On April 24, 1800, John Adams signed a Congressional Act authorizing the transfer of the nation’s capital from Philadelphia to Washington, DC. Tucked into this bill was a provision of funds “for the purchase of such books as may be necessary for the use of Congress . . . and for fitting up a suitable apartment for containing them.”
Thus, the Library of Congress was born. The library’s first collection was destroyed when British troops burned the Capitol on August 24, 1814. Thomas Jefferson offered his vast personal library as a replacement, and several months later, Congress approved the purchase of the former president’s collection of 6,487 books.
This became the core of a new collection that has now grown to more than 164 million items, including more than 38 million books that range from American classics that left an imprint on history to contemporary works from all over the world, and more than 70 million manuscripts.
In the Battle of Ball’s Bluff, Virginia, on October 21, 1861, the 1st Minnesota Volunteers unit had just one casualty: a man named Lewis Mitchell. Mitchell was “only a private,” one of the approximately 750,000 casualties in the Civil War. Nonetheless, his death is given a sense of honor and sacrifice in a touching poem by his friend Hanford L. Gordon. Written several weeks after the battle, Gordon’s poem recounts the “literally true” circumstances of Lewis Mitchell’s death, from a gory description of Mitchell’s last moments to Gordon’s horrified discovery of his friend’s body.
We’ve had a fight a Captain said
Much rebel blood we’ve spilled
We’ve put the saucy foe to flight
Our loss – but a private killed!
“Ah, yes!” said a sergeant on the spot
As he drew a long deep breath
Poor fellow, he was badly shot
Then bayoneted to death!”
When again was hushed the martial din
And back the foe had fled
They brought the private’s body in
I went to see the dead.
For I could not think the rebel foe
(’Tho under curse and ban)
To vaunting of their chivalry
Could kill a wounded man.
A minie ball had broke his thigh
A frightful crushing wound
And then with savage bayonets
They had pinned him to the ground
One stab was through his abdomen
Another through his head
The last was through his pulseless breast
Done after he was dead.
His hair was matted with his gore
His hands were clenched with might
As though he still his musket bore
So firmly in the fight
He had grasped the foeman’s bayonet
His bosom to defend!
They raised the coat cape from his face
My God! it was my friend!
Think what a shudder thrilled my heart
’Twas but the day before
We laughed together merrily
As we talked of days of yore
“How happy we shall be,” he said
When the war is o’er and when
The rebels all subdued or dead
We all go home again!
In the final three stanzas, Gordon attempts to come to terms with his friend’s death and find meaning in the risk that all soldiers, himself included, face in the war:
Ah little he dreamed, that soldier brave
(So near his journey’s goal)
That God had sent a messenger
To claim his Christian soul!
But he fell like a hero fighting
And hearts with grief are filled
And honor is his, though our Chief shall say
“Only a private killed!”
I knew him well, he was my friend
He loved our Land and Laws
And he fell a blessed martyr
To the country’s holy cause.
Soldiers our time will come most like
When our blood will thus be spilled
And then of us our Chief shall say
“Only a private killed.”
But we fight our country’s battles
And our hopes are not forlorn
Our death shall be a blessing
To “Millions yet unborn”;
To our children and their children
And as each grave is filled
We will but ask our Chief to say
“Only a private killed.”
At this evening’s Gilder Lehrman Lincoln Prize Ceremony, at the Union League Club in New York City, we will honor James B. Conroy and Douglas R. Egerton for their outstanding scholarly works on Abraham Lincoln and the Civil War. The Gilder Lehrman Lincoln Prize, sponsored by the Gilder Lehrman Institute and Gettysburg College, is a $50,000 prize awarded annually for the finest scholarly work in English on Abraham Lincoln, the American Civil War soldier, or the American Civil War era.
James B. Conroy’s winning work, Lincoln’s White House: The People’s House in Wartime (Rowman and Littlefield), was recognized by the Lincoln Prize jury as “the first book focusing on the executive mansion and its denizens during the Lincoln administration,” noting that Conroy has taken full advantage of previously unpublished primary sources. “Conroy skillfully avails himself of these and other primary sources to offer a vivid, highly readable account of how life was lived in the White House. A gifted prose stylist, Conroy fills that lacuna in the literature admirably.”
