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Collection Woodrow Wilson Papers

Provenance of the Woodrow Wilson Papers

How did the Woodrow Wilson Papers come to the Library of Congress? This essay, originally written for the Index to the Woodrow Wilson Papers (Washington, D.C., 1973), pp. v-xv, tells the story. The author was Katharine E. Brand, formerly special custodian of the Wilson papers and later head of what was then called the Recent Manuscripts Section, Library of Congress Manuscript Division.

Less than a year before Woodrow Wilson left the White House, a growing interest in the use and final disposition of his papers began to come to the surface. The earliest positive approach by the Library of Congress took the form of a letter of October 29, 1920, from Charles Moore, acting chief of the Library's Division of Manuscripts, to the President's secretary, Joseph P. Tumulty:

In the course of a few months you will be arranging President Wilson's correspondence. Permit me to suggest that, with the President's approval, the papers be sent here directly from the White House, and be held subject to his and your order, and to be examined by no one— not even by the officials of the Library— without his permission. If you so desire, the boxes can be sealed. I am thinking to save inconvenience and storage by having these papers come directly to the Library, without going to the President's home and then being sent on from there. There are always dangers in transportation and dangers by fire.

I am not asking for a decision at this time, but am merely placing the matter before you, so that you can consider it while you are making your arrangements. 1

To this Tumulty replied that "for the present at least" the President preferred to keep his papers in his own possession. 2

Later in the same month Wilson replied to Joe Skidmore of the Laguna Life Publishing Company, Laguna Beach, Calif., who had asked what arrangements could be made "for the exclusive publication" of the President's memoirs:

I have no intention whatever of writing or publishing "memoirs." I have always acquiesced in the joke that there are three kinds of personal memoirs,—biographies, autobiographies, and ought-not-to-biographies. And whether mine ought to be or not, they will not be. 3

In 1922, after the move from the White House to the S Street house, Moore wrote again, this time to Wilson himself:

I am writing to suggest, and, so far as I may properly do so, to urge that you place in the Library of Congress the letters from and to you, covering all of your life, or so much of it as may seem to you best. Any papers committed to the care of the Library will be treated with the utmost care and with the highest consideration. 4

To which Wilson replied:

I of course appreciate the motives which lay behind the suggestion of your letter of April tenth that I deposit my papers with the Library of Congress, and I have no doubt there could be no safer or more honorable custodian. But I am not willing yet to make any such disposition of my papers. I think it best to leave the matter for my last will and testament. As a matter of fact not all my papers are in my own custody at present. 5

Meanwhile Ray Stannard Baker, who had been with the President in Paris as director of the Press Bureau of the American Commission to Negotiate Peace, had written to the President on December 16, 1920, raising the question of who should tell the story, for publication, of that remarkable conference. Baker hoped, he wrote, that the President himself might do this, but he added that, if such a solution should be impossible, he himself might "take on the task." 6

Two days later the President replied:

It is clear to me that it will not be possible for me to write anything such as you suggest, but I believe that you could do it admirably. . . . 7

Wilson added that he would be willing to give Baker access to the minutes of the Council of Four, but he suggested that it might be better to wait until after his move from the White House to the S Street house. He evidently changed his mind about the desirability of postponing the work, for 10 days later he wrote again to Baker:

I have a trunk full of papers, and the next time you are down here I would like to have you go through them and see what they are and what the best use is that can be made of them. I plunked them into the trunk in Paris and have not had time or physical energy even to sort or arrange them. I am looking forward with great satisfaction to the work you are purposing to do, and have no doubt that it will be of the highest value. 8

This letter excited Baker: ". . .The mention of the trunk quite takes hold on one's imagination," he wrote to Wilson on December 30, 1920. "I shall search that trunk with far more interest that I should if it were treasure trove of the Spanish Main and contained pieces-of-eight." 9

In three weeks Baker was at work in the White House. Years later he wrote:

I shall not forget that day in January, 1921, when I went up with the President to his study on the second floor of the White House. . .One of the men accompanied us carrying the shiny steel cabinet-box which I had so often seen on the desk of his study in Paris. He had kept his important papers in it, and I recalled just how he shut and locked it every night. . . .

I then learned that there was not only the "trunkful" of Paris documents to which the President had referred in his letter but three trunkfuls, besides the steel cabinet, and a precious smaller box which Mrs. Wilson had kept in a bank vault. 10

In March of 1921 the Wilsons moved to the S Street house. A memorandum written about this time to Mrs. Wilson by Wilson's stenographer and confidential secretary, Charles L. Swem, refers to Wilson's papers that were to be moved to the new residence:

There will be seventeen or eighteen standard drawers full of the President's file, to be taken away with the President, as follows:

Four drawers of Mr. Close's European file,

Four drawers of files kept by the office, of more or less personal significance; and

Nine or ten drawers of personal file kept by me, at the request of the President.

These will be turned over to the President in cheap but substantial wooden boxes. I would say there is no need of providing more expensive file cases, as these cheaper ones ought to last many years. 11

Work on the Peace Conference papers went well, but by the following spring Baker was beginning to feel a sense of pressure. John Randolph Bolling, Mrs. Wilson's brother, who was then acting as Wilson's secretary, sensed this and wrote reassuringly:

If you want to save time by working on Sunday you know the little room across the hall from mine is always ready for you. 12

The room was indeed small; Baker was working with a research assistant and one and sometimes two stenographers, and the stir incidental to having the project at S Street may well have added to the strain on Wilson at that time. In any case, when the difficulties became evident, it was agreed that part or all of the Peace Conference documents could go to Baker's home in Amherst, Mass. From this time forward work was continued there, with occasional visits to Washington for consultation on specific points. 13 Baker's work was published in 1922, Woodrow Wilson and World Settlement (New York: Doubleday, Page & Co., 3 vol.).

