man Gustavus V. Fox met with Lincoln to recommend a plan for reinforcing the fort. Lincoln called his cabinet together to discuss his options. A Search on Fort Sumter provides numerous documents including the notes of Lincoln's cabinet members, such as Secretary of State William H. Seward, who warned, "The dispatch of an expedition to supply or reinforce Sumter would provoke an attack and so involve a war at that point." Secretary of the Interior Caleb B. Smith reasoned:
"If it shall be understood that by its evacuation we intend to acknowledge our inability to enforce the laws and our intention to allow treason & rebellion to run its course, the measure will be extremely disastrous and the Administration will become very unpopular. If however the country can be made to understand that the Ft is abandoned from necessity and at the same time Ft Pickens & other forts in our possession shall be defended and the power of the Govt vindicated, the measure will be popular & the country will sustain the Administration."
From "Caleb B. Smith, March 29, 1861 (Notes from cabinet meeting on Fort Sumter; endorsed by Abraham Lincoln) ."
Ultimately, Lincoln decided to send reinforcements to both forts. He also sent messengers to inform Governor Pickens of South Carolina that the Federal Government would be making a peaceful reinforcement of Fort Sumter. In response, President Jefferson Davis demanded Anderson's evacuation of the fort. On April 12, when Anderson refused, the Confederacy's General Beauregard fired the first shot of the Civil War in an assault on the fort. Lincoln's reinforcements arrived too late to aid Major Anderson who, after 34 hours of fighting, surrendered Fort Sumter.
- What options did Lincoln have for dealing with Ft Sumter?
- What were some of the possible consequences of reinforcing Ft. Sumter?
- What were some of the possible consequences of failing to reinforce it?
- How would different groups have reacted to each course of action? How would people of the northern states, the northern slave states that had not yet seceded, and the confederate states have responded?
- What kind of message did Lincoln's decision to reinforce both forts send to each group of people?
- Given warnings such as Seward's, do you think that Lincoln essentially decided to start a war when he decided to reinforce the forts? Why or why not?
On July 21, 1861, Union and Confederate armies clashed at a rail junction near Manassas, Virginia, just a few miles south of Washington, D.C. Throughout the day, a series of telegraphic dispatches were sent on the progress of the battle. One telegraph, written at 5:20 PM proclaimed, "We have carried the day — Rebels...are totally routed...." The news soon reached Lincoln that early reports were incorrect and that the Union forces were in full retreat.
In light of the Union defeat at Manassas, Lincoln prepared notes on strategies that the Union should take in Northern Virginia and in the western theater. He also called in General George McClellan to take command of the Union Army.
Soon, Lincoln and McClellan clashed over military policy, evident in correspondence from January and February of 1862. In a lengthy letter to Secretary of War Stanton, McClellan objected to Lincoln's strategy and outlined his own. Lincoln replied to McClellan on February 3, writing, "You and I have distinct and different plans for a movement of the Army of the Potomac."
- What were McClellan's criticisms of Lincoln's plan to attack southwest of Manassas?
- What was McClellan's plan of attack in 1862? What did he see as the benefits of this plan?
- How would you characterize Lincoln's style of working and communicating with McClellan? How would you describe McClellan's style?
In the end, Lincoln yielded to McClellan, who implemented his strategy in the Peninsula Campaign of 1862. Lincoln became more and more agitated, however, by the general's failure to follow orders. When McClellan failed to pursue General Robert E. Lee's retreating army after the September 17 battle at Antietam Creek, Lincoln chided McClellan for his "over-cautiousness." McClellan's explanation that his horses were "sore-tongued and fatigued" further irritated Lincoln, who wrote a terse note to McClellan asking what his cavalry had done since Antietam that would cause the horses to be fatigued. Lincoln followed up the note with the following apology to McClellan :
"...Most certainly I intend no injustice to any; and if I have done any, I deeply regret it. To be told after more than five weeks total inaction of the Army, and during which period we have sent to that Army every fresh horse we possibly could, amounting in the whole to Seven thousand nine hundred and eighteen, that the cavalry were too much fatigued to move, presented a very cheerless, almost hopeless prospect for the future; and it may have forced something of impatience into my despatch. If not recruited and rested then, when could they ever be?"
From "Abraham Lincoln to George B. McClellan, October 27, 1862 ."
