Congress, Law, and Politics

Although the Manuscript Division is perhaps best known for its spectacular collections of presidential papers, it holds hundreds of complementary collections that document American politics, law, and government. Represented are the papers of many of the presidents' cabinet ministers, their supporters and adversaries in Congress, and their appointees to the Supreme Court and federal judiciary.


Illustrated letter from Amasa J. Parker describing the boardinghouse where he and two future presidents resided As befits the Library of Congress, the papers of members of Congress occupy a special place in its collections. More than nine hundred members are represented, from Patrick Henry and George Washington, delegates to the First Continental Congress in 1774, to John H. Glenn and Daniel P. Moynihan, members of the 102d Congress. The entire sweep of American history is covered in these collections, from the dawning of our independent political existence to the space age.

The course of the American Revolution and the creation of the nation that followed may be investigated in the papers of our earliest lawmakers, among them, Benjamin Franklin, Alexander Hamilton, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, James McHenry, James Monroe, Robert Morris, and Roger Sherman. The papers of other senators and representatives reflect the formative roles they played in the great events before the Civil War. Their concerns included the War of 1812 and the war with Mexico, the Louisiana Purchase and territorial expansion, the rise of an implacable slavery question, and the beginnings of a transportation and industrial revolution. Divisiveness attended all these issues and movements, leading to political, social, and economic upheaval that brought forth every shade of opinion in the halls of Congress. The papers of Henry Clay, Daniel Webster, and John C. Calhoun --the Great Triumvirate--are especially illuminating for this era. Other members, all later to be elected to the presidency and represented by collections of various sizes and complexion, include Andrew Jackson, Martin Van Buren, William Henry Harrison, John Tyler, James K. Polk, Franklin Pierce, James Buchanan, and Abraham Lincoln. Also contributing significantly to the understanding of these times are the papers of William Plumer, Samuel Smith, Amasa J. Parker, John J. Crittenden, William C. Rives, Levi Woodbury, Caleb Cushing, Thomas Ewing, Benjamin Tappan, Alexander H. Stephens, and Salmon P. Chase.

Just as the Civil War divided the nation, it tore apart Congress, with many southern seats staying vacant for several years after the war's end. The members who remained in Washington introduced and passed the legislation needed to raise armies, make the financial arrangements crucial to the war's prosecution, and cope with emergency situations as they arose. Dominant members were Benjamin F. Wade, Thaddeus Stevens, and Zachariah Chandler, all of whose papers are in the Manuscript Division. In the aftermath of the war, as the nation attempted to right itself, Congress faced problems involving the freed slaves, the formulation and passage of amendments affecting civil rights, the impeachment of Andrew Johnson, and the restoration of order in the South. Members whose papers illustrate the influential roles they played in clarifying and resolving these and related questions include Nathaniel P. Banks, James G. Blaine, Henry L. Dawes, John Sherman, Benjamin F. Butler, Simon Cameron, John A. Logan, Elihu B. Washburne, Thomas F. Bayard, and Carl Schurz. Some continued in office through the end of the century, acting on legislation concerned with monetary policies, the tariff, the rise of great corporations, labor, agriculture, immigration, and natural resources and were joined by other members--William McKinley, Benjamin Harrison, William M. Evarts, John Coit Spooner, Matthew S. Quay, Nelson W. Aldrich, and William Jennings Bryan--whose papers show how Congress contended with these matters.

The swift conclusion of the Spanish-American War toward the end of the nineteenth century dramatized the elevation of the United States to the status of a world power. Twentieth-century Congresses were required to meet the challenges of this new internationalism while also addressing increasingly complex domestic demands. Trust busting, regulatory legislation, conservation, the waging of a world war, and the making of peace are revealed in the papers of Albert J. Beveridge, John Sharp Williams, Nicholas Longworth, Elihu Root, Robert M. La Follette, and Thomas J. Walsh. George W. Norris and William E. Borah were noteworthy as long-term legislators whose papers extend from the early twentieth century into the era of the Great Depression, the New Deal, and the onset of World War II. Sharing in the legislative battles during the Franklin D. Roosevelt and Harry S. Truman administrations were Tom Connally, Emanuel Celler, Theodore Francis Green, Clare Boothe Luce, Robert A. Taft, and James W. Wadsworth.