During the following year Wilson's health declined month by month, and on February 3, 1924, he died. Within three weeks—as soon as it was permissible—a letter went out from Charles Moore of the Division of Manuscripts to Mrs. Wilson:

I had some correspondence with President Wilson on the subject of placing his papers in the Library of Congress, where they would be associated with the papers of the other Presidents of the United States. In a cordial note he intimated that no disposition of his papers would be made during his lifetime. Whether he has made such provision of course I do not know. I am writing now to open the subject to you, but with no thought to do more than to say to you that the Library desires the papers as a deposit from you, to be held subject to your orders, to be withdrawn for biographical purposes at your pleasure. The papers would not be open to inspection except on your order. If you so will they will simply be stored, without arrangement or classification. You may treat the Library as a storage warehouse, thereby insuring safety from fire and theft. Meantime we would endeavor to secure originals of the letters that are now in private hands. . . .

If you are willing to discuss this matter, I will be pleased indeed to call on you to explain more fully than is possible in a letter. 14

Mrs. Wilson's reply indicated that she did not feel that this was the time to consider the matter. "However, when it does come up," she wrote, "you may rest assured that I will give consideration to the suggestions which you make." 15 Three months later she wrote to Herbert Putnam, Librarian of Congress, a long letter, referring to her earlier correspondence with Moore and adding:

I feel very strongly that the Library of Congress is the place for this entire collection, and I am writing you frankly—feeling you will deal with me as openly in your response.

In the printed regulations which Mr. Moore kindly forwarded to me, provision was made that all letters and papers be sent to the Library—where they would be carefully gone over—and where the decision would be made as to the importance or unimportance of them. Would it be possible for this decision to rest with me—and for me to send to the Library?

I had hoped by this time to have made a decision as to who will be Mr. Wilson's biographer, but being unable to determine this, I am now making an effort to collect all the data myself, so that nothing be lost in the delay, with the idea of later on putting it at the disposal of this future biographer. As yet I have had no opportunity to open Mr. Wilson's files, or go into his papers, and I am sure you will appreciate my reluctance to turn them over en masse. 16

In the same letter Mrs. Wilson raised the question as to whether the Library would photostat letters that might come to her as the result of her efforts to "collect all the data." Putnam's prompt reply expressed the Library's interest and gratification:

Certainly no depository for President Wilson's Papers could be named more appropriate that the National Library, and we rejoice in your concurrence in this view. In carrying it into effect, we shall take hearty interest in conforming in all particulars to such plans and desires as you may express.

. . .In the case of the papers of a President of the United States, every item should be preserved; because it is impossible to say today that any item, seemingly unimportant today, will not at some future date be of much importance. The question, then, would be one of making the collection as large and inclusive as you are willing to make it.

Preparatory to the selection of a biographer, and as valuable assistance to whomsoever may be selected, papers may be gathered in the Library and here arranged, according to methods that have been worked out for the convenience of persons who write biographies. This will in itself be an additional inducement to the writer.

As for President Wilson's letters to his correspondents: they would be received with the understanding that the recipient give them to the Library to form a constituent portion of the President Woodrow Wilson Papers; or that they be photostated and the photostat copy be returned to the owner; or that the Library will retain the photostat and return the original. If permitted, it would of course be far preferable that the original should remain here. 17

Mrs. Wilson replied that she would avail herself "of the full privileges you so generously offer on behalf of the Library of Congress." 18

During the following winter Moore paid a visit to the White House offices "to look into the matter of the Presidential Files." He reported to Mrs. Wilson on the 23d of December, 1924:

There I found some seventy boxes of the Wilson Administrations. Ostensibly they were the official files, as distinguished from the President's Personal Files, which are taken away at the close of a President's term.

The officials at the President's Offices would be glad to deliver all of the files to any other Government agency, like the Library of Congress, in order to be rid of them. It is annoying to be asked for papers pertaining to a previous Administration. . . . 19

While the negotiations were going on between Mrs. Wilson and the Library, different problems closely related to the papers were also under discussion. Mrs. Wilson felt it imperative to choose a biographer from among the various writers who were interested in order that work might begin as soon as possible. For many reasons Ray Stannard Baker was clearly a front-runner among those considered. He was a longtime friend and associate whose volumes on the Paris Peace Conference were already in print; he was, moreover, eager to do a full-dress biography of the President. He had written to Wilson, less than a month before the President's death:

The more I think and write about you and your work the more interested and fascinated I grow: and the more important to the country and the world seem the correct interpretation of your message and of the things you symbolize. You have a vision essential to the safety of the world: one that ought to be made thoroughly clear.

I spoke to you once. . . about going forward with a further and more complete study of your whole career. I have a great ambition to do this and do it thoroughly: but I do not wish to undertake it unless I can feel behind me as complete a confidence on your part as I felt in the utilization of the Peace Conference material: unless I can also, at some later time, as you may think wise and proper, have full and first access to all of your personal material—letters, memoranda and documents—so that what I should write would have full authority. 20

To this Wilson had replied the next day:

I think that there is no man who could do what you propose in your letter of January seventh so well as you could. But unhappily the papers and other sources upon which alone you could build a solid structure are so scattered and inaccessible that the task would, at the present moment, be next to impossible. I could not myself assemble the material because I do not know where it is.