Mary Todd Lincoln echoed Lincoln's concern about "McClellan and his slowness" in a letter written to her husband in the fall of 1862, while traveling in New York and New England. Mary Lincoln wrote, "Many say, they would almost worship you, if you would put a fighting General, in the place of McClellan." A few days later Lincoln replaced McClellan.
- Why do you think that Lincoln allowed McClellan to proceed with his Peninsula Campaign of 1862? What was the outcome of the campaign?
- In your estimation, was Lincoln attempting to micromanage the war? Should he have left field decisions up to General McClellan?
- What is the tone of Lincoln's "apology" to McClellan?
- What do you think caused the problems between Lincoln and McClellan?
- Why do you think that Lincoln ultimately replaced McClellan? Do you think that he should have done it sooner?
In July 1863, one of the bloodiest and most celebrated battles of the war was fought at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. Search on Gettysburg for items such as Simon Cameron's telegram reporting Lee's invasion of Pennsylvania and advising, " ... the absolute necessity of action by Meade tomorrow even if attended with great risk...." Though Meade won the battle of Gettysburg, he failed to pursue Lee's retreating forces. Lincoln expressed his disappointment in a July 14 letter to Meade, which, however, he decided not to send. Other correspondence about General Meade is also available.
- Why was Lincoln disappointed with General Meade?
- Why do you think Lincoln decided not to send Meade his letter of July 14?
- How does Lincoln's correspondence about the battle of Gettysburg and General Meade compare to his correspondence about General McClellan and his battles?
- How would you characterize Lincoln's sense of his role as Commander-in-Chief? How would you characterize his style of commanding?
The Emancipation Proclamation
In August 1861, Congress authorized the confiscation of slaves used to aid the rebellion in the First Confiscation Act. On the 30th of that month, Union General Fremont issued a proclamation freeing all slaves in Missouri that belonged to secessionists. In a letter dated September 11, Lincoln ordered Fremont to change his proclamation to conform to the First Confiscation Act. The letter was widely published in the newspapers, and Lincoln received many letters condemning his decision and expressing support for Fremont. Search on Fremont for correspondence between Lincoln and Fremont, public reaction to Lincoln's decision and other items, such as Lincoln's letter to Orville H. Browning, in which he explains his position.
- What were Lincoln's objections to Fremont's proclamation?
- What reasons did people give for supporting Fremont and condemning Lincoln's decision?
- Do you think that these letters supporting Fremont represent a major change in northern public opinion about slavery? Why or why not? If so, what might account for such change?
In May of the following year, Union General David Hunter issued a similar proclamation freeing slaves in Florida, Georgia and South Carolina. Again, Lincoln was forced to issue a public statement revoking the proclamation. He concluded his statement, however, by urging the slave-holding border states of Delaware, Maryland, Kentucky, and Missouri to "'adopt a gradual abolishment of slavery,'" as encouraged by Congress's Joint Resolution of March 1862:
"You can not if you would, be blind to the signs of the times — I beg of you a calm and enlarged consideration of them, ranging, if it may be, far above personal and partizan politics — This proposal makes common cause for a common object, casting no reproach upon any — It acts not the pharisee. The change it contemplates would come gently as the dews of heaven, not rending or wrecking anything — Will you not embrace it? So much good has not been done, by one effort, in all past time, as, in the providence of God, it is now your high previlege to do — May the vast future not have to lament that you have neglected it."
From "Abraham Lincoln, May 19, 1862 (Proclamation revoking General David Hunter's General Order No. 11 on military emancipation of slaves)," Page 4 .
- From what source does Lincoln borrow some of his language in this passage?
- How would you characterize this language? What kind of tone does it create?
- Why do you think that Lincoln uses such different language to make this appeal to the states at the end of his proclamation?
On July 17, 1862, Congress passed the Second Confiscation Act, declaring that slaves who crossed over Union lines were "forever free" provided that they had been held by supporters of the Confederacy. Although Lincoln had expressed concern over parts of the act and had drafted a veto message, he nevertheless signed the bill. Several days later, on July 22, 1862, Lincoln surprised members of his Cabinet with a draft of an emancipation proclamation . Search on Emancipation Proclamation revisions for the suggestions that Lincoln got from his cabinet members.
