Category Archives: Presidents

Resources for Teachers

The CPC team has been building up its collections, adding partners and digital items. As of now, CPC has about 250,000 digital items, more than 30 partners, and covers almost every U.S. president. We’ve come a long way!

Recently, we have partnered with Professor Kathryn Brownell of Purdue University to begin creating educational resources using the CPC materials. We strongly believe that CPC will be more useful to educators if resources are available for them. Professor Brownell has created Recasting American Presidential History in the Classroom. Her work is focused on undergraduates students and reconsiders how the presidency is taught.

She says it best:

“…this website will encourage students to study the American presidency from a sociocultural perspective. This website aims to begin a classroom conversation about the American presidency in ways that capitalize on a generation of insights from social, economic, cultural, and political historians.”

Offering secondary sources, primary sources, discussion questions, and research activities, Brownell looks at the U.S. presidency from a variety of different angles, reconsidering the traditional approach of teaching the presidency that focuses on a “top-down” approach to history. Right now, there are three modules completed, with the remaining seven scheduled to be done by the fall.

Tomorrow Brownell and I are heading to the National Council for History Education conference to debut her project. We are excited to offer this unique educational resource. And we are thrilled to be able to do it at the NCHE.

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Welcome to the NARA Presidential Collections!

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CPC is thrilled to welcome the National Archives and the Presidential Libraries as partners in CPC. We are excited about this new collection, but really we should call it collections. Although the digital items originate from NARA, within NARA there are many different organizations that hold collections. We have items from all thirteen Presidential Libraries (Hoover through George W. Bush) but we also have items from NARA’s Electronic Records Archive and from its regional offices.

Having NARA as a partner in CPC is hugely important as its Presidential Libraries cover the modern-day presidents. This partnership will give users the chance to search across the NARA digital collections along with our other partners. It helps CPC reach its goal of bringing together a critical mass of materials to be a valuable resource to researchers and educators.

New Partners!

Three exciting new partners have joined CPC! They are:

  • Indiana Historical Society
  • The James Monroe Papers
  • The Truman Little White House

We are very excited about these great new partners and their fascinating collections!

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The Indiana Historical Society adds the Harrison presidents to CPC—William Henry Harrison (1841) and Benjamin Harrison (1889-1893). Benjamin was the grandson of William Henry Harrison, who is notable because he was only in office for one month before he died of pneumonia. He served the shortest time of any U.S. president.

The Indiana Historical Society materials include items from William’s time as governor of the Indiana Territory and his service in the War of 1812. On March 27, 1814, Colonel A. Butler wrote to Major General Harrison to report on the current states of British forces along the lake shore in Canada. The Benjamin Harrison collection includes images of President Harrison and his cabinet and Caroline Harrison and their daughter Mary Harrison. First Lady Caroline Harrison died in 1892 while Benjamin Harrison was president. His daughter, Mary (Mrs. J.R. McGee), took over the First Lady duties after her mother’s death.

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The James Monroe Papers are a valuable collection of letters that span across Monroe’s long career in public service. He served in the Continental Army during the American Revolution and as a U.S. Senator for Virginia, U.S. minister to France, governor of Virginia, secretary of state, secretary of war, and U.S. president. On May 10, 1784, Thomas Jefferson wrote to James Monroe with a list of books that Jefferson sold to Monroe. The collection also includes the farm manager’s daybook of weather, activities, and accounts at Oak Hill in 1830. Oak Hill was Monroe’s residence in Loudon County, Virginia, where he retired at the end of his presidency in 1825. The Monroe Papers are slightly different than many of the CPC partners as the links to their materials take users to a landing page for the papers project and there are instructions for how to access the materials.

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The Truman Little White House based in Key West, Florida, was the president’s get-away from Washington, D.C., to warmer and sunnier climates. The collection includes the logs kept by the U.S. Navy of President Truman’s visits to Key West. They include specific details such as the members of the president’s party and the maximum and minimum temperatures when Truman was visiting. They also contain the president’s activities each day with amazing particulars. The log from March 7-27, 1952, noted when the President came downstairs each day (at 7:40 a.m. on Saturday, March 8, 1952) to what cars he traveled in (four Mercury sedans for the president and his party and four Ford sedans for the secret service). The Little White House collection also includes a small sampling of photos from Truman’s visits including the president with a six-pound grouper.

We are always looking to add new partners to CPC and to make descriptions about their collections part of the CPC site. So please get in touch with us if you and your institution have digital collections on the U.S. presidents and want to be part of this exciting project. You can email us at presidentialcollections@virginia.edu.

Who owns presidential papers?

I’ve fallen a little behind on writing about this but I loved this piece from Slate that came out on Feb. 12: “Who owns Lincoln’s papers?”—it rings so incredibly familiar to the challenges we’re encountering as we attempt to “unlock” presidential materials.

I don’t want to mis-represent the CPC project as I talk about this: We’re not actually tracking down individual presidential items, for acquisition or scanning or… anything. We leave that up to our partner organizations. But what we do encounter is massive complexity (and… incompleteness…) in partner collections. The chaos is in no way the fault of the organizations themselves—these are places filled with dedicated, clever individuals who do everything they can to clean up and make available these important collections. But the world of presidential materials is a tough nut to crack… and the Slate article outlines one very specific example of why.