I have my doubts whether it is wise to endeavor to promote the great general cause in which we are interested by making too much of a single man and his activities and influence. Such a method would encounter a great body of prejudice and animosity which there will be no means, so far as I can see, of removing.

But the main obstacle is that I myself do not know where the materials are that you would have to have. I have never been in the least systematic about the preservation of my own personal papers, and they are by now widely scattered, or packed away in storage with household effects.

It grieves me to put the least obstacle in your way in the disinterested and generous work which you desire to undertake; but when I ask myself the question how I would go about giving you "full and first access," I realize that I would not know how to do it; and it is only right and frank that I should tell you so. I have had an active and varied career, but I have had no thought of keeping memoranda of it, or records of any kind; so that I am obliged in candor to make this disclosure to you.

It may be that as the years go by I shall come upon material of the kind you desire, but even that is a matter of conjecture and depends upon whether I spend the rest of my life in one place or not. I have not preserved even the original manuscripts of the books I have published.

I think that you will agree with me that, the circumstances being what I have described them, no systematic progress could be hoped for in the development of the work you so generously suggest.

My confidence in your impartiality and justice is absolute, but even your high qualities do not involve the power to create material as well as to interpret it.

I feel almost guilty of disloyalty to you in making this reply to your persuasive letter, but it is the only reply that I can make which would be consistent with the facts as I know them, and I am sure I can depend upon your intuition to put the true interpretation upon it. 21

Baker's next letter showed his disappointment:

I had not, of course, thought of asking any immediate access to your papers, but only the reasonable assurance that at some time, as long in the future as you thought best, I could feel sure of a chance to see what I could do with them. . . . 22

Wilson's reply to Baker is a moving document, written shortly before his death.

I always dislike to make, or even intimate, a promise until I have at least taken some step to facilitate my keeping it. I am glad to promise you that with regard to my personal correspondence and other similar papers I shall regard you as my preferred creditor, and shall expect to afford you the first,—and if necessary exclusive,—access to those papers. But I have it on my conscience that you should know that I have not made the smallest beginning towards accumulating and making accessible the letters and papers we have in mind. I would rather have your interpretation of them than that of anybody else I know, and I trust that you will not think it unreasonable that I should ask you to accept these promises in lieu of others which would be more satisfactory but which, for the present, would be without practical value. 23

During the summer of 1924 Mrs. Wilson began sending out letters to her husband's relatives, friends, and associates, soliciting all material relating to him. The letter which went to Ray Stannard Baker was typical of most of those sent out:

I feel so strongly that now is the time to collect everything possible relating to Mr. Wilson's life and work that I am asking you—and each of those who have been associated with him—to do me the great favor of writing down and forwarding to me the history of the work done with him or for him. No matter about putting it in finished form, as though to be published, but just to have a complete record for a future historian or biographer relating the facts as you recall them. Of course this will take time; but I feel easier in my own mind if you will write me of your willingness to help preserve all these vital truths.

There have been numerous persons suggested as the biographer; but I feel it is wise to postpone a decision until the entire field of possibilities has been canvassed. Therefore, I am trying to collect all the material myself and hold it until I am convinced I have found the best person.

In connection with the above, I am trying to get copies of Mr. Wilson's letters, and I am going to ask you to let me have copies of yours. I shall be glad to discharge any expense in relation to them. If you prefer to send the letters to me, I will have them photostated and return you the originals. 24

After considerable correspondence and several conferences, the choice of Baker as biographer seems to have been settled, as far as Mrs. Wilson was concerned, by the end of 1924. As late as January 2, 1925, however, Baker himself was beginning to question the wisdom of taking on such an immense task. "I had many long and anxious talks with Mrs. Wilson," he wrote in his autobiography:

I raised all the problems I could think of—most important of all, my own freedom as a writer. If I should undertake such a task, I must put down exactly what I found, and take my own time in doing it. I found her as level-headed and farsighted as I could wish. The truth was best, regardless of consequences. 25

His decision made, Baker raised for discussion the advisability of having all the papers sent to his home for the duration of the work on the biography. This was decided in the affirmative. On January 15, 1925, Mrs. Wilson sent along to Amherst, Mass., a copy of the public statement she had prepared, announcing that Baker had been chosen as "authorized biographer." In the announcement again appeared Mrs. Wilson's plea "to the public and to all his friends for every scrap of information and every letter." 26

From that time forward matters moved very fast. Part of the papers had been stored in the S Street house; part were in sealed storage rooms in a Washington warehouse; and part, as Moore had discovered, were still in the White House. A large van was employed to transport all this voluminous and invaluable material from Washington to Amherst. The shipment went off on March 6, and on the following day Baker wrote to Mrs. Wilson:

I wish you could have seen the commotion caused yesterday upon the appearance on quiet streets of our town of that gigantic van. It was no mere incident, it was an event. The driver. . . had been stopped in Connecticut for driving an over-weight truck. . . . 27 The boxes came through admirably with no harm that I could see, save a handle or so of the White House cases knocked loose. I checked them carefully at the unloading and found that they tallied perfectly with Mr. Bolling's list.