- What was the difference between the First and Second Confiscation Acts? What was the rationale for freeing certain slaves in each of the acts?
- What does the language and purpose of the confiscation acts suggest about the status of slaves in the eyes of the Federal Government?
- What were Lincoln's reasons for opposing the Second Confiscation Act?
- Why do you think he signed the bill?
On August 20, a letter entitled "The Prayer of Twenty Millions" appeared in the New York Tribune, in which editor Horace Greeley accused Lincoln of being "strangely and disastrously remiss in the discharge of your official and imperative duty with regard to the emancipating provisions of the new Confiscation Act." Two days later, the newspaper published Lincoln's reply in which he clearly defined his position without mentioning his emancipation proclamation, which was then still in progress.
- How would you summarize Lincoln's position on slavery, based on his comments about the Confiscation Act, his response to Greeley, and his rejections of Major Fremont's and Major Hunter's proclamations?
- Is Lincoln's position in these writings consistent with the position he took in his proposed bill to abolish slavery in Washington, D.C.? Why or why not?
- Why do you think that Lincoln prioritized maintaining the Union over abolishing slavery?
- Do you think that Lincoln prioritized legal considerations over moral considerations? Why or why not?
- Do you think that Lincoln is remembered more for saving the Union or ending slavery? Do you think that one was more important to him than the other?
On January 1, 1863, Lincoln issued his final draft of the Emancipation Proclamation. The transcription of this final draft includes notes that discuss the history and ultimate significance of the proclamation. Search on emancipation for reactions to the proclamation, including state resolutions made in support of Lincoln's declaration. A letter of thanks written on behalf of George Washington, a former slave, is also available. Other letters, from residents of Mississippi and Florida, petition the president to extend the exemption from the Emancipation Proclamation to their counties.
- What prompted Lincoln to issue the Emancipation Proclamation when he had rejected earlier proclamations by Generals Fremont and Hunter?
- Why didn't Lincoln free all slaves through his proclamation?
- Why did Lincoln feel it was so important to placate the border states?
- Why do you think that Lincoln and Secretary of State Seward thought that it was important to wait for a military victory before issuing the Emancipation Proclamation?
- According to the notes, the Emancipation Proclamation has been considered, "one of the great documents in the history of human freedom. But its stature has resulted in widespread misconceptions about its inception, its provisions, its scope, its intended effect." Do you agree with this assessment? If so, why do you think this has happened?
The Emancipation Proclamation also made it possible for African Americans to serve in the military and launched a wave of enlistments. Lincoln received correspondence expressing both support for and concern about the policy, such as letters from The Rev. Edmund Kelly and General John A. Dix. The policy was put to the test by the 54th Massachusetts, an African-American regiment commanded by Colonel Robert Gould Shaw, which demonstrated valor in the ill-fated attack on Fort Wagner in July, 1863. Colonel Shaw's father wrote to Lincoln shortly after the battle asking for protection of the officers and men of African-American regiments. General Ulysses S. Grant welcomed the enlistment of African-American troops and wrote Lincoln in August 23, 1863:
"I have given the subject of arming the negro my hearty support. This, with the emancipation of the negro, is the heavyest blow yet given the Confederacy. The South care a great deal about it and profess to be very angry. But they were united in their action before and with the negro under subjection could spare their entire white population for the field. Now they complain that nothing can be got out of their negroes."
From "Ulysses S. Grant to Abraham Lincoln,
August 23, 1863 (Raising black regiments in the South)."
President Lincoln's Reelection
Despite progress in the war, Lincoln and most political pundits were convinced that he would lose his bid for reelection in 1864. The country was war weary and the Democratic Party's nominee, George McClellan, was likely to negotiate a peace treaty with the Confederacy if elected.
Lincoln's colleagues within the Republican Party also had doubts about his reelection. In February 1864 newspapers printed a letter by Senator Samuel C. Pomeroy in which he argued that Lincoln could not win reelection and advocated nominating Salmon P. Chase for president. Search on Pomeroy circular for a series of pertinent letters.
By August, the outlook was so grim that Thurlow Weed wrote William H. Seward, "Ten or eleven days since, I told Mr Lincoln that his re-election was an impossibity.... The People are wild for Peace. They are told that the President will only listen to terms of Peace on condition Slavery be 'abandoned.'" Search on reelection 1864 for letters expressing contemporary opinions about Lincoln's reelection, including a letter by an opposer of Lincoln, J. W. Alden, who enclosed a list of "Ten Reasons why Abraham Lincoln should not be elected President of the United States a second term."