The papers of members of Congress clearly constitute an essential element in the ever-accumulating record of the American past. In recent times the character of these collections has changed considerably, notably in terms of size and completeness. Some of their intimacy may have been lost, however, as large congressional staffs necessarily assumed tasks and duties that a Daniel Webster would have undertaken himself, or with the help of a single secretary. Nevertheless, a member's papers will always possess that special character or quality that makes it possible to understand the individual and evaluate his or her work in the larger context of the ongoing legislative history of the United States.


Although the Constitution created the federal judiciary as a separate branch of government, manuscript sources abide by no such divisions. Legislative and executive branch papers are essential sources for studying the nation's legal history. The Manuscript Division's congressional collections, for example, include the papers of many members who were instrumental in drafting legislation that shaped the character of the federal judiciary. The division's presidential papers also contain a wealth of material on judicial selection and nomination, the organization of courts, and the development of an agenda for federal criminal and civil litigation. Equally valuable are the division's many collections of papers of attorneys general from Edmund Randolph through Elliot Richardson as well as the papers of many solicitors general, including Benjamin Bristow, Charles Fahy, and Robert Bork, who argue the government's cases in the Supreme Court and in important litigation elsewhere.

The principal actors in the drama of federal justice, however, are the judges themselves. Here the Manuscript Division's collections are truly superb, for they include the nation's largest gathering of papers of chief justices and associate justices, as well as those of many judges of the lower federal courts. Among the chief justices, the division holds the papers of Oliver Ellsworth, John Marshall, Roger Brooke Taney, Salmon P. Chase, Morrison R. Waite, Melville Weston Fuller, William Howard Taft, Charles Evans Hughes, Harlan Fiske Stone, and Earl Warren. The papers of associate justices are also well represented here. For the Warren Court (1953-69) alone, the division holds the papers of Hugo L. Black, William O. Douglas, Felix Frankfurter, Harold H. Burton, Robert H. Jackson, William J. Brennan, Jr., Byron R. White, Thurgood Marshall, and Arthur J. Goldberg. Judicial papers contain materials that range from diaries and family correspondence to scrapbooks of newspaper clippings. Although they are most useful for studying the development of law and government, the letters, opinions, and memoranda written by some justices, especially Frankfurter and Jackson, can stand on a shelf with the finest English prose.

The federal judiciary played a vanguard role in the modern civil rights movement. In addition to the papers of Supreme Court justices, the division also collects the papers of many lower-court judges, such as Simon E. Sobeloff, J. Skelly Wright, and Frank M. Johnson, Jr., who gave new meaning to basic constitutional guarantees. Modern federal judges have also played leading roles in the fields of administrative law, criminal justice, and legislative reapportionment, and these matters can be explored in the papers of Gerhard A. Gesell, Carl E. McGowan, Harold Leventhal, E. Barrett Prettyman, Clement F. Haynsworth, Jr., Shirley Hufstedler, Irving R. Kaufman, and Robert P. Patterson.

The papers of lawyers abound in the Manuscript Division and provide excellent information on the country's legal affairs. These include, for example, the papers of Daniel Webster, Moorfield Storey, Joseph H. Choate, Clarence S. Darrow, Elihu Root, Thomas G. Corcoran, James M. Landis, Joseph L. Rauh, Jr., Elmer Gertz, and Edward Bennett Williams. Modern litigation is often undertaken by public interest groups, and our understanding of recent legal history is greatly enhanced by the records of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, and the Center for National Policy Review. Journalists who cover the federal judiciary have also placed papers in the division's care, helping scholars acquire an informed understanding of the judicial process from observers who are at once detached and engaged. Among the most important of these collections are the papers of Anthony Lewis, Fred P. Graham, and Joseph and Stewart Alsop.

Throughout its many years of acquiring judicial collections, the Manuscript Division has been guided by Justice Byron R. White's challenge to gather materials for "a broadly conceived legal history . . . directed toward the study of all legal institutions and to their interaction with the larger society. . . ."1

Selected items relating to:




1. Byron R. White, "Introduction," in Law in American History, ed. Donald Fleming and Bernard Bailyn (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1971), xi.
Congress, Law, and Politics Items List | Words and Deeds

am Sept-8-97