A few months ago I had a wonderful meeting at the Papers of Abraham Lincoln and was so intrigued to see that they have an actual map, with pushpins and flags and markers of all types, of where they know Lincoln papers to be held. Some are organizations, but many are individuals. I got the sense that a bit part of their job is exactly this: tracking down, identifying, and attempting to make public documents of importance to national history.

As the article notes, the modern presidential materials are controlled by NARA through the Presidential Library system (and, for our purposes, bless them for it!). This means that the most recent 13 presidents have a neat and tidy 13 presidential libraries. But, before that regulation was put in place, it was the wild west. For example, I had a conversation with Thomas Mackie at the Abraham Lincoln Library and Museum a few years ago in which he estimated that there are 50-60 site, museums, and libraries dedicated to Lincoln alone.

At any rate, I think I speak for the whole CPC team in echoing the sentiment conveyed in the Slate article: we believe this material should be available for all. For research, for posterity, for entertainment, for education. The purpose doesn’t really matter, in fact. History belongs to all.

Well said by Louis P. Masur in the aforementioned article:

“Beyond academic concerns, there is a public interest in seeing the physical document. Lincoln’s last speech is not just any Lincoln text. In his address, he articulated his plans for reunion and publicly endorsed limited black suffrage for the first time. Hearing that, John Wilkes Booth, who was in the crowd, declared “that is the last speech he will ever make.” Three days later he made good on his threat.”

….“Viewing a manuscript makes history tangible. That is why the National Archives displays the nation’s charter documents. Anyone can read the Declaration of Independence; but to see the original is to imagine the drama and meaning of history in ways that no transcript can provide. Private collectors need to recognize their obligation as citizens to loan Lincoln’s speeches, and other significant documents, to cultural institutions. The American past belongs to the American people, not only to those who can afford to purchase it.”

“President Warren Harding may not have been the most popular president, but he sure knew how to write a love letter.”

That was one editor’s headline on one media outlet’s report on the Library of Congress’ publication of Harding’s private correspondence with Carrie Fulton Phillips, evidence of an oft-rumored extramarital affair. Political satirists including John Oliver have poked fun at Harding for his unrestrained prose, and the archival community is generally abuzz as these interesting materials resurface after a fifty-year embargo, coming into public view for the first time.

Warren G. Harding

Warren G. Harding, half-length portrait, seated, facing left, at Elks’ National Home, Bedford, Va.
Copyright by F.H. Richardson (expired). [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The letters, their survival until the present day, and the story of how they were sealed until July 29th, 2014, are all of interest to historians and curators of our cultural heritage. The New York Times has a good account of how the letters came to be in the public domain.

It is particularly interesting to read how Harding’s correspondence with Mrs. Phillips included major political topics of the day, such as U.S. entry in World War One (Harding was in the Senate in 1917, and voted in favor of declaring war.) Mrs. Phillips was pro-German, and Harding warned her to avoid public statements in favor of the German Empire, lest she attract the attention of federal investigators.

Harding’s presidency was, of course, cut short by his untimely death in 1923, and his reputation is largely colored by the scandals surrounding his time in the Oval Office. Collections such as these letters can help us understand Harding’s life and work, by adding perspective on, not to mention detail into, his thoughts and actions at a given time. Hopefully, the emphasis on the ‘steamy’ nature of the letters will pass, and students and researchers can use these materials to learn more about the milieu that directly proceeded Harding’s rise to the Presidency.

News of the impending release of the letters prompted us here at the Miller Center to turn to one of our on-line exhibits, made a few years ago. Thanks to some diligent research, and preservation work, from Harding’s nephew, Dr. George Harding, III, we have copies of President Harding’s recorded speeches, something of a rarity for the time period. A newspaper editor by trade, Warren G. Harding showed a keen interest in the then-new technology of analog recording, and he recorded excerpts of his popular speeches for pressing and distribution as phonographs.

In 1921, President Warren Harding spoke into a recording
apparatus to create a phonographic copy of one of his speeches.

You can read about these recordings at the exhibit’s home page. Transcripts and MP3 audio of the individual speeches can also be found here.

The Harding family deserves praise for the efforts to preserve these recordings and make them of greater use today. Dr. Harding supervised, in the 1970s, the re-recording of the original discs as they were converted from their original 78-rpm format to the more common 33 & 1/3 rpm. Then, in 2004, Dr. Harding’s son, Warren G. Harding, III, saw that the recordings were digitized and issued on Compact Disc. Just as the letters made their way through various hands and venues to make it to 2014, so the recordings of Harding’s orations have had a circuitous journey to the Web.

Given what seems to be an unusually-high amount in interest in Harding, we took the opportunity to update our catalog records for these items, and have decided to add the collection to CPC. This marks the first batch of material pertaining to Harding, and adds one more presidency to our list (with more to come soon!)

Here’s a quick link to our site, presidentialcollections.org, with the Harding speeches highlighted.