The jury praised Douglas Egerton’s winning book, Thunder at the Gates: The Black Civil War Regiments That Redeemed America (Basic Books), as “a deeply and impeccably researched work, drawing on (to name just some of the sources) manuscript collections of personal papers, the black and white press, regimental records, draft records, records of the Department of the South, medical records, pension files, wartime letters and journals, memoirs, and photographs. Egerton’s is a brisk and personable narrative history that will reach a wide audience, with its vivid portraits of lives both on and off the battlefield.”
Additionally, Douglas L. Wilson and Rodney O. Davis will receive a Special Achievement Award for their book, Herndon on Lincoln: Letters (University of Illinois Press), a collection of letters about the President written by Lincoln’s former law partner, William H. Herndon.
For a list of past Gilder Lehrman Lincoln Prize winners, click here.
Between 1836 and 1865, approximately 55,000 Norwegians sailed to the United States. Like most immigrants, they sought opportunities that didn’t exist at home—religious freedom, economic security, land ownership, and educational and social advancement. The 1853 poem “A Farewell Ode to Emigrants on Their Journey to America” is written (in Danish) from the perspective of someone who stayed in Norway, speaking to someone who has left for America. In eleven verses, the anonymous poet reveals the reasons some left Norway, and praises the wonders of America—the natural resources, fertile soil, and beauty of the land—as well as the opportunity to prosper through hard work and, possibly, marriage to a rich and beautiful “Yankee daughter.”
You are going away to maybe never no more
Norway see, your homeland behold.
O that all that you here bitterly must manage without,
you in that distant safe harbor will get tenfold back.
In America’s valleys abounding with flowers,
where the earth does not mock the sweat of its grower,
on your journey there we pray that God
will look down upon your wandering with blessings.
When longing for home weighs down on your soul,
then think: “our right home country is the place
where we actually get paid for all our hard labor,
where hunger dare not approach us,
moreover there is more of God’s wonderful sky
here than out North, our home country of yore,
and the top soil is fertile, all nature’s abundance
is rich in its diversity, that cannot be denied.”
My friend, I wish you a Yankee daughter
as wife, – beautiful and rich she must be,
and virtuous, – one who there will be a good replacement
for the women that you here could not get,
that there in quiet clean and domestic joy
you truly can enjoy the best dream of your youth
what fate here would not provide you
is wonderfully given to you at Sabina’s stream!
And in a thousand years after the North will be deserted
and the Norwegian’s offspring by the banks of the Missouri
will behold freedom’s beautiful red sunrise
shining there in wealth, light and peace,
then forgotten will be the yearning and hardship and miserable days,
in the Norwegians’ new and happy home! –
Farewell, farewell! and the Lord be with you
on your way wherever you head forth.
Explore related resources:
A lesson plan using a Norwegian immigrant’s account of America
Essays on immigrant fiction and on immigration
On March 27, the Gilder Lehrman Institute and the New-York Historical Society partnered to recognize the work of Peter Cozzens, whose book The Earth is Weeping: The Epic Story of the Indian Wars for the American West received the Gilder Lehrman Prize for Military History. The award recognizes the best book on the subject of military history published in the last year.
Louise Mirrer, president and CEO of the New-York Historical Society, and James Basker, president of the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History, praised the book for “[shedding] light on an important period in our nation’s history that has had long-reaching effects and remains relevant today.” Cozzens’ book illuminates how US westward expansion affected American Indian tribes and led to internal conflicts over whether to fight or make peace, and explores the lives of soldiers posted to the frontier and the ethical quandaries faced by generals who often sympathized with the Native American tribes.
In celebration of National Poetry Month, we’ll be highlighting some of the intriguing, eloquent, and historically significant poems in the Gilder Lehrman Collection. These poems shed a personal light on momentous events in American history, from the American Revolution to World War I.