I had given a good deal of thought to the subject we discussed in Washington regarding the placing of the papers here, and finally decided to store the big White House files of sixty-seven cases, and the two boxes of New Jersey clippings in the Amherst [College] Library . . . . The cases and boxes left at Amherst College are, of course, all securely wired; they are in a locked room that is almost never used (to which I have a key) in a fire-proof building where, I am confident, they will be absolutely safe. I shall not open them until I need to get at them. 28

The papers, when they had been unloaded and briefly surveyed, were found to be in disorder, though there appeared certain blocks of partially arranged material. The Official File, maintained at the Executive Office, was an entity and had an index of sorts. There were personal or confidential series, with inadequate indexes. There were small packages containing both personal and official papers which appeared to have seen segregated by the President himself, with no discernible arrangement. There were Peace Conference papers, only partially and erratically arranged. And there was the correspondence file, carefully kept by Mrs. Wilson's brother, John Randolph Bolling, after the President's retirement. These blocks of semiorganized papers, together with the letterbooks, formed only a part of the collection. In addition there were many miscellaneous papers, such as correspondence which had not fallen into any of the files described, much of it going back into the pre-presidential period, notes and manuscripts of lectures, speeches, and articles, old family letters, receipted bills, scrapbooks, and clippings.

Obviously something had to be done to facilitate the use of the papers by the biographer. The final decision was to divide the tremendous Official File, keeping out only the papers which Baker felt he could use. 29 The personal, or confidential, files were put together and, with the unarranged correspondence, were made into three series: a name file and a subject file, both alphabetically arranged, and a chronological file. The papers which had been segregated by the President became a separate series. A "Notes for Addresses" file was set up, and another for those texts of public papers that had been preserved. 30 Certain of the miscellaneous unorganized material and all of the Peace Conference papers were merely stored, with little attempt at use and none at arrangement. As it turned out, the Peace Conference papers were not used at all during this storage in Amherst. From time to time papers for which the biographer had no further use were shipped to the Library of Congress and there stored under seal.

While his assistants were struggling with these problems of arrangement, Baker was spending a great deal of time corresponding with or calling upon Wilson's relatives, friends, and associates, gathering for his own rapidly growing files reminiscences and letters, both to and from Wilson. He wrote Mrs. Wilson frequently about the fine responses he was getting. The greatest treasures were the letters which Wilson himself had written. Wilson's disinclination to make and retain copies of letters which he had written presented for many years one of the difficulties in the use of his papers. Not even when he became president of Princeton University in 1902 did he have adequate secretarial help. He used student assistants for the most part, and he did not, as far as is known, systematically preserve carbons or other copies of his outgoing correspondence. To make matters worse, he persisted all his life in writing many of his personal letters, significant notes, drafts, and memoranda on his own small typewriter, keeping no copies. His machine, as he told friends, was his "pen" and he used it as such. It is this fact which makes the letters collected by Mrs. Wilson and by Baker invaluable. "If Wilson did not keep his own letters," Baker wrote later, "other people did."

His letters from the very beginning seemed curiously to demand preservation. They were never the kind that men throw away. They had in them too much of the stuff of life; they had a kind of beauty, strength, personality which preserved them. Long before Wilson was famous, old friends and even casual acquaintances were hiving up collections of his letters, mementoes relating to him, touches of his greatness. 31

The years during which the Wilson papers remained in Amherst, from the spring of 1925 to the fall of 1939, were filled with the excitement of discovery as the material was gradually put into sufficient arrangement for use and the implications contained in the papers were revealed. Three historical research assistants aided Baker for varying periods of time. Writing of these some years later, he said:

Dr. Joseph V. Fuller, of the Department of State, who had helped me with the Peace Conference book, assisted me also with the Life and Letters. Dr. A. Howard Meneely, later professor of history at Dartmouth College, and [subsequently] president of Wheaton College, was with me for several years. Dr. Harley A. Notter, who was a devoted student of the writings of Woodrow Wilson and [subsequently] with the Department of State, came to me later. 32

I joined the enterprise a month after the van had delivered the papers and remained throughout the work, serving initially as Baker's secretary and later as his research assistant.

There were long periods of hard, slogging work and occasional discouragement when Baker and his assistants felt overwhelmed by the sheer mass of papers confronting them. But also, especially as the volumes appeared in print, there were periods of exultation and relief.

Members of the Wilson family, as well as friends and associates of the President, arrived in Amherst from time to time to visit Baker and gasp at the mountain of paper confronting him. Often they added to it by contributing invaluable reminiscences. Mrs. Wilson herself came; Wilson's daughter Jessie and her husband, Francis B. Sayre, came by, bringing their young son; and Stockton Axson, brother of the first Mrs. Wilson, came and spent several days in reminiscing. He later sent priceless memoranda which are now in the Woodrow Wilson section of the Ray Stannard Baker papers at the Library.

One hair-raising event occurred in the winter of 1927. A fire broke out in the third-floor attic of the Baker house, and, although many of the papers were in the Amherst College Library, a large body of them was in the house. Of these, some were kept in a fireproof vault specially constructed at Baker's direction in the basement of his house; the remainder were divided between Baker's study and my own. The latter room had one fireproof wall and fireproof reinforced flooring and contained about 10 safe file cabinets which were supposed to be very nearly fireproof.

A roaring blaze in the fireplace of the Baker study caused the trouble. When the smell of smoke became unmistakable, the immense metal fireproof door to the basement vault was closed first. Then Baker and Meneely arrived in my study moments later loaded with papers for the safe-files. The cabinets, one after another, were filled, closed, and locked. By the time the last paper was stowed away, many helpful neighbors, knowing of the priceless documents in the house, began to appear. They went at once to work, some in the front of the house, methodically removing everything movable. But the fire department arrived promptly and the fire was soon out.

