The Record - May 1998

Documentary Editing and Publishing

Timothy Connely, Editor

The Search for Lincoln's Legal Papers: A Mutual Accomplishment of Archivists and Historians

By Stacy Pratt McDermott

The staff of the Lincoln Legal Papers project has spent the better part of twelve years collecting nearly 90,000 documents associated with the legal practice of Abraham Lincoln. The importance of archival collections for our project is evident in the following numbers. Of the 88,462 documents the project has accessioned into its collection, we found 36,259 in county court houses across the state; 28,342 at Illinois Regional Archives Depositories (IRAD); 4,366 among the holdings of the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA); and 3,915 at the Illinois State Archives.

Lincoln's Bill of Revivor, February 14, 1860
Lincoln filed this bill of revivor in the U.S. Circuit Court on February 14, 1860. (NARA-Great Lakes Region-Chicago)

The experiences of the Lincoln Legal Papers staff over the years offer vivid examples of the ways in which close, professional relationships with archivists have benefited us and how utilizing the rich resources of archival collections has hastened our own work and heightened our appreciation for the tremendous service the archival community provides. Certainly, we owe a tremendous debt of gratitude to the archivists who have conserved, catalogued, and maintained the legal records so vital to our effort to document the law practice of Abraham Lincoln and his three partners.

Nearly half of the documents we discovered were filed in county court houses across the state. While visiting those court houses, rummaging through dusty back storage rooms, dank basements and many an attic with a view of the stars, we found documents in varying conditions. Ignoring inches of red rot and decorations of pigeon droppings, we dug our way through thousands of docket books and boxes of case files, typically without the aid of indices or inventories of the records.

Fortunately, however, we also found a significant number of documents housed in more congenial locations, with climate-controlled rooms, and acid-free boxes. But even at the scattered facilities of the Illinois Regional Archives Depositories, the Illinois State Archives and the National Archives and Records Administration, we would certainly still have been blowing the red rot up into our faces and crossing our fingers that the records we needed had survived the ravages of weather and vermin and time, had it not been for the skillful archivists who staff these repositories. As documentary editors, we used archival collections heavily and relied upon the professional expertise of archivists to accomplish the task of discovering Abraham Lincoln, the lawyer.

Central to the collection phase of our project were the IRAD holdings located at universities across the state. As official depositories for many county and circuit court records, the IRAD collections located at Carbondale, Charleston, Dekalb, Macomb, Normal and Springfield were vital. IRAD archivists were instrumental in the completion of our tremendous task of locating all the legal documents related to Abraham Lincoln's legal practice. Nearly one third of the documents we collected were from IRAD locations. Lincoln's practice was centered in Springfield, so the majority of IRAD documents we needed were the Sangamon County circuit court and county records located at the University of Illinois at Springfield (UIS). And it was there that we cultivated one of our most important professional relationships, with Archivist Thomas Wood. We set up shop at UIS with the assistance of Wood and his small staff. Over the course of about four years, we located more than 27,000 documents there.

The organizational structure of the archives enabled us to work more quickly and, certainly, more comfortably than if the records had remained scattered throughout the dusty attics and damp basements of various court houses. Wood never faltered in his enthusiasm and support of our project and, in effect, became a surrogate Lincoln Legal Papers staff member for all of our researchers who worked there with him.

Archivists at all the IRAD locations we visited offered support and assistance to our research staff. Their expertise helped us conduct a thorough search for the court records we needed. The cooperative relationship we have enjoyed over the years with the IRAD system has dramatically reduced the time and effort necessary to complete the collection phase of our project. And the benefits from that relationship have been reciprocal. Robert Hillman, IRAD archivist at Eastern Illinois University in Charleston, for example, obtained a grant to renovate his facilities as a direct result of the Lincoln discoveries we made there.

The holdings and the staff of the Illinois State Archives were both vital to our search in various ways. Nearly 4,000 records documenting Lincoln's practice before the Illinois Supreme Court were available for our examination at the state archives in Springfield. Archivists occasionally worked closely with us to restore and preserve dangerously fragile historic records relating to Lincoln. While conducting research in the Vermilion County court house in Danville, we were distressed to find the case files in dangerously fragile condition. The documents were so brittle from extreme heat and dryness that they crumbled when unfolded. We worried about losing access to documents from a county we knew to have been a major center of Lincoln's practice. However, fulfilling his pledge of assistance, Illinois State Archivist John Daly came to the rescue. He arranged to ship more than 100 large boxes of case files to the conservation laboratory in Springfield, where expert technicians spent ten months re-hydrating the documents. As a result, we were able to inspect the case files, adding 352 cases and more than 5,000 separate documents to our collection. And, more importantly, those legal records were saved from imminent destruction. Moreover, as a direct result of our project's discovery of Lincoln documents and related legal papers in scattered court houses, the state archives also agreed to serve as custodian of any valuable circuit court records that county clerks wanted transferred to more secure facilities. State archivists demonstrated a strong desire to protect the records of Illinois' legal history and the documents that detail the career of the state's most famous attorney at law.

The documents were so brittle from extreme heat and dryness that they crumbled when unfolded.

While most of our research involved Lincoln's circuit and state supreme court work, we also had to visit the NARA Great Lakes Region (Chicago), and the National Archives in Washington, D.C., in order to document his federal practice. At both repositories, the professionals who assisted us provided an impressive level of support, and they worked hard to accommodate our researchers. Archivist Shirley Burton facilitated the advance research we conducted to prepare for the work in Chicago. The seven-reel micropublication, Lincoln at the Bar: Selected Case Files from the United States District and Circuit Courts, Southern District of Illinois, 1855-1861 (National Archives microfilm publication M-1530), which Burton prepared, alerted us to specific documents related to Lincoln's law practice. And archivist Beverly Watkins responded to our efforts with support and an impressive knowledge of the records, which quickened the pace of our research in Chicago tremendously. Three of our researchers spent three months collecting more than 3,600 documents there.

The experiences of The Lincoln Legal Papers researchers reflect the natural alliance that exists between documentary editors and archivists. That the National Historical Publications and Records Commission (NHPRC) employs a full-time archivist to undertake research in the Washington area for NHPRC-funded projects is further evidence of this alliance. The NHPRC reference staff proved an excellent resource for our researcher in the quest for Lincoln documents in Washington, D.C. Michael Meier, the current NHPRC research archivist, continues to assist us as required. Documentary editors depend upon the expertise of archivists to locate and utilize a wide range of historic documents. In turn, documentary editors represent one of the significant groups that archivists serve.

An archivist's mission is to conserve and maintain historic documents and make them available to the public. A documentary editor has the related mission of editing, annotating and publishing historic documents for scholars and others who lack the time, resources or expertise to uncover them at archival locations. Devoted to the preservation of our nation's past, documentary editors and archivists alike stand on common ground. Both groups appreciate the importance of history. Both are dedicated to the preservation of historic documents. And both are interested in making those documents accessible to the public of today and ensuring their availability to the public of tomorrow. The survival of both disciplines is imperative, as each enhances the other.

Stacy Pratt McDermott is a research associate at The Lincoln Legal Papers.