In October 1772, Thomas Woolridge, a British businessman and supporter of William Legge, the Earl of Dartmouth, asked Phillis Wheatley to write a poem for Legge, who had just been appointed secretary of state for the colonies. Entitled “To the Right Honourable William, Earl of Dartmouth,” the poem reflects the colonists’ hopes that Dartmouth would be less tyrannical than his predecessor. Wheatley then declares that her love of freedom comes from being a slave and describes being kidnapped from her parents, comparing the colonies’ relationship with England to a slave’s relationship with a slave holder.
Each year, ten Gilder Lehrman Fellowships are awarded to outstanding scholars of American history to conduct research at archives in New York City. In 2009, City College professor Hidetaka Hirota, then a doctoral candidate at Boston College, received a Gilder Lehrman Fellowship to do research at the New York Public Library for his dissertation on nativism, citizenship, and the deportation of the destitute in nineteenth-century New York.
The Gilder Lehrman Institute is happy to announce that Professor Hirota’s groundbreaking dissertation is now a book, just published by Oxford University Press: Expelling the Poor: Atlantic Seaboard States and the Nineteenth-Century Origins of American Immigration Policy. As is noted on the publisher’s website, Expelling the Poor is the “first sustained study of immigration control conducted by states prior to the introduction of federal immigration law in the late nineteenth century.” A timely and important study, Expelling the Poor will be of interest not only to historians but also to general readers who wish to learn more about the cultural, economic, and legal impact of immigration in the era of expansion and industrialization.
If you are a doctoral student, university professor, or independent scholar working on a topic in American history, please visit the Gilder Lehrman Fellowships page to apply for a 2017 Gilder Lehrman Fellowship. Applications are due Monday, May 15, 2017.
On March 22, 1765, the British Parliament passed the Stamp Act to help pay for British troops stationed in the colonies during the Seven Years’ War. The act required the colonists to pay a tax, represented by a stamp, on various forms of papers, documents, and playing cards. Colonists’ anger over the new tax was heightened by the fact that it had been passed by Parliament without the approval of colonial legislatures. Reactions ranged from boycotts of British goods to more violent protests, including riots and attacks on tax collectors. In an August 19, 1765, letter, Archibald Hinshelwood of Nova Scotia describes Bostonians’ reactions to the Stamp Act:
There is a violent spirit of opposition raised on the Continent against the execution of the Stamp Act, the mob in Boston have carried it very high against Mr. Oliver the Secry (a Town born child) for his acceptance of an office in consequence of that act. They have even proceeded to some violence, and burnt him in Effigy &c. They threaten to pull down & burn the Stamp Office now building.
He ends his account rather forebodingly by pondering, “what the consequences may be in the Colonies who have no military force to keep the rabble in order, I cannot pretend to say.”
Follow the Road to Revolution in an essay by Northwestern University professor T. H. Breen.
On March 13 and 14, 1855, the firm of J. A. Beard & May placed on the auction block 178 enslaved men, women, and children at the Banks Arcade in New Orleans, Louisiana. They were part of the estate of William M. Lambeth, who had died in 1853. To settle the estate, Judge J. N. Lea had ordered the sale of 127 slaves from the Waverly plantation and 51 from the Meredith plantation, both in Avoyelles Parish.
The catalog from this auction includes the business aspects of the slave trade, listing the purchase terms as "one-third cash, and the remainder at 12 months’ credit, for approved city paper, bearing vendor’s lien and mortgage on the Slaves, and eventual interest of 8 per cent."
However, the catalog also personalizes the slaves by providing details about specific individuals and family relationships. The document stipulates that “the slaves will be sold singly, and when in families, together.” The catalog, which can be read in its entirety here, opens a small window onto the lives of individuals who might otherwise have been lost to history.
On Wednesday, February 22, 1,900 Chicago public school students packed The PrivateBank Theatre for the Hamilton Education Program’s first Chicago student matinee! Thirty schools participated in the inaugural matinee. Twenty-six students—some in groups, others alone—performed their original rap, instrumental pieces, and poetry, based on the innovative Founding Era curriculum developed by the Gilder Lehrman Institute. The day also included a Q&A with the cast, led by the director, Thomas Kail.