The papers were at no time in any real danger; the time and expense which Baker had given to providing safe housing for them had paid off. But such details were not common knowledge then, or later. Telegrams and telephone calls began to come in almost immediately from many parts of the country, from newspapers, and from public and private persons. They revealed disparate reactions—from sympathy for "the loss of all the Wilson Papers" to congratulations over their miraculous escape. One news story even reported Mr. and Mrs. Baker fleeing hand in hand from the burning house! All these things pass, however, and after Mrs. Wilson had been assured by telegram and letter that no harm had been done to the precious papers, the cabinets were unlocked, the vault was opened, and everyone went back to work.

Early in 1929 Mrs. Wilson and J. Franklin Jameson, then chief of the Library's Division of Manuscripts, reopened negotiations about what was to be done with the papers when the biographer was through with them. Jameson wrote on the first of April, recommending that they be made not a deposit but a gift, with conditions and restrictions. He discussed the latter at some length, and added:

If it suits Mr. Baker's convenience to send here successive portions of the papers as he finishes with them respectively, the Library will be glad to take care of them serially. . . . 33

To which Mrs. Wilson replied:

I have given a great deal of thought to the matter referred to in your letter to me. . . and herewith enclose a memorandum of conditions under which I would consider placing the papers of Mr. Wilson in the Library of Congress. . . .

I hope you will feel free to go over this matter with Dr. Putnam, if you think it best to do so. I am sure I told you, when I last saw you, that I had some correspondence with him regarding it. 34

The conditions in the memorandum read as follows:

  1. As biographer finishes with papers, they will be delivered to the Library of Congress, under seal.
  2. The seals not to be broken, or access given to papers by anyone (including employees of the Library of Congress) until written permission so to do is given by the donor.
  3. After such permission is given, and papers arranged for examination, access is not to be granted to the papers except upon written order from the donor during her lifetime. At her death, complete control of papers to pass to the Library of Congress.
  4. Should the donor die without having given the permission set out in paragraph two (2) above, then the seals are to be broken, and complete control of the papers pass to the Library of Congress, on January 1, 1935.
  5. Should the donor decide during her lifetime that a place or places other than the Library of Congress is or are more suitable for any or all of the papers, then the right is expressly reserved by the donor to remove any or all of the papers from the Library of Congress to such place or places as she may decide upon. 35

By June, this rough memorandum, after being worked over by officials of the Library and by Mrs. Wilson and her lawyer, finally emerged substantially as Mrs. Wilson had proposed and was verified in a letter from Frederick W. Ashley, Acting Librarian, to Mrs. Wilson, June 26, 1929.

Mrs. Wilson immediately accepted that all arrangements be considered confidential—"no publicity whatsover." 36 She also sent to Baker, on the same day, a copy of the agreement, "as I want you always to keep in touch with everything concerning this matter." 37 In accordance with the agreement, nine boxes of papers had arrived at the Library under seal by the end of 1930.

By 1937 it was clear that, because of failing health, Baker would have to conclude the biography with the Armistice of 1918, without rewriting the Peace Conference volumes, as he had hoped to do, or covering the last years of Wilson's life. The Jones Library at Amherst College had long since made available to him two large study rooms in its new, fireproof building, and to this location the papers now began to be transferred from Baker's home, in the hope that much of the remaining work on the biography could be carried on there without the need for Baker's constant presence.

In the spring of 1939, when work on the eight volumes of the biography had been completed, the whole collection passed temporarily into my custody. At Mrs. Wilson's request the papers were prepared, during that summer, for transfer to the Library of Congress, and in the fall of the year they were returned to Washington in a large truck dispatched by the Library for that purpose. 38 The departure of the Woodrow Wilson Papers from Amherst once again created a mild sensation in the village. Thomas P. Martin, then assistant chief of the Library's Division of Manuscripts, came to town to oversee the placing of the boxes and file cases in the bonded truck; stationed on the third floor of the Jones Library, I checked on the shipment plat the departure of each container. The truck was sealed and double-sealed, pictures were taken, congratulations exchanged, and the van moved off.

The papers reached the Library of Congress promptly and without incident. I arrived within a few days and, as "special custodian," almost immediately began to transfer the manuscript material to the three-inch red box-portfolios then used by the Manuscript Division. The papers were not, however, made available to any readers for some time. On October 8, 1939, the Library, with Mrs. Wilson's approval, issued an announcement to the press:

As a result of the public-spirited action of Mrs. Woodrow Wilson, arrangements have been completed for the transfer to the Library of Congress of the papers of the late Woodrow Wilson, President of the United States (1913-1921). . . .The papers arrived recently at the Library from Amherst, Massachusetts, where they have been in the temporary possession of Mr. Ray Stannard Baker, the authorized biographer of President Wilson. They will take their place in the Division of Manuscripts in the Library of Congress where are gathered the papers of most of the Presidents of the United States, beginning with those of George Washington.

To facilitate the work of arranging and indexing the collection and to make it available for historical students at an early time, Mrs. Wilson generously provides the services of a special custodian, Miss Katharine E. Brand, who has worked with the papers under Mr. Baker's direction for a number of years.

