Unbeknownst to most citizens of Illinois--- a group of history detectives has been working for more than 30 years, scouring courthouse basements, court files, even the national archives, for treasures relating to America’s sixteenth president.
The project is simple: to track down every word written by, or even to, Abraham Lincoln.
“Now that, is a monumental task,” exclaims Dr. Samuel Wheeler, the Illinois State Historian. “But I’ll tell you when it’s over, we’re going to revolutionize Lincoln studies.”
The project actually began in 1985 as the Lincoln Legal Papers project, an effort to track down every document associated with the 5,200 cases in which Lincoln was involved during his 25 years as a lawyer in Illinois.
“They actually would go down into courthouses and dig out old stacks of legal documents that hadn’t been gone through in decades,” Wheeler said. “Many of these courthouse basements were damp. These documents were stored directly on the floor sometimes, not in ideal conditions."
That project ended in 2000, with a database of some 100,000 documents---all searchable online. But it morphed into something bigger: a search for everything Lincoln ever wrote, or even received.
“During the presidency, you can imagine, Mr. Lincoln is receiving scores of letters every day,” he notes. “During the Civil War, how do you knock down this rebellion? You must attack slavery. The next letter you read is, don’t do anything about slavery."
Sitting at a table at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum, Wheeler produces just a few of his treasures. One of them, a page from a scrapbook written when Abraham Lincoln was a teenager.
It is the earliest known Lincoln document. Yellowed but remarkably well preserved, the page shows the young Lincoln’s efforts at long division, penmanship, even poetry.
“Abraham Lincoln is my name, and with my pen I wrote the same,” reads one paragraph. “I wrote in both haste and speed, and left it here for fools to read."
Next Wheeler pulls out a letter written by Lincoln just a month before he was assassinated, to a woman named Amanda Hall. In it, he complies with her request to a portion of the text of his second inaugural address. The passage the President chose was his now well-known rumination on whether the Civil War might have been divine punishment for the sin of slavery.
“The war had brought him to his knees,” Wheeler observes. “He had spent time talking with God. We know that."
Some documents are lost to time. History notes that individuals doing legal research would sometimes stumble across a Lincoln document in a court file and simply take it. Or even cut out the signature.
Today when new documents are located, the standard procedure of the Papers of Abraham Lincoln Project is to scan them, and return them to their rightful owners. And yes, Wheeler says new ones do turn up all the time.
“If you have a Lincoln document that’s been handed down, generation upon generation, call us,” he said. “The historian’s dream is that you find a hidden cache of letters and documents that are in a trunk in someone’s attic, and they haven’t gone thru them and they call you up and say, ‘hey will you come take a look.'”
In addition to the original documents of the Legal Papers Project, the larger effort has now catalogued an additional 106,000 items. Each document is scanned, transcribed, and annotated. This month, the library announced that a new team of experts will review the project for advice on the best way to structure the papers for future generations.
The Papers of Abraham Lincoln Project is a joint undertaking of the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency, the University of Illinois at Springfield, and the Abraham Lincoln Association. It is based at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum in Springfield, which draws some 300,000 visitors a year.
“It’s a huge undertaking, in the sense that all of the editorial work is going on concurrently with the search for documents,” Wheeler says. “If history is any indicator, 500 years from now, people are still going to be really interested in Abraham Lincoln."