A president’s inaugural address often reflects the contemporary political, social, and economic climate of the nation. For President’s Day, explore eight presidential inaugural speeches, from George Washington to Barack Obama. How do these speeches reveal the historical era in which they were delivered?
George Washington’s First Inaugural Address, 1789
“And since the preservation of the sacred fire of liberty, and the destiny of the republican model of government, are justly considered as deeply, perhaps as finally staked on the experiment entrusted to the hands of the American people.”
Abraham Lincoln’s First Inaugural Address, 1861
“You have no oath registered in Heaven to destroy the government, while I shall have the most solemn one to ‘preserve, protect and defend’ it . . . There needs to be no bloodshed or violence; and there shall be none, unless it be forced upon the national authority.”
Herbert Hoover’s Inaugural Address, 1929
“Ours is a land rich in resources; stimulating in its glorious beauty; filled with millions of happy homes; blessed with comfort and opportunity. In no nation are the institutions of progress more advanced . . . No country is more loved by its people. I have an abiding faith in their capacity, integrity and high purpose. I have no fears for the future of our country. It is bright with hope.”
Franklin D. Roosevelt’s First Inaugural Address, 1933
“This great Nation will endure as it has endured, will revive and will prosper. So, first of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself . . . In every dark hour of our national life a leadership of frankness and vigor has met with that understanding and support of the people themselves which is essential to victory. . . . The Nation asks for action, and action now.”
John F. Kennedy’s Inaugural Address, 1961
“Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe to assure the survival and the success of liberty . . . And so, my fellow Americans: ask not what your country can do for you—ask what you can do for your country.”
Ronald Reagan’s First Inaugural Address, 1981
“From time to time, we have been tempted to believe that society has become too complex to be managed by self-rule, that government by an elite group is superior to government for, by, and of the people. But if no one among us is capable of governing himself, then who among us has the capacity to govern someone else? All of us together, in and out of government, must bear the burden.”
Barack Obama’s First Inaugural Address, 2009
“The time has come to reaffirm our enduring spirit; to choose our better history; to carry forward that precious gift, that noble idea passed on from generation to generation: the God-given promise that all are equal, all are free, and all deserve a chance to pursue their full measure of happiness.”
During the Civil War, Creed A. Lay, serving in the 40th Regiment, Illinois Volunteers, sent this elaborately cut letter to his wife Sarah. Lay filled in the hearts with short, amusing rhymes about love and friendship, commonly written by friends in autograph albums:
Let not your friendship be like the rose to sever: But, like the evergreen, may it last forever!
Except (sic) my friend these lines from me they show that I remember thee and hope some thought they will retain till you and I shall meet again.
Long may you live happy may you be when you get married come and see me.
There is a small and simple flower that twines around the humble cot and in the sad and lonely hour it whispers low forget me not.
Lay’s letter created some lighthearted amusement in the midst of war. Inside one heart he wrote, “pleas (sic) forgive me for writing so much nonsense here.”
On Tuesday, January 31, Jeff Forret, Professor of History, Lamar University, Beaumont, Texas, received the 2016 Frederick Douglass Book Prize for Slave Against Slave: Plantation Violence in the Old South, in a ceremony at the Yale Club. The prize, awarded by the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History and the Gilder Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery, Resistance, and Abolition at Yale University, honors the best scholarly book on the subject of slavery or abolition. Slave Against Slave explores violence among enslaved people in the South prior to the Civil War and how these physical conflicts were affected by hierarchies within the slave community. In his remarks, Forret spoke of the importance of digging into historical documents with an open mind. “Ask uncomfortable questions,” he advised budding historians. “Don’t be afraid to get your hands dirty in archives.”
Click through the slideshow below to see photos from the event!
Aaron Burr was born in Newark, New Jersey, on February 6, 1756. In many ways his career paralleled that of his rival Alexander Hamilton. They both served in the Continental Army, became lawyers and practiced in Albany and New York City, and had rising political careers in the 1790s. Burr suffered a defeat in his bid for the presidency in 1800 and his bid for governor of New York in 1804, for which he blamed Hamilton. Their rivalry ended in the infamous 1804 duel. What became of Burr in the aftermath of the duel in which he fatally wounded Hamilton?