It is the hope and purpose of the Library, supported by Mrs. Wilson's cordial approval, to expand the collection by the acquisition of other letters of President Wilson now in private hands, as well as by the addition of papers of members of President Wilson's cabinet and other contemporaries, of which some are already represented in the Library. With this in view, the Library of Congress will welcome the cooperation of the press in inviting correspondence from all persons who have or know of papers in private hands which might supplement those now in the Library. 39

Some 10 months passed—from October 1939 to, July of the following year—before the papers were declared open to the public under special conditions. In the interval, the arrangement which had prevailed during the biographer's work on the papers was gradually shifted. The original grouping was retained where it did not contradict the policy of the Library dealing with Presidential collections, but certain changes were made in the interest of what was hoped to be a permanent archival arrangement. The process was by its very nature slow and had by no means been completed when the collection was declared open, under restrictions, in, July 1940. The notice which was carried that month by the American Historical Review read:

Permission to use the Woodrow Wilson Papers in the Library of Congress may now be requested through either Dr. St. George L. Sioussat, chief of the Division of Manuscripts, or Miss Katharine E. Brand, special custodian of the papers. All requests will be referred to Mrs. Woodrow Wilson. Work upon the final arrangement and indexing of the collection is still in an early stage, and those granted permission to examine the papers will therefore of necessity be required to work within the present limitations. 40

By that time there were only 10 clearly defined series, later reduced to nine. 41 Finding tools for scholars using the collection consisted of a looseleaf book of descriptive material, the card index which had originally accompanied the Official File, and the beginning of a new finding-index of letters written by Woodrow Wilson.

Thus partially equipped and acting as Mrs. Wilson's representative and with the cooperation of the chief of the Division of Manuscripts, I began my work as special custodian of the papers. This fell into three general categories: first, continuing attention to the physical welfare, arrangement, and preservation of the papers, which included what was then called "processing," that is, rearrangement where needed, the completion of indexes, and so on; second, the service of the papers to readers who had received Mrs. Wilson's permission and general assistance to such readers; and third, continuation of the campaign begun by Mrs. Wilson and Baker to secure from all possible sources original letters or, when that proved impossible, photocopies of letters written by Woodrow Wilson.

Of the latter category, these early efforts and the Library's continuing effort to round out the collection had, by the time of Mrs. Wilson's death in 1961, produced remarkable results, thanks largely to the generosity of those approached. The material which came in was not confined, as it turned out, to letters from Wilson but included copies of letters to him as well as other peripheral but interesting items. This group (series 14 in the Index) includes parts of Wilson's correspondence with such old friends as Edwin A. Alderman, Robert Bridges, George Creel, Richard Heath Dabney, Cleveland H. Dodge, Florence Hoyt, Mrs. Mary Allen Hulbert, Cyrus H. McCormick, Henry Morgenthau, Mr. and Mrs. Arthur W. Tedcastle, and Mrs. Crawford H. Toy.

Requests for access to the papers began to come in at once. Mrs. Wilson in almost every case granted access generously, although she often withheld permission to publish quotations from Wilson's letters.

Meeting the needs of the users proved to be a time-consuming business. Furthermore, under the terms of the deposit, any notes taken by the user had to be submitted in writing to the special custodian for approval, who, after passing upon them, submitted them for similar review by the chief of the Manuscript Division. As time went on and Mrs. Wilson began to feel increasing confidence in the Library's handling of the papers, a number of general permissions were given, such as that to "properly accredited representatives of a government department or agency."

Requests for access to the papers continued to arrive during World War II, although the Manuscript Division was little used by readers at that time and many of its collections, including a large part of the Woodrow Wilson papers, had been evacuated to places of greater safety. During the more than 30 years since the collection was opened it has continued to draw a steady flow of scholarly searchers. For example, in a six-month period in 1969 the Woodrow Wilson papers were the most heavily researched collection in the division. The papers have been used extensively by bibliographers, historians, biographers, representatives of various government departments, and even motion picture producers. One result of this sustained interest in the collection has been a veritable flood of books about Wilson and his career, making him, as one historian has observed, " one of the most written-of Americans." 42

Other users included the sponsors of the Freedom Train which toured the nation with historic documents in 1947. In November of 1951, when Princess Elizabeth and the Duke of Edinburgh visited the Library of Congress, a letter from King George V to President Wilson was exhibited together with Wilson's shorthand notes for his own reply. And in 1956, the Woodrow Wilson centennial year, a large exhibit in his memory was mounted in the Library's main exhibit hall. 43

The most extensive examination of the papers has been that undertaken by the three editors of The Papers of Woodrow Wilson—a comprehensive publishing project expected to be completed in 40 volumes or more. The editors—Arthur S. Link, John Wells Davidson, and David W. Hirst— and their associates began their work on September 1, 1958, in a study room in the Library of Congress, along with some seventy collateral manuscript collections in the same depository." 44 The work was done not only with the unqualified permission of Mrs. Wilson, but with her enthusiastic encouragement and support.

The Wilson papers themselves have by no means remained static. An extensive and invaluable correspondence between Woodrow Wilson and Ellen Axson Wilson, which began two years before their marriage and continued to the time of the death of the first Mrs. Wilson, came to the Library in a separate package, and a few items of correspondence with their three daughters were included with the main body of the papers. All this correspondence was subsequently withdrawn at Mrs. Wilson's direction and sent to Eleanor Wilson McAdoo, youngest of the three daughters. Mrs. McAdoo, after publishing many of the letters, 45 presented the correspondence to the Firestone Library of Princeton University.

