The Presidency

Few people know that the Manuscript Division of the Library of Congress is the nation's oldest and most comprehensive presidential library. While the recently built presidential libraries each hold the papers of a single chief executive, the Manuscript Division has in its custody the papers of twenty-three presidents, including the men who founded the nation, wrote its fundamental documents, and led it through the greatest crisis of its existence.

Ulysses S. Grant's commission as lieutenant general signed by Abraham Lincoln

The Manuscript Division began acquiring presidential papers soon after the Library occupied the Thomas Jefferson Building in 1897. So imposing was the new structure that it seemed to be designed especially for the papers of a president. The new building was "the natural and fitting depository" for presidential papers, declared the descendants of Francis P. Blair, who in 1903 gave the division its first presidential collection, the papers of Andrew Jackson.

Shortly after the Jackson Papers arrived, President Theodore Roosevelt signed an executive order transferring to the Manuscript Division the State Department's historical archives, which included the papers of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and James Monroe. In the years after Roosevelt's order, the division acquired other presidential papers, obtaining some by purchase--the papers of James K. Polk and Andrew Johnson, for example--and many more by gift--including those of Martin Van Buren, Abraham Lincoln, Ulysses S. Grant, James A. Garfield, Grover Cleveland, William McKinley, Woodrow Wilson, and Calvin Coolidge.

The total number of items in the division's presidential collections exceeds two million. Collection size varies from a handful of documents, 631, in the Zachary Taylor Papers to the voluminous William Howard Taft Papers, 675,000 items. For those early presidential collections that the Manuscript Division does not have--the papers of John Adams, John Quincy Adams, Millard Fillmore, James Buchanan, Rutherford B. Hayes, and Warren G. Harding--the division has obtained microfilm copies, with the result that scholars can consult in our reading room in one format or another a virtually unbroken line of papers from the administration of George Washington to that of Calvin Coolidge. Supplementing these presidential collections are innumerable presidential documents located in other collections in the Manuscript Division, including items written by those modern presidents (Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Harry S. Truman, Dwight D. Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy, Lyndon B. Johnson, Richard M. Nixon, Gerald R. Ford, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, and George Bush) whose papers are housed elsewhere in their own libraries.

So important to the nation are the division's presidential papers that Congress passed and President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed on 25 April 1958 an act to microfilm them and sell positive copies at cost to libraries around the nation. In 1996, in an effort to share our nation's presidential collections with an even greater audience worldwide, the Manuscript Division embarked on a program to digitize the presidential collections, beginning with the papers of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. Other collections will follow.

Selected items relating to:

George Washington James K. Polk
John Adams Abraham Lincoln
Thomas Jefferson Ulysses S. Grant
James Madison James A. Garfield
James Monroe Theodore Roosevelt
John Quincy Adams Woodrow Wilson
Andrew Jackson Franklin Delano Roosevelt
Martin Van Buren John F. Kennedy

Presidential Items List | Words and Deeds

am Sep-8-97