- Why do you think so many northerners suspected that Lincoln was unwilling to establish peace without destroying slavery? Do you think Lincoln's statements or policies warranted such suspicion?
- Do you agree or disagree with the ten reasons why Lincoln should not be reelected? How would you argue for or against these reasons? What evidence would you use to support your argument?
Many people agreed with Weed's assessment of public opinion and pressured Lincoln to attempt peace negotiations. Search on peace negotiations 1864 for discussions of the option and an attempt at negotiations at Niagara Falls. In a letter written to Lincoln on August 22, 1864, the New York Times editor, Henry J. Raymond advocated making a proffer of peace to President Davis "on the sole condition of acknowledging the supremacy of the Constitution, — all other questions to be settled in convention of the people of all the States:"
"If the proffer were accepted (which I presume it would not be,) the country would never consent to place the practical execution of its details in any but loyal hands, and in those we should be safe.
If it should be rejected, (as it would be,) it would plant seeds of disaffection in the South, dispel all the delusions about peace that previal in the North, silence the clamorous & damaging falsehoods of the opposition, take the wind completely out of the sails of the Chicago craft, reconcile public sentiment to the War, the draft, & the tax as inevitable necessities, and unite the North as nothing since firing on Fort Sumter has hitherto done."
From "Henry J. Raymond to Abraham Lincoln, August 22, 1864 (Political affairs)," Page 4.
- According to Raymond, why would making an offer of peace be a sure-fire way of helping Lincoln's reelection?
- Do you think that negotiating peace in order to get reelected would have been ethical? Why or why not?
Despite doubts within the Party, Lincoln won the Republican nomination. Nevertheless, he feared he had no chance of winning the election. He also feared that as President, McClellan would negotiate a settlement with the Confederacy that would allow the South to maintain the institution of slavery. On August 23, Lincoln wrote and sealed a memorandum, which he then asked his cabinet to endorse, not knowing the contents. After winning the election in November, Lincoln revealed to his cabinet that the memorandum pledged his cooperation with the president-elect for the sake of the nation.
Anticipating McClellan's election, Lincoln also asked Frederick Douglass to draft a plan for helping as many slaves as possible to escape from the South before the November election. Douglass submitted the plan on August 29, 1864, but it was never implemented because Lincoln's prospects for reelection soon improved with the capture of Atlanta and with General John C. Fremont's withdrawal from the presidential campaign.
- What do Lincoln's memorandum and request for a plan from Frederick Douglass suggest about his character and values?
On March 4, 1865, Lincoln gave his second inaugural address at the Capitol. A Search on inauguration 1865 yields only a few items, including a program for the inauguration ceremony, an invitation to the inaugural ball, and a letter from Salmon P. Chase to Mrs. Lincoln. Chase sent Mrs. Lincoln the bible that her husband kissed in taking the oath of office, writing:
"I hope the Sacred Book will be to you an acceptible souvenir of a memorable day; and I most earnestly pray Him, by whose Inspiration it was given, that the beautiful SunShine which just at the time the oath was taken dispersed the clouds that had previously darkened the sky may prove an auspicious one of the dispersion of the clouds of war and the restoration of the clear sunlight of prosperous peace under the wise & just administration of him who took it."
From "Salmon P. Chase to Mary Todd Lincoln, March 4, 1865
(Sends Bible kissed by Lincoln at Inauguration; endorsed by Abraham Lincoln)."
Less than two months later, and only five days after General Lee's surrender, on the evening of April 14, Lincoln was fatally wounded while attending a performance at Ford's Theater in Washington, D.C. James Knox was seated in the second row of the orchestra seats just under the presidential box at the theater. In a letter to his father, dated April 15, 1865, Knox described the assassination:
"Just after the 3d Act, and before the scenes were shifted, a muffled pistol shot was heard, and a man sprang wildly from the national box, partially tearing down the flag, then shouting '"sic semper tyrannis", the south is avenged' with brandished dagger rushed across the stage and disappeared The whole theatre was paralyzed. ...The shrill cry of murder from Mrs Lincoln first roused the horrified audience, and in an instant the uproar was terrible. The silence of death was broken by shouts of 'kill him', 'hang him' and strong men wept, and cursed, and tore the seats in the impotence of their anger, while Mrs. Lincoln, on her knees uttered shriek after shriek at the feet of the dying President."