Except for this understandable withdrawal, Mrs. Wilson's determination that the Library should have all of her husband's papers continued to the end of her life. Repeatedly during the years, she sent to the Manuscript Division papers which had been found in one of the cupboards or closets or unused rooms of the S Street house. Long unused trunks, boxes, and bundles were uncovered from time to time and those containing manuscripts were promptly dispatched to the Library. The new material included an extensive scrapbook series (14 volumes) kept by John Randolph Bolling. One of the largest groups of papers, including some 15,000 items, was discovered in the trunk room after Mrs. Wilson's death.

The new materials were not integrated with the main body of the papers for many years. They were, rather, as a matter of deliberate policy, put into a rough chronological arrangement to facilitate their use but were kept entirely separate, so that readers who had come earlier to the division and had sat day after day in the reading room scanning each paper need not, upon a return visit, again go through the entire collection to discover the fresh materials.

When work on the microfilming and indexing of the papers began in the mid-1960's, however, all new materials were interfiled in their proper locations. The additional papers have been of great interest, especially to biographers and to the editors of The Papers of Woodrow Wilson, since they date as far back as 1875, with a few scattered items earlier than that, and continue to the President's death and after. The fresh material from the governorship period is perhaps of especial value, the documentation for those years having always been exceedingly sparse. 46

Fortunately for scholarship, the Woodrow Wilson papers by no means stand alone. The Library of Congress has for many years been assembling personal papers of public figures, and these include the papers of many members of Wilson's Cabinet and of Senators and Representatives, military leaders, and others who served during the Wilson administration. There are also materials relating to the 1919 Versailles Peace Conference 47.

The rearrangement of the Wilson papers and their microfilming and indexing imposed some delays in responding to users' requests but in no way diminished interest in the papers. One of the most important of the archivist's duties is the preservation of original manuscripts for the future, and the availability of the microfilms and the index will significantly decrease constant wear on irreplaceable manuscripts. This has proved to be so in the case of other Presidential collections which have been similarly treated.

Other manuscript repositories—most notably the Firestone Library of Princeton University— possess valuable Woodrow Wilson papers, and some still remain in private hands. But the papers in the Library of Congress remain the largest group of original Wilson manuscripts.

Notwithstanding Wilson's statements about never having been systematic in caring for his papers, the collection now consists of approximately 300,000 pieces and is a magnificent monument to his background as a historian:

Woodrow Wilson himself made the single greatest contribution to the preservation of his papers. He did this not because he preserved copies of his personal letters—indeed, he usually saved no copies of his private correspondence—but rather because he grew up during a generation that reverenced the raw materials of history, and he rarely threw away anything he thought to be of possible importance, at least after childhood. He seems to have begun consciously and methodically to save his papers during the summer of 1874. . . .From this time until his death in 1924, Wilson carefully accumulated what would become the Wilson Papers. 48

Although Wilson disclaimed any intent of writing his memoirs, he did, in effect, just that. His accumulation of this great collection of papers constitutes a unique source for the study of a remarkable scholar, educator, national leader, and statesman; it comprises also a vast manuscript record from which scholars for years have gleaned significant information on a critical period in our nation's history.


