Abraham Lincoln's Writing Gets a Fresh New Pen

Daniel Stowell Editor’s Note: Magic is not just for magicians.

When we decided to include in our Lincoln biography facsimiles of Lincoln's handwritten changes to his first inaugural address, we hit a hurdle. The facsimiles that existed would never work in our book. They had been made long before the magic of digitized documents and were too blurry for what we wanted: crisp images that people could actually read if they wished, word for word.

Our good friend and Lincoln scholar Ron White suggested we contact Dr. Daniel Stowell, the executive director of The Papers of Abraham Lincoln Project. He had embarked on an ambitious project to digitize all of Lincoln's writings. Yes, Daniel told us, the inaugural address was scheduled to be digitized.

In approximately 2010.

Then he worked his magic, with help from the good souls at the Library of Congress, and got us the digitized scans - in 2008, in time for the printing of our book. They show every letter and comma Lincoln added and crossed out.

We're proud to say that On Becoming Abraham Lincoln is the first work to feature these new digitized images.

And grateful for Daniel's magic.

Here's more on how this impressive Project is keeping Lincoln alive.

Levenger Press: What is the Papers of Abraham Lincoln Project?

Daniel Stowell: It's a long-term documentary editing project to locate, image, transcribe, annotate and publish all documents written by Abraham Lincoln or to him.

LP: it appears to be one of the most ambitious archival projects now being undertaken. Is that correct?

DS: Yes. We expect to find perhaps as many as 200,000 documents within our project's scope. We've located more than 7,500 documents in 400 repositories and private collections. There are more than 22,000 at the Library of Congress, and tens of thousands at the National Archives. In addition there are hundreds, if not thousands, more in newspapers and other printed sources.

LP: What will readers and scholars of Lincoln have access to that they don't have now?

DS: They will have access to all of Lincoln's writings as well as corresondence sent to him. Though The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln was a monumental achievement when it was published in 1953, it contained only documents written by Abraham Lincoln, about 8,000 in all. The Papers of Abraham Lincoln will add incoming correspondence, documents discovered since the publication of the Collected Works, and "routine" documents that Collected Works excluded. By including the letters to Lincoln, readers and scholars can better understand the brief endorsements that Lincoln wrote on them.

LP: What's the advantage of having these collected digitally?

DS: Readers will be able to search the texts of the documents. Each transcription will be encoded to permit sophisticated searches of the documents as well. Annotation will provide identification of people, places and events so that readers can understand the context of each document.

LP: Will there be a fee for people to access these?

DS: No. The Papers of Abraham Lincoln will be freely available to a worldwide audience through the Internet.

LP: How did you come to be involved in the Project?

DS: I joined the project in 1996 when it was the Lincoln Legal Papers. The Lincoln Legal Papers began in 1985 to locate all documents related to Abraham Lincoln's quarter-century legal career. We published a comprehensive electronic edition in 2000, The Law Practice of Abraham Lincoln: Complete Documentary Edition, on three DVD-ROMs. In early 2008, we published a selective print edition, The Papers of Abraham Lincoln: Legal Documents and Cases, in four volumes. These two publications complete the Lincoln Legal Papers.

When I became director of the Lincoln Legal Papers in 2000, I oversaw its expansion into the Papers of Abraham Lincoln. The Legal Papers became Series I. Series II is the Illinois Papers, Lincoln's personal and political correspondence up to his inauguration as president in March 1861. Series III is the Presidential Papers, documents written by and to him during his presidency.

LP: One of the challenges of finding original Lincoln material is that, unlike with Winston Churchill, there appears to be no central archive that acts as sole repository. Why has Lincoln material been allowed to be so scattered?

DS: There are two major repositories of Lincoln documents - the National Archives, which contains the records of the federal government during his presidency, and the Library of Congress, which contains his personal papers kept by his son Robert Todd Lincoln and donated to the library in 1923.

Many of the documents that are scattered in repositories and private collections were never part of a central archive - ;letters Lincoln sent to correspondents, commissions and appointments signed by Lincoln, retained copies of letters sent to Lincoln. So, while there are two central repositories of Lincoln documents, other documents were dispersed in Lincoln's lifetime and have not been collected into a single repository.

One of the goals of the Papers of Abraham Lincoln is to create a virtual archive that brings together documents from all of these diverse locations, so that they can be studied together.

LP: Where is most of the material housed?

DS: The Library of Congress holds the largest single collection of Lincoln documents, some 20,000 documents, as well as more than 2,000 additional documents in related collections. The National Archives houses tens of thousands of documents, but they are scattered among millions of pages of records from the federal government in the 1860s. Many record groups at the National Archives cover large chronological periods, but the documents may be arranged alphabetically or in some other fashion that requires our researchers to examine a large number of documents to isolate those within the project's scope.

LP: You're knocking on a lot of doors, virtually and otherwise, looking for original material. Can you describe one such scenario?

DS: One of my favorites is the discovery on eBay of a new document written by Lincoln. The document was a brief letter of recommendation written by Lincoln on behalf of George W. Rives in December 1849. Lincoln suspected that Rives had opposed him earlier that year when Lincoln tried to get Zachary Taylor to appoint him as Commissioner of the General Land Office. Lincoln wrote to Rives of his suspicions but enclosed a letter of recommendation that Lincoln told Rives he could use if he saw fit. Lincoln's letter to Rives had been known for a long time and is in the collection of the Rosenbach Museum and Library in Philadelphia. The letter of recommendation, presumed lost, turned up in an attic in Rhode Island. The discoverer offered it for sale on eBay.

I tried to contact the seller but was unsuccessful before the sale. On a whim, I sent a message to the buyer explaining that we would be interested in scanning the document. To my surprise, the buyer responded to my message and, after a brief correspondence, sent images of the document made to our project specifications. The buyer lives in Seattle.

So, after 150 years of separation, the two letters were reunited virtually by the Papers of Abraham Lincoln. One letter is in Philadelphia, and the other is in Seattle (via Rhode Island). Now they can be read and studied together.

LP: What about private collectors - is anonymity an issue?

DS: We rely on private collectors to contact our project, and nearly one hundred have done so. Others may simply not know about our project, while a few are fearful that if their documents are well known, they will somehow be less valuable. In fact, validation by our project ensures the value of these privately-held documents. Because Lincoln documents have historically been among the most valuable manuscripts, forgers have been at work for more than a century. Our project staff can distinguish forgeries from legitimate documents, thus certifying the authenticity of privately held documents.

LP: When will the project be completed?

DS: We hope to complete the search phase of the project by 2015. In the meantime, we are making initial transcriptions of many of the documents. How much longer it takes to transcribe and annotate all of the documents will depend in large measure on how many total documents we find at the National Archives.

LP: And when it's completed, what's next?

DS: I hope to retire and travel with my wife - without a scanner.

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