From "James S. Knox to Knox, April 15, 1865 (Eyewitness account of Lincoln's assassination)," Page 2.
Search on assassination for numerous letters warning Lincoln of the danger of assassination throughout his presidency. Learn more about the public reaction to Lincoln's assassination in the Collection Connections for The Alfred Whital Stern Collection of Lincolniana.
Search on assassination for numerous letters warning Lincoln of the danger of assassination throughout his presidency. Learn more about the public reaction to Lincoln's assassination by doing a search using the term assassination in The Alfred Whital Stern Collection of Lincolniana.
After the war, Americans faced the task of reconstructing the Confederate States. This included solving questions of how to reintegrate the former rebels into the United States as well as how to integrate freed slaves into southern society. However, plans for Reconstruction had begun early in the war. And debates about whether free African Americans could be integrated into American society predated the war and resulted in the Colonization Movement. Search on colonization for correspondence about plans to create colonies of free African Americans in Haiti, New Granada, and Liberia.
During the war, Union General William T. Sherman initiated a colony of freed slaves in South Carolina. On January 15, 1865, General Sherman issued Special Field Order No. 15 as he moved his forces north from Savannah through the Carolinas. The order gave former slaves the exclusive right to settle on abandoned and confiscated lands on the Sea Islands of South Carolina and on a thirty-mile wide strip of land from Charleston to the St. John's River in Florida.
On February 1, General John C. Robinson wrote to Lincoln of "the utter folly of any such attempt at colonization." After the war, Robinson, who had opposed providing lands to freedmen, headed the Freedmen's Bureau in North Carolina.
- What were General Robinson's reasons for opposing Special Field Order 15?
- What course of action did Robinson recommend instead? What were his goals for the freed slaves?
- What does the letter reveal about Robinson's attitudes towards the freed slaves?
- To what extent do you think that these attitudes, which were also shared by others in the Lincoln and later Johnson administrations, would affect Reconstruction?
- Why were freedmen not given land after the war similar to lands provided in the Homestead Act of 1862? What factors prevented freedmen from obtaining "forty acres and a mule?"
In his annual message to Congress on December 8, 1863, Lincoln announced his Proclamation of Amnesty and Reconstruction. Search on Reconstruction for reaction to Lincoln's proclamation and advice on Reconstruction. In his December 25 letter to Lincoln, Arkansas Unionist William D. Snow congratulated Lincoln that his policy in "a single stroke" gives "direction to, too discursive & acrimonious political discussions, threatening the much needed unity of friends; and at the same time, opens a practical & easy door to rapid reconstruction." Other correspondents, however, such as Horace Maynard, warned of problems with Lincoln's plan for Reconstruction.
- Who does Lincoln exclude from his general pardon and why?
- What did the proclamation require of the former Confederate States in order to be readmitted into the Union? Do you think this policy was lenient? What else could Lincoln have required?
- What were the requirements of the oath of loyalty?
- What other options, besides general pardon, could Lincoln have exercised in reconstructing the Confederate States?
- What were some of the problems that people such as Maynard had with Lincoln's Reconstruction plan?
- Why do you think that Lincoln issued his Proclamation of Amnesty and Reconstruction before the war was over?
As per Lincoln's plan, Louisiana and Arkansas reestablished their state governments for reentry into the Union. Several Republicans, however, thought Lincoln's plan was too lenient and Congress refused to recognize representatives from the two ex-Confederate States, believing that to do so would be to surrender control of Reconstruction to the President. Search on Arkansas reconstruction and Louisiana reconstruction for materials related to these early efforts at Reconstruction.
- What do these materials reveal about how Reconstruction was actually implemented and what challenges stood in the way?
In July 1864 Congress passed the Wade-Davis bill, outlining its own plan of Reconstruction. The plan called for the President to appoint a military governor to oversee the South. It also required 50 percent of the state's voters to swear allegiance to the Union and to swear that they had never supported the Confederacy before creating a new state constitution. The plan called for the end of slavery, but would have limited suffrage in the South to white men. President Lincoln vetoed the bill, and Wade and Davis responded with their Wade-Davis Manifesto, which was printed in the New York Tribune on August 5. Search on Wade-Davis for pertinent materials.
