A good primary source will give you a sense of immediacy and awe that makes history come alive and leaves you with a deeper understanding of an event. It is one of the key elements we look for when adding materials to the Gilder Lehrman Collection. When we first learned of these photographs taken during the Japanese raid on Pearl Harbor and in its immediate aftermath, we knew they would be a good fit in our Collection, and when they arrived, the staff was struck by the power of the images.
The Gilder Lehrman Collection has more than 10,000 letters written by soldiers during the American Civil War, and when you read dozens or even hundreds of letters by the same person, it is very much like reality television. You become involved in the drama of their lives—the war, relationships, finances, and losses.
This archive of twenty-six documents was compiled by Pierce Butler when he served as one of South Carolina’s delegates to the US Constitutional Convention in 1787. It includes the printed first and second drafts of the Constitution; two small notebooks of proceedings; contemporary copies of the Virginia (or Randolph) Plan favoring larger states in Congress, the New Jersey (or Patterson) Plan favoring smaller states, Hamilton’s plan for a bicameral legislature and permanent executive, and Franklin’s compromise—all of which were used by Butler during the debates.
In this newly received donation to the Gilder Lehrman Collection, Eleanor Roosevelt responds to a correspondent who was apparently worried about the desegregation of restrooms and forced social interaction between the races in the government’s movement toward racial equality in some spheres. Mrs. Roosevelt enumerates the “four basic rights which I believe every citizen in a democracy must enjoy.
Benedict Arnold, whose name is now synonymous with the word “traitor,” was once a well-respected American officer responsible for key victories at Fort Ticonderoga, Crown Point, Fort Stanwix, and Saratoga. Arnold’s contemporaries were shocked when his plot to surrender West Point to the British was discovered in September 1780. Historical records indicate that Arnold’s betrayal had begun in the spring of 1779 when he handed over military intelligence to the British.
This gossipy and personal letter captures the close friendship between Robert E. Lee and John “Jack” MacKay. It offers an example of letter writing in the days before the instant communication provided by telephones and the Internet. It also demonstrates the camaraderie and easy-going friendship of army officers as well as the relatively carefree life enjoyed by US soldiers prior to the Civil War. It serves as a reminder that even the greatest of historical figures were human and spoke of girls, babies, and “blushing.”
In this beautifully written letter, Confederate general Robert E. Lee attempts to console his son William Fitzhugh “Rooney” Lee on the loss of his wife. The letter demonstrates the emotion that Lee felt for his family and offers a glimpse of the strength that carried Lee through the war. His faith in God, his empathy for others’ misfortunes, and his belief in the Confederate cause, all granted Lee the fortitude he needed to endure the war. One can see all of these attributes in this single, short missive.
There’s no denying the important role that baseball has played in America’s past. It has always been considered more than a game, whether played by professional athletes or kids at the sandlot. This was never more obvious than during World War II. By 1943, the war was raging in Europe and the Pacific. American mothers and fathers sent their sons to war and those who stayed home made whatever sacrifices they could, great or small.
Sometimes a simple document can open the door to a great story. In this statement dated 1781, Richard Lamb and John Nutter verify that Cuffee Wells enlisted in the Continental Army in May 1777 and earned a bounty of 30 pounds, part of which was given to his master. Likewise, Justice of the Peace Benjamin Huntington confirmed that Cuffee’s commanding officer, Captain Jedediah Hyde of Norwich, “always understood that the money that was given to Wells at his Enlistment Purchased his Freedom.” It is not clear why this document was created.