On July 20, 1804, nine days after the duel, Burr wrote a cryptic letter to his son-in-law, Joseph Alston. In a time of uncertainty, Burr was weighing his options. Both a grand jury in New Jersey and the coroner’s jury in New York City were considering charges against him, and “the result will determine my movements,” Burr wrote. Burr enclosed with his brief letter a mysterious message to Charles Biddle, written in cipher. The message is most likely regarding Burr’s plot with General James Wilkinson to form a separate country in the western part of the United States.
National Freedom Day commemorates the date on which President Abraham Lincoln signed a congressional resolution proposing a Thirteenth Amendment—February 1, 1865. The amendment, ratified by the states on December 6 of that year, permanently abolished slavery in America. The road to abolishing slavery in America was a long and arduous one. In commemoration of the day, click the icons below to read about some of the men and women who contributed to the abolitionist movement:
|Frederick Douglass &
|Sojourner Truth &
Black Female Abolitionists
|Sarah & Angelina Grimke
On January 24, 1801, President John Adams responded to two abolitionists who had sent him an anti-slavery pamphlet by Quaker reformer Warner Mifflin (1745–1798). Adams writes that he is personally against slavery, noting that “never in my Life did I own a Slave”—but that abolition should be “gradual and accomplished with much caution and Circumspection.” In this his vision aligned with that of George Washington, who wrote privately to a fellow Virginia planter in 1786 that it was “among my first wishes to see some plan adopted by which slavery in the Country may be abolished by slow, sure, & imperceptable degrees.”
President John F. Kennedy was inaugurated on January 20, 1961. Elected in the midst of the Cold War, Kennedy focused his inaugural address on international politics and America’s place in the world. Kennedy appealed to both American citizens and people of other nations to come together in a struggle against “the common enemies of man: tyranny, poverty, disease and war itself.” He closed his speech with the now famous words:
And so, my fellow Americans: ask not what your country can do for you—ask what you can do for your country.
My fellow citizens of the world: ask not what America will do for you, but what together we can do for the freedom of man.
For more on presidential address throughout American history, check out History Now 36: “Great Inaugural Addresses.”
Middle and high school students with a passion for the Civil War can flex their writing and research skills by submitting an entry to the Civil War Essay Contest. Students have the opportunity to explore a Civil War topic of their choice and use secondary and primary sources (including letters, speeches, songs, photographs, newspapers, and military orders) to create an original scholarly essay.
In addition to prizes for the winning entries, the top essay writer from each school will receive a Gilder Lehrman publication, and both the school with the highest average judges’ score (minimum 10 entries) and the school with the greatest number of entries will receive a special certificate and a pack of materials. The deadline for submissions is February 27, 2017.
Today we commemorate Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s immense contributions to civil rights and social justice. One of the most enduring images of the civil rights movement is Dr. King delivering his “I Have a Dream” speech at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in 1963. In this video, join Stanford University professor Clayborne Carson as he recalls the events of August 28, 1963, and explores the legacy of that iconic gathering:
Read more about the establishment of Martin Luther King Jr. Day and the Major Events and Legacies of the Civil Rights Movement.
In 1622, colonist Sebastian Brandt wrote a letter to a merchant in London, seeking supplies and assistance. Brandt had arrived in Jamestown intending to scour the land for precious minerals such as gold, silver, and copper. But he was impeded by the deaths of his wife and brother, his own illness, and a lack of supplies. He asks Henry Hovener to send him a long list of necessities. including a bed, clothing, shoes, cutlery, cheese, spices, “cullerd beads” to trade with Native Americans, and a strong young man to assist him in mining. Though he lacks money and gold, he assures Hovener that he can pay the Virginia Company back with “Tobacco Bevor and Otterskins.”
The letter stands as eyewitness testimony to the many hardships facing migrants who traveled to Virginia to seek their fortunes. Brandt most likely never found his fortune. He does not appear in any known existing official records, and he likely died not long after writing this letter.