- What does the Wade-Davis Bill suggest about Congress's attitude toward the South?
- Why did Congress think that Lincoln's Reconstruction plan was too lenient? What would the benefits and dangers of being less and more lenient have been?
- What do letters about Reconstruction reveal about the southern population's actual allegiance to the Union and to the Confederacy?
- Do you think that Lincoln's plan or Congress's plan offered a better way to reconstruct the South? Why?
A search on Reconstruction also provides correspondence from a number of political leaders with whom Lincoln discussed Reconstruction. On April 11, Salmon P. Chase proposed a plan, writing:
"The easiest & safest way seems to me to be the enrollment of the loyal citizens, without regard to complexion, and encouragement & support to them in the reorganization of State Governments under constitutions securing suffrage to all citizens of proper age & unconvicted of crime. This you know has long been my opinion. It is confirmed by observation more & more.
This way is recommended by its simplicity, facility &, above all, justice. It will be, hereafter, counted equally a crime & a folly if the colored loyalists of the rebel states shall be left to the control of restored rebels, not likely in that case to be either wise or just, until taught both wisdom and justice by new calamities."
From "Salmon P. Chase to Abraham Lincoln, April 11, 1865 (Reconstruction)."
In December of 1864 Montgomery Blair informed Lincoln that the reason some leaders, including Chase, were arguing that the Confederate states ought to be considered territories instead of states was because it would allow the Federal Government, instead of State Governments, to determine state laws including suffrage. He warned:
"One object now avowed is, to enable Congress to constitute a government by exacting conditions on admission which shall put the blacks and whites on equality in the political control of a government created by the white race for themselves — This is not merely manumission from masters, but it may turn out that those who have been held in servitude may become themselves the masters of the Government created by another race.
On January 31, 1865, Congress passed the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, abolishing slavery in the United States. Though he did not need to, Lincoln also signed the Amendment. It was not until July 28, 1868, that the 14th Amendment, known as the Reconstruction Amendment was ratified. It recognized African Americans as citizens and guaranteed their civil rights, such as suffrage. Nevertheless, it took the Civil Rights movement of the1960s to better secure equal rights for many African Americans living in the South."
Chronological Thinking: Foreign Affairs During the Civil War
While the Civil War is noteworthy as a conflict that pitted Americans against Americans, its impact reached beyond its shores. Conflict within the U.S. affected international relations, which in turn affected the war at home.
In November 1861 the Confederate States of America sent James Mason and John Slidell to Europe as representatives of their new government. They traveled on board the British ship Trent. Union Captain Charles Wilkes of the U.S.S. San Jacinto intercepted and boarded the Trent, apprehended the Confederate diplomats and took them to the U.S. where they were imprisoned. This outraged the British who considered it a violation of their neutrality, and the Trent Affair threatened to detonate a war. Writing to Lincoln on December 16, 1861, former president Millard Fillmore warned him against a war with Britain:
"...if we are so unfortunate as to be involved in a war with her at this time, the last hope of restoring the Union will vanish, and we shall be overwhelmed with the double calamities of civil and foreign war at the same time, which will utterly exhaust our resources, and may practically change the form of our government and compel us in the end to submit to a dishonorable peace."
From "Millard Fillmore to Abraham Lincoln, December 16, 1861 (Trent Affair)," Page 2.
The U.S. avoided a war by releasing Mason and Slidell and paying reparations to Britain. Search on Trent Affair for contemporary first hand accounts, such as a letter from Thurlow Weed reporting on the situation in Britain to Secretary of State William H. Seward.
Two years after the Trent Affair, the U.S. threatened war when they heard that a British company, the Laird Brothers,was going to provide the Confederacy with ironclad ram ships. Search on Laird Brothers for materials pertaining to that crisis. A letter from John Campbell to Lincoln suggests that by June 1864 British-U.S. relations had changed:
"I most unfeignedly rejoice in the movements which I observe to be taking place among the States for the renomination of your Excellency.
A copy of the British Standard herewith sent, expresses my deliberate opinion, and, I believe, the opinion likewise of multitudes of candid, reflecting, patriotic, and humane men in Great Britain.
