Editor's Note: Abraham Lincoln Papers Project Faces Tough Economic Times

Feb 1, 2014

Dana Heupel
Credit WUIS/Illinois Issues
The Papers of Abraham Lincoln project is on a mission to capture digital images of every document written by or to the nation’s 16th president during his lifetime. It also intends to transcribe those documents, annotate them and publish them in a free online database.

So far, the project has scanned more than 97,000 documents from more than 400 repositories and 190 private collections in 47 states and six foreign countries. The staff expects the Papers to encompass more than 150,000 documents when complete.

But progress has slowed during recent months with the expiration of a five-year, $1.4 million grant from Shelby Cullom Davis Charitable Fund last July, and a $135,000 cut in the Papers’ appropriation from the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency. The number of staff in Springfield and Washington, D.C., has dropped from 12 to nine, and if more funding isn’t secured by next July, it will decrease by two more.

“This fiscal year,” says Daniel Stowell, director and editor of the Papers of Abraham Lincoln, “we’re kind of living on some savings, some leftovers … so we’ve been able to maintain ourselves at that reduced level, down three people. As we look at it now, starting July 1, we’re going to have to lay off two more people if everything else stays the same.”

The project began in 1985 as the Lincoln Legal Papers, with the objective of documenting all of Lincoln’s work as a circuit-riding lawyer in Illinois. It expanded in 2001 to encompass all of the correspondence to and from Lincoln during his lifetime. The Historic Preservation Agency is the project’s primary sponsor, through the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum in Springfield. Co-sponsors are the Center for State Policy and Leadership at the University of Illinois at Springfield and the Abraham Lincoln Association. Illinois Issues is a sister unit to the Papers in the center.

While much of the documentary work of the Papers’ staff is mundane scholarly procedure, occasionally they come across documents that enable them to solve a mystery or discover something that was previously unknown.

Early this year, for instance, it was announced that Stacy Pratt McDermott, the assistant director and associate editor of the Papers, had determined the writer of a letter to Lincoln that had been found in a mouse nest inside the walls of Lincoln’s Springfield home during renovation work in 1987. The letter had been chewed up and was mostly indecipherable, but by comparing the handwriting with other letters, McDermott concluded that Andrew Johnston, a newspaper editor, attorney and fellow Whig, had written it to Lincoln in 1846. A fan of Lincoln’s poetry, Johnston asked if Lincoln had penned a recent poem he had sent to Johnston. (Lincoln later replied he hadn’t but that he would “give all I am worth, and go in debt, to be able to write so fine a piece as I think that is.”)

Also in January, the Papers project was able to add to its archives two documents that a history professor from the University of South Carolina had found in the tiny nation of San Marino, which is surrounded by Italy and considers itself the world’s oldest republic. The first was from the nation’s heads of state and was sent to Lincoln in 1861, soon after he became president, wishing him well and conferring citizenship on him. The second document conveyed Lincoln’s thanks to the nation.

This fragment from an 1846 letter was written by newspaper editor Andrew Johnston, an editor at the Papers of Abraham Lincoln was able to determine.
Credit WUIS/Illinois Issues

  Documents such as those above are still being organized and prepared for eventual publication. Lincoln’s legal papers, which the Papers’ staff calls Series 1 of the Lincoln Papers project, are online now. Lincoln papers from Illinois, dubbed Series 2, and documents during his terms as president, Series 3, are the remaining tasks of the project.

“The largest untapped resource” for Lincoln documents is the National Archives in Washington, D.C., Stowell says. Two of the three positions the Papers lost during the latest round of budget cuts were in the D.C. office, cutting the staff there from five to three. Stowell estimates that about 80 percent of all of the Lincoln documents will come from the National Archives.

To restore the lost staff — or at least maintain the status quo — the Papers hopes to raise additional funding from individual donors at $50, $100 and $200 levels. It also is looking for contributors with “a large capacity for multiyear gifts,” Stowell says.

Ultimately, he says, “I hope for a renewed commitment from the [Historic Preservation] agency, and I hope that we can identify one or more private collectors to make a multiyear commitment to complete the search at the National Archives.”

And how long might that take? “Well, six years ago, I said five years,” Stowell says, “but we found more than we expected. I think we might be able to finish in five more years if we had a full complement of people. With two people, no, we won’t be able to finish it in five years, but if we’re back up to five or six people [in Washington], then I think we could.”

“You know, the big fear right now for us,” McDermott says, “is we are going to lose people that have a lot of expertise. That’s the immediate fear: Two people are going to be gone July 1 who have many years of experience doing the work that we do. And if we lose that, it’s hard to recover.”

“Shrinking budgets require difficult choices,” Stowell says. “I understand the problem of a lot of things to take care of and a shrinking budget. I really do. I live it. And if I have to choose what two people are going to be laid off, it’s not something I’m going to be able to do easily.”

Stowell says the project is important because it does more than simply add to Lincoln scholarship.

“We’re not just illuminating Abraham Lincoln’s life. Because we’re including all this incoming correspondence, we’re illuminating the entire era. We’re going to have over 125,000 documents from the Civil War era, from all sorts of people writing to Lincoln. You know, generals and governors and senators, but farmers and freed people and soldiers and women and children — saints and sinners, people in prison, Native Americans, foreign-born in the United States but also from other countries. Across the spectrum. And so, we illuminate an entire era by pulling together all of these documents focused on Abraham Lincoln. … It’s not just the story of one man.”

Illinois Issues, February 2014