- Historic Sites
America’s Most Famous Letter
Abraham Lincoln signed it. A lot of scholars say he didn’t write it. Now, newly discovered evidence helps solve an enduring mystery.
February/March 2006 | Volume 57, Issue 1
The one substantial reference occurred in 1951, when Bullard published a letter from Robert Lincoln to Dr. James H. Canfield, then the librarian of Columbia University. At the time, during the Lincoln centennial in 1909, Columbia had mounted an exhibit that contained a copy of the letter, and Robert wrote Canfield: “I have long been desirous of what has become of the original ‘Bixby’ letter, which I regard very highly. Doctor [Nicholas Murray] Butler said there was some suspicion as to whether the copy . . . is not a forgery. I told him that once in conversation, John Hay and I discussed the ease with which such a forgery could be made in consequence of the possibility of anyone finding for such a use an authentic original in my father’s hand-writing of almost every word and certainly every letter in the ‘Bixby’ letter. . . . Last year, I learned that there was in Huber’s Museum, which is a combination of museum and continuous performance variety house in 14 Street a few doors east of the subway, the original ‘Bixby’ letter. Accordingly, I dropped in to see it, and found on a frame on the wall a much discolored letter which is either an original or a very clever forgery—Which I do not know. The proprietor of the museum was not there so that I could not make any inquiry as to where he got it. . . . I should be greatly obliged to you if you will ascertain from the owner, who loaned it for the exhibition, what he knows of its history.”
Incredibly, none of Robert Lincoln’s thoughts on the subject have ever been so much as cited in any Bixby historiography.
Canfield responded that the letter on display at Columbia University was the one from Huber’s Museum, but that upon examination by experts, it was clearly a lithographic copy. “I am not sure, therefore, that I can throw any light upon the present ownership of the Bixby letter,” Canfield wrote.
This exchange from almost a century ago had been the only known primary material about Robert Lincoln’s knowledge of the Bixby letter. Now, however, newly discovered letters in the archives of Hildene, Robert Todd Lincoln’s house in Manchester, Vermont, as well as those stored (and apparently ignored) in the Robert Todd Lincoln papers at the Chicago Historical Society do much to illuminate the subject. Incredibly, none of them has ever been fully published or even cited in any of the Bixby historiography.
A worldwide search for the original copy of the Bixby letter began in the summer of 1925 after The New York Times printed a story saying that the original letter was not at Oxford University, as had come to be universally believed. The story started a flurry of press activity as journalists tried desperately to find the sacred relic. They questioned the Library of Congress, the Illinois State Historical Society, Oxford University, the War Department, the Pension Bureau, the old State House in Boston—and Mrs. Lydia Bixby’s descendants. They concluded that the original was either lost or destroyed.
During this journalistic brouhaha, Robert Todd Lincoln received a telegram from the New York Evening Post :
newyork ny 457P aug 7 1925
robert todd lincoln
Frederick H Meserve [a prominent Lincoln authority and collector] has given us photographic copy of Bixby letter apparently establishing authenticity beyond doubt he does not know nor does anyone else whereabouts of the original he suggested you might have some knowledge of it or could tell us something about its history we would think it very kind if you could wire at our expense 200 words about this
newyork evening post
Lincoln replied the next day through his private secretary, Frederic N. Towers:
“At the direction of Mr. Robert T. Lincoln I beg to acknowledge receipt of your telegram of yesterday in which you inquire as to whether Mr. Lincoln has any knowledge of the present whereabouts of the so-called ‘Bixby letter’, and whether he would be willing to set forth such knowledge for publication.
“In reply Mr. Lincoln has directed me to advise you that he has no knowledge of the present whereabouts of the letter referred to. He has, however, among other things here a photographic copy of the letter, and, although he does not know the exact original of this copy, he says that it is certainly a reproduction of the original, which was in the handwriting of his father. Mr. Lincoln can say no more than this about the matter, however; and, in any event, would not care to make any statement for publication.”
A few days after the Post telegram, Lincoln received a letter from the Lincoln Club of Brooklyn asking him to “set at rest, once and for all, the current stories concerning the letter to Mrs. Bixby. . . . a word from you right now will do much to stem any impending criticism or questionings of the good faith of America’s best-loved son.”
Lincoln’s secretary’s response was similar to his statement to the Post :
“Mr. Lincoln does not know the present whereabouts of the letter; but he has here, among other things, a photographic copy of the original, which, he says, is unquestionably in the handwriting of his father. . . .
“Mr. Lincoln, however, does not wish to be drawn into a controversy or dispute as to the origin or authorship of the letter; but, I am sure, himself feels that there can be no question but that his father wrote it.”
A few weeks later an editor from the Boston Herald wanted to know about the Bixby letter: