Today the idea that political opponents could be personal friends might as well have come to us from another age. It seemed appropriate then that just as Congress reminded us of this and began its contentious debate over the raising of the debt ceiling, we were contacted by heirs of former Senator George McGovern. They had decided to sell some family treasures, among them a rather remarkable letter. In 1972, incumbent President Richard Nixon had beaten McGovern badly in the Presidential election. It was far from a close race and McGovern, who ran on a very liberal platform, felt attacked mercilessly by a dirty tricks team run out of Nixon’s campaign office. McGovern stayed in the Senate and continued to oppose the President from the upper chamber. Years later, in 1992, the two ran into each other on an airplane, and McGovern confided in Nixon that he was contemplating a new run for the Presidency. The two had a cordial conversation, which McGovern related after Nixon’s death. What was not known was that, as the Democratic Convention in 1992 met (a convention that would end with the nomination of Bill Clinton), Nixon sat down and wrote McGovern a letter that spoke volumes to us when we first read it: “Dear George, In the campaign of 1972, our differences were ideological not
personal; In the years since then we have demonstrated that in America it is possible to be personal friends and political opponents. I wish you and your colleagues in the 1972 campaign the very best in the years ahead — except, of course, on election day! Sincerely, Dick.” This was not only an interesting glimpse into the private lives of two political rivals; it was a historical discovery, an unpublished letter shedding light on an episode of American history. The Raab Collection acquired the letter, and it is now in a private collection.
Such is the fate of many of our nation’s historical documents. In fact, it is important not to think of this example as random and unlikely but as the tip of the iceberg of what lies hidden in attics, closets, basements, file cabinets and even libraries across the country, in every state in the Union. A few weeks ago, I wrote about the historical documents that lie undiscovered in the country’s great public institutions. Such is the case also with pieces in private hands, whether held by descendants, collectors, or others. Some are published historical documents that have long been presumed lost to history. Others are completely unknown and will change, to varying degrees, the historical narrative. Still others feed our national dialogue today and help us analyze more clearly our own political environment. Our first knowledge of such pieces comes with the ringing of the phone. Our search might not always look like Nicolas Cage on his danger-filled hunt in the movie, National Treasure, and not every historical document is touched by scandal. But there is plenty of intrigue and a lot of history yet to be uncovered.
Earlier this year, I received a call from the heir of an admiral who commanded the US nuclear submarine fleet during the height of the Cold War, including the Kennedy Administration. In a position of great authority, this Admiral had worked with President Kennedy and several presidents, both before and after him. Now his heir told us that he had letters of President Kennedy that had been retained until now by the family as keepsakes, but the time had come to sell them. In cases like this, seeing is believing. We have been offered enough mechanical and secretarial
signatures, not to mention facsimiles and forgeries, to temper our excitement. But when they arrived on the doorsteps of The Raab Collection, we saw they were the real deal: important original pieces of history, unknown letters of John Kennedy to a military leader during the Cold War. In one of these historical documents, Kennedy powerfully writes “Now, we truly have the ability to strike from out of the deep any target on the face of the earth. However, unless this system serves the real purpose for which it was conceived and built – to deter rather than to destroy – we will have failed in our mission.” Such language shows the idealism for which JFK is remembered, and echoes some of his famous speeches, but is rare in his written correspondence. Where had this material been? Somewhere in the Midwest, kept by a family member in a file cabinet.
Fast forward a few months, and such was the case again with a direct descendant of a well known Revolutionary War-era figure who had an important letter signed by Thomas Jefferson in 1801, the location or even survival of the original of which was unknown. He called us, explained that he had a historical document signed by Thomas Jefferson, and shipped it to us. It turned out after weeks of research to have been written in the hand of explorer Meriwether Lewis, who died young and did not leave much behind. President Jefferson just two years later would send this trusted friend across the country to explore the American Northwest. Lewis and his expedition partner William Clark would open the country and send back significant scientific discoveries and information about the geography, flora, fauna, and population that lay beyond the then-existing American outposts. But in 1801, Lewis was not exploring but helping Jefferson to build the Library of Congress. In fact, he was Jefferson’s secretary. This letter that had come to our offices was the original of the first order of books by President Thomas Jefferson for the Library, which he had re-organized, transforming it from the small book collection it was under President John Adams to the Library we think of today. There were lists of books that the President himself had chosen and that were to be bought in Paris and transported to Washington, among them the famous “Encyclopedia of Diderot and Dalembert,” the “Dictionnaire Universel des Sciences Morales, Economique, Politique et Diplomatique” by Robinet (created by him as a “library of statesmen and citizens”), and “Memoires sur les Droits de France et de l’Angleterre en Amerique.” Only the family that held it had known of its existence until we acquired the material. Before then, this piece had survived two trips across the Atlantic Ocean in the early 19th century, not an inconsiderable accomplishment.
One final example again shows the power of these discoveries to contribute to our present-day dialogue. A man in the Deep South
called us and claimed to have an original historical document of Abraham Lincoln for sale. He explained the letter had been in the family for close to a century and that his father had gifted it to him. After some discussion, and seeing a handful of photos sent by email, we arranged to have it shipped to us for examination. Nothing tops the anticipation of unwrapping a package when one hopes that within is an authentic letter of Abraham Lincoln. We were not met with disappointment this time; in fact, we had stumbled upon an important and completely unknown letter of Lincoln. The message he was sending reverberates strongly today. In 1849, fourteen years before he gave the Gettysburg Address (defining democracy as government “of the people, by the people, and for the people”), Lincoln wrote a group of people who were attempting to influence a political appointment, and his response goes to the heart of how he felt a democracy ought to work. In essence, it ought to be bipartisan, fair, honest, and transparent, with no favoritism. “Now I request you,” he wrote, “…and everybody else, to get up a full and fair meeting of the Whigs (and Democrats too if you think fit) within the limits accommodated by that office; and give a decisive expression as to who shall be Post Master. Let it be public, full, and fair. No cliqueism or cheatery about it.” A fascinating letter, not known to exist, hiding in obscurity in a private collection nearly 800 miles from where it was written and received. Like many other such historical documents, the content speaks to today more than the author could have known.