You have achieved a mighty work, under an accumulation of obstacles, such as for variety, complexity, and magnitude, has never before surrounded the Ruler of any nation....
I pray that your life and health may be preserved to complete the stupendous work you have begun and so far carried on, & that you may in due season, see the accomplishment of your utmost wishes, both as it respects the Union and Slavery."
From "John Campbell to Abraham Lincoln, June 10, 1864 (Support for Lincoln's re-nomination in Great Britain)."
- How serious was the Trent Affair?
- According to Thurlow Weed, what were some of the causes of Britain's confrontational attitude toward the U.S. in 1861?
- Was Lincoln willing to risk a war with Britain or France over the Trent Affair?
- What was the nature of the controversy over the Laird rams?
- What can you tell from John Campbell's letter about why British attitudes towards Lincoln might have changed over the course of the war?
The papers of Abraham Lincoln (1809-1865), lawyer, representative from Illinois, and sixteenth president of the United States, contain approximately 40,550 documents dating from 1774 to 1948, although most of the collection spans from the 1850s through Lincoln’s presidency (1861-1865). Roughly half of the collection, more than 20,000 documents, comprising 62,000 images, as well as transcriptions of approximately 10,000 documents, is online. Included on this website in their entirety are Series 1-3 of the Lincoln Papers and the original materials in Series 4. Excluded from this online presentation is a sizeable portion of Series 4, which consists of printed material and reproductions of government and military documents made from originals in the holdings of the National Archives and Records Administration.
Treasures in the collection include Lincoln’s first and second inaugural addresses, his preliminary draft of the Emancipation Proclamation, the two earliest known copies of the Gettysburg Address (the Nicolay and Hay copies), his August 23, 1864, memorandum expressing his expectation of being defeated for re-election in the upcoming presidential contest, and a condolence letter written to Mary Todd Lincoln by Queen Victoria following the assassination of Abraham Lincoln in 1865. The Lincoln Papers are characterized by a large number of correspondents, including friends and associates from Lincoln’s Springfield days, well-known political figures and reformers, and local people and organizations writing to their president.
Notable correspondents include Nathaniel Prentiss Banks, Edward Bates, Montgomery Blair, Salmon P. Chase, Schuyler Colfax, David Davis, Ulysses S. Grant, John Hay, Andrew Johnson, Reverdy Johnson, Mary Todd Lincoln, George Brinton McClellan, George Gordon Meade, Edwin D. Morgan, John G. Nicolay, William S. Rosecrans, William Henry Seward, Horatio Seymour, Caleb B. Smith, Edwin McMasters Stanton, Charles Sumner, Lyman Trumbull, E. B. Washburne, and Gideon Welles.
The Index to the Abraham Lincoln Papers (PDF and page view) created by the Manuscript Division in 1960 after the bulk of the collection was microfilmed, provides a full list of the correspondents and notes the series number, dates, and mounting-sheet numbers for items in Series 1-3 of the Abraham Lincoln Papers. This information, in addition to the keyword search capability in the online presentation, is helpful in finding individual letters or documents in the online version. Additional letters received by the Library after 1960 are not listed in this index.
A current finding aid (PDF and HTML) to the Abraham Lincoln Papers is also available online.
Brief History of the Lincoln Papers
Abraham Lincoln’s papers were acquired by gifts, transfers, deposits, purchases, and reproductions during the years 1901-2013. The Lincoln Papers came to the Library of Congress from Lincoln's oldest son, Robert Todd Lincoln (1843-1926), who arranged for their organization and care shortly after his father was assassinated on April 14, 1865. At that time, Robert Todd Lincoln had the Lincoln Papers removed to Illinois, where they were first organized under the direction of Judge David Davis of Bloomington, Illinois, Abraham Lincoln's longtime associate. Later, Lincoln’s presidential secretaries, John G. Nicolay and John Hay, assisted in the project. In 1874, most of the Lincoln Papers returned to Washington, D.C., and Nicolay and Hay used them in the research and writing of their ten-volume biography, Abraham Lincoln: A History (New York, 1890). Robert Todd Lincoln deposited the Lincoln Papers with the Library of Congress in 1919, and deeded them to the Library on January 23, 1923. The deed stipulated that the Lincoln Papers remain sealed until twenty-one years after Robert Todd Lincoln’s death. On July 26, 1947, the Lincoln Papers were officially opened to the public.