Notes

  1. Moore to Tumulty, Woodrow Wilson Papers, Library of Congress. Hereafter cited as Wilson Papers, LC. [Return to text]
  2. Tumulty to Moore, Nov. 3, 1920. Administrative files, LC. [Return to text]
  3. Wilson to Skidmore, Nov. 18, 1920. Wilson Papers, LC. [Return to text]
  4. Moore to Wilson, Apr. 10, 1922. Wilson Paper, LC. [Return to text]
  5. Wilson to Moore, Apr. 12, 1922. Wilson Papers, LC [Return to text]
  6. Baker to Wilson, Wilson Papers, LC. [Return to text]
  7. Wilson to Baker, Dec. 18, 1920. Wilson Papers, LC. [Return to text]
  8. Wilson to Baker, Dec. 27, 1920. Ray Stannard Baker Papers. [Return to text]
  9. Baker, American Chronicle (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1945), p. 487. [Return to text]
  10. Ibid., p. 488. [Return to text]
  11. Swem to Mrs. Wilson. Wilson Papers, LC. [Return to text]
  12. Bolling to Baker, Mar. 28, 1922. Ray S. Baker Papers, LC. [Return to text]
  13. Often the questions would refer to Wilson's shorthand notes. As early as 1873 he used Graham shorthand and continued, to the end of his life, to write drafts of memoranda and of many personal or confidential letters in shorthand. [Return to text]
  14. Moore to Mrs. Wilson, Feb. 20, 1924. Edith Bolling Wilson Papers, LC. [Return to text]
  15. Mrs. Wilson to Moore, Feb. 22, 1924. Edith Bolling Wilson Papers, LC. [Return to text]
  16. Mrs. Wilson to Putnam, May 30, 1924. Edith Bolling Wilson Papers, LC. [Return to text]
  17. Putnam to Mrs. Wilson, June 3, 1924. Edith Bolling Wilson Papers, LC. Actually, little of the material which came in response to Mrs. Wilson's appeals came directly to the Library. Instead it went some time later to Baker, the chosen biographer, who subsequently sent the material to the Library as part of the large Woodrow Wilson segment of his own papers. [Return to text]
  18. Mrs. Wilson to Putnam, June 4, 1924. Edith Bolling Wilson Papers, LC. [Return to text]
  19. Moore to Mrs. Wilson. Edith Bolling Wilson Papers, LC. [Return to text]
  20. Baker to Wilson, Jan. 7, 1924. Wilson Papers, LC. [Return to text]
  21. Wilson to Baker, Jan. 8, 1924. Ray S. Baker Papers, LC. [Return to text]
  22. Baker to Wilson, Jan. 15, 1924. Ray S. Baker Papers, LC. [Return to text]
  23. Wilson to Baker, Jan. 25, 1924. Baker Papers, Princeton University Library; also retained copy, Wilson Papers, LC. Wilson was too weak to sign the letter and it did not go through the mail; some time after Wilson's death, Mrs. Wilson gave the unsigned letter to Baker. [Return to text]
  24. Mrs. Wilson to Baker, June 3, 1924. Ray S. Baker Papers, LC. The response to Mrs. Wilson's appeal was generally good. [Return to text]
  25. Baker, American Chronicle, pp. 507-508. [Return to text]
  26. Ray S. Baker Papers, LC. [Return to text]
  27. The weight was not, as it turned out, wholly from the Wilson Papers. Others goods had been shipped in the same van load. [Return to text]
  28. Baker to Mrs. Wilson, Mar. 7, 1925. Edith Bolling Wilson Papers, LC. [Return to text]
  29. Robert Cotner, who was one of Baker's assistants during the first year of the project, spent most of his time on this separation. When the papers were sent to the Library of Congress in 1939, this file had to be reconstituted. [Return to text]
  30. These papers were of use to Baker and his collaborator, William E. Dodd of the University of Chicago, who edited The Public Papers of Woodrow Wilson, 6 vol. in 3 (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1925-27). [Return to text]
  31. Baker, Woodrow Wilson; Life and Letters, vol. 1, Youth (Garden City, NY.: Doubleday, Page & Co., 1927), p. xxv. Wilson's letters to his father have not been recovered. This is peculiarly unfortunate because of the close relationship between the two. Letters from his parents are to be found in the Woodrow Wilson papers, but we have been unable to locate Wilson's letters to them. [Return to text]
  32. Baker, American Chronicle, p. 512. [Return to text]
  33. Jameson to Mrs. Wilson, Apr. 1, 1929. Edith Bolling Wilson Papers, LC. [Return to text]
  34. Mrs. Wilson to Jameson, Apr. 22, 1929. Edith Bolling Wilson Papers, LC. [Return to text]
  35. Edith Bolling Wilson Papers, LC. The date for the breaking of the seals was set forward to 1940 when Baker's ill health in 1934 made more time necessary than had originally been planned for work on the biography. In the spring and summer of 1939 Mrs. Wilson seriously considered "repossessing" the papers in order to house them in a small private museum, to be built on a vacant lot adjacent to the S Street house. Bernard M. Baruch, a longtime family friend, was asked for advice. After due consideration and further conferences, the decision was made to place the papers in the Library, as had been originally planned. In, May of 1954 they were made a permanent gift. [Return to text]
  36. Mrs. Wilson to Ashley, June 27, 1929. Edith Bolling Wilson Papers, LC. [Return to text]
  37. Mrs. Wilson to Baker, June 27, 1929. Ray S. Baker Papers, LC. [Return to text]
  38. See Katharine E. Brand, "The Woodrow Wilson Collection," Library of Congress Quarterly Journal of Current Acquisitions 2, no. 2 (Feb. 1945): 3-10. [Return to text]
  39. Edith Bolling Wilson Papers. The Woodrow Wilson papers were among the last Presidential papers to be acquired by the Library of Congress. From Herbert Hoover on, papers of American Presidents have been housed in separate libraries. [Return to text]
  40. A small group of papers which came to the Library from the S Street house some years later was placed under complete restriction until 15 years after Mrs. Wilson's death. [Return to text]
  41. See Brand, "The Woodrow Wilson Collection," footnote 4. [Return to text]
  42. Richard L. Watson, Jr., "Woodrow Wilson and His Interpreters, 1947-1957," Mississippi Valley Historical Review 44, no. 2 (Sept. 1957): 207. [Return to text]
  43. For a catalog of the exhibit, see Library of Congress Quarterly Journal of Current Acquisitions 13, no. 2 (Feb. 1956): 73-105. [Return to text]
  44. The Papers of Woodrow Wilson, "General Introduction," 1:xiii. [Return to text]
  45. The Priceless Gift, ed. Eleanor Wilson McAdoo (New York: McGraw Hill Co., Inc., 1962). [Return to text]
  46. While the papers were in his custody, Baker made a number of unsuccessful efforts to find what had become of the files which must have been kept at Trenton, N.J., while Wilson was governor. Later, in 1944, a letter was found from the President's secretary, Joseph P. Tumulty, written in February 1915, saying that letters from Wilson before his election to the Presidency were stored in Trenton. The Library tried to locate this material; however, except for a very small group of papers in the New Jersey state archives, no such files have been found by the Library. [Return to text]
  47. For a more detailed discussion of related papers that had been acquired up to 1956, see "Woodrow Wilson, in His Own Time," by Katharine E. Brand, Library of Congress Quarterly Journal of Current Acquisitions 13, no. 2 (Feb. 1956): 66-70. Among numerous collections for the period added since 1956, the papers of Joseph Tumulty, Arthur Sweetser, and John Callan O'Laughlin deserve special mention. An important correspondence exchanged by Wilson and his Secretary of State, William Jennings Bryan, was acquired in 1970. [Return to text]
  48. The Papers of Woodrow Wilson, ed. Arthur S. Link et al. (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1966-),1:ix. [Return to text]
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