The UR community can now get a greater glimpse into President Abraham Lincoln’s life and policies through letters and other documents that were either written to Lincoln or written by the man himself. These documents were available online starting last Monday, Presidents’ Day.
“The Lincoln Project was conceived by Richard Peek, Director of Rare Books, Special Collections and Preservation at Rush Rhees Library,” head of the Lincoln Project Brian Fleming said.
Letters and other documents to and from Lincoln have been placed on the Rare Books Web site under the title “Lincoln and his Circle.” Librarian in Rare Books and Special Collections Melissa Mead, who had done the same type of work for the Douglass Project in years past, has been contributing by constructing this Web site, providing content and designing the general layout for the site.
There are 287 letters and other items in the collection, including 72 written by Lincoln himself.
“Putting a digital image of the letters and, in some cases, a transcription of these letters makes them easily accessible to students and scholars here and around the world,” Fleming said.
UR has possessed these letters for years, ever since the Emerson Foundation of Auburn, N.Y. donated them in 1987. However, they have never been so widely accessible as they are now in their online form.
The family of William Henry Seward, who was Secretary of State in Lincoln’s and President Andrew Johnson’s cabinets, originally owned these letters and later donated them to the Emerson Foundation.
William Henry Seward III, the grandson of William Henry Seward, donated a much larger collection of about 150,000 items to UR in the years just before and after 1950.
However, the family had held back the Lincoln letters. They were later donated in 1987.
Glyndon Van Deusen, who was an undergraduate student at UR and later became a professor in the History Department at UR from the 1930s into the 1960s, published a biography of Seward in 1967. Van Deusen’s intense interest in Seward perhaps played a role in getting the papers donated to Rare Books and Special Collections.
Documents from the larger collection of papers from Seward, for example, the letters between Seward and U.S. Ambassadors in Europe, relate closely to the subject and tenor of the letters between Lincoln and Seward.
“Rare Books and Special Collections has very close ties with the History Department,” Fleming said. “Most often it has been students from the History Department who have worked with document collections in Rare Books and Special Collections.”
However, much like the Douglass Project that preceded it, the Lincoln Project is a way to try to make primary documents available for public use and not just for the History Department.
“There are professors of English, economics and possibly political science who are experts in fields that relate to 19th-century American history, the history of slavery, the presidency and similar topics,” Fleming said. “Some of the best analyses of Lincoln’s speeches have been done by American professors in English.”
History major and senior Avi Sommer gave his reaction to the increased availability of Lincoln’s letters.
“I think it has the beginnings of being a wonderful historical perspective into the thoughts and beliefs of Abraham Lincoln and his cabinet,” Sommer said. “The project gives history a modern and interactive experience.”
Maystrovsky is a member of the class of 2009.