The most complete account of the early history of the Abraham Lincoln Papers appears in volume 1 of David C. Mearns, The Lincoln Papers (Garden City, N.Y., 1948), 3-136. An article by the same author which appeared in the December 1947 issue of the Abraham Lincoln QuarterlyExternal contains the substance of the story. An additional history of the provenance of the collection was prepared for the Index to the Abraham Lincoln Papers, pp. v-vi (PDF and page view) and subsequently reproduced in the finding aid (PDF and HTML). A version appears on this website as the essay Provenance of the Abraham Lincoln Papers.
Some Lincoln documents which had been retained by Nicolay were restored to the Lincoln Papers and were arranged as Series 2 to assure their identification. Other miscellaneous acquisitions are found in Series 3 and 4.
Scanned images from the Abraham Lincoln Papers first became available online in 2001 as the American Memory website Abraham Lincoln Papers at the Library of Congress. Transcriptions prepared for roughly half of the documents by the Lincoln Studies Center at Knox College were added in 2002. The present iteration of the online Abraham Lincoln Papers is an updated version of the American Memory site, with additional features, original materials not included in the previous presentation, and the replacement of images scanned from the microfilm edition with full-color images scanned from the original documents.
Description of Series
The Abraham Lincoln Papers are arranged in five series. All of the documents contained in Series 1-3 are reproduced online, as are the original materials contained in Series 4. Although collection items in the online presentation are described at the item level, they may be accessed in groups at the Series level. Individual document headings and available transcriptions can be searched by keyword.
Series 1, General Correspondence and Related Documents, 1833-1916
Consists of manuscripts inherited by Robert Todd Lincoln, which have been designated “The Robert Todd Lincoln Collection of the Papers of Abraham Lincoln.” Series 1 includes the so-called “Carpet Bag Documents,” which were stored in a carpet bag that suffered water damage. A list of the “Carpet Bag Documents” created in 1874 by Lincoln’s secretary John G. Nicolay is available in this series.
Series 2, Additional Correspondence, 1858-1865
Comprised of correspondence retained by Lincoln’s secretary John G. Nicolay, which remained with the Nicolay Papers (received by the Library in 1947) until August 1959, when the letters were removed and reincorporated with the Lincoln Papers.
Series 3, Miscellaneous, 1837-1897
Includes single or small numbers of manuscripts which have been acquired by the Library of Congress from a variety of sources.
Series 4, Addenda, 1774-1948
The addenda to the Abraham Lincoln Papers consists mostly of reproductions of government and military documents made from originals in the holdings of the National Archives and Records Administration, 1774-1887. Reproductions of documents held by the National Archives are not represented on this online collection, nor are published materials. Original items contained in Series 4 are included in this online collection and include letters written by Abraham Lincoln, an autobiographical sketch written in 1859 at the request of Jesse W. Fell, mourning cards, political ephemera, a pen purportedly used by Abraham Lincoln, and papers omitted as not being integral to the collection when it was microfilmed and indexed in 1960. Please consult the collection finding aid (PDF and HTML) for more detailed information about the contents of Series 4.
Includes original correspondence and facsimile reproductions, certificates, pardons, a petition, a poem, pen, and printed matter. Images of all oversize materials in Series 1-3 and original materials in Series 4 are included in the online presentation and appear with the series from which they were withdrawn when rehoused as part of an oversize series. Oversize facsimiles and reproductions were not included in the online presentation.
Transcriptions Included on this Website
Transcriptions are included for about 10,000 items (about half of the online collection). The editors at the Lincoln Studies Center, Knox College, Galesburg, Illinois, selected the documents for which transcriptions have been provided, basing their choices on the documents’ historical importance or as representative selections 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 located 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. Annotations for Lincoln's autograph documents usually include a headnote providing historical and documentary context, as well as annotations on the content of the document. Annotations for incoming correspondence typically identify persons and organizations writing to Lincoln or referred to in the documents, explain terms and events, and provide brief historical context. Together, these fully searchable transcriptions and annotations dramatically extend access to the Abraham Lincoln Papers and enhance their teaching and research value. For more information on transcriptions in the Abraham Lincoln Papers see the essay Editors’ Preface to the Transcriptions.