The Early Republic occasionally grabs the headlines. Granted, they aren’t at the same type of headlines generated by the latest faux-celebrity rehab stint or screaming (as opposed to talking) head on cable news or talk radio, but a headline is a headline.

For example,

A document written by a federal judge 216 years ago has turned up in an unlikely place: in President Dwight Eisenhower’s archives in Kansas.

According to the article, “a member of President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s staff at the White House . . . received a letter from a Fresno, Calif., high school student about a document from a 1794 court case” written to President George Washington. The document was discovered this summer at the Eisenhower Presidential Library and Museum.

 Another example is a recently discovered 1858 original photograph that purportedly shows Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas. According to the article, 

On Aug. 21, 1941 an article ran in the Ottawa Daily Republican-Times showing a photograph “of Abraham Lincoln which historians believe is the only one in existence showing him in Ottawa at the time of his debate with (Stephen A.) Douglas.”

For over 70 years this photograph has eluded historians, being reprinted in only a few publications, using the blurry and spotted newspaper re-print of the photograph as the best copy available. Of singular importance it escaped the critical eye of Lloyd Ostendorf, the eminent authority on all known Lincoln photographs, who wrote in his book “Lincoln’s Photographs, A Complete Album” (1998 Edition), “While it is possible that Lincoln and Douglas are in the picture, no positive identification can be made since the original photograph has disappeared.”


The original photograph was found this past summer in the Marie Louise Olmstead Memorial Museum in Somonauk, Illinois.

For me, this lost letter and photograph prompted two thoughts. One is that many historical treasures from the Early Republic period are still in private hands. (The 1794 letter seems to have come from a private citizen; the Lincoln photo was on exhibit at a private museum.) There are numerous letters and even collections of letters by and about prominent Americans being held privately by family members who don’t want them seen publicly, or, if they are willing to let historians view them, it is only under conditions that usually prohibit quoting from them or disclosing their contents. In Jon Meacham’s American Lion, for example, private collections of documents held by Donelson family members gave a fresh perspective on certain aspects of Andrew Jackson’s life. 

Second, these types of documents are sometimes available for sale. I occasionally search eBay for Jackson-related documents. Most of the time, signed land grants are what appear in the search results. On a couple of occasions, however, I have seen letters written by Jackson to his associates (or vice-versa) for sale. You’ll pay a pretty price for a Jackson letter, of course.

Or, if you’re really lucky, you’ll find an original copy of the Declaration of Independence at a flea market.

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