The Paper Trust

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To answer that question demands a review of the nature and history of Presidential papers and a survey of the current limitations on their use. The picture is sometimes discouraging. To begin with, a skeptical American may be pardoned if he believes that gratitude is uncalledfor when a President makes a “gift” of his papers to the public. Why should the people be thankful, he reasons, for being given what is theirs in the first place? For is it not true that the President’s correspondence is a part of the official record of the government? And does it not therefore belong to the taxpayers fully as much as anything else created or purchased with government monies?

Astonishingly, the answer is No. Ordinary civil servants—even Cabinet members—are obliged by law to keep account of their doings, and in so doing to create the fallout of official documents that keeps archivists in prosperity. They may not destroy or remove whatever may be needful for a competent authority later to review their public performance. But the President of the United States is himself an independent government agency. In a sense he is accountable only to God, the Constitution, and the electorate. What comes into his office during his tenure is his alone.

 
 

George Washington, who set so many Presidential precedents, simply took his papers—including all the written matter he had exchanged with members of his official family—back to Mount Vernon with him, presumably to nestle alongside his old plantation account books, and no one was disposed to challenge him. John Adams followed suit because, according to one scholar, he did not want his thenhated successor, Thomas Jefferson, nosing among his letters. When Jefferson himself did the same in 1809, the precedent had hardened. It was not challenged until 1886, when the Senate made bold to ask for certain papers belonging to Grover Cleveland, which were then not even in the White House but on file in the office of the Attorney General. Cleveland characteristically rapped the Senate’s knuckles. “I regard the papers and documents … intended for my use and action,” he wrote, “purely unofficial and private, not infrequently confidential, and having reference to the performance of a duty exclusively mine. … I suppose if I desired to take them into my custody I might do so with entire propriety, and if I saw fit to destroy them no one could complain. …” The senators did not press the matter further.

Presidents came and went. They took their papers with them and did things to make archivists shudder. The precious documents were dumped in attics; rummaged by heirs for autographs and souvenirs to bestow on friends; winnowed of “improper” material by worshipful widows, executors, and official biographers; and scrawled on by playful children. Some were burnt by accident—many of Andrew Jackson’s, for example—and some perished in flames by design, like those of Millard Fillmore (by the deathbed command of his son) and, reputedly, those of Martin Van Buren and Ulysses Grant, who were either indifferent to, or wary of, the curiosity of posterity.

Some, of course, were sold to libraries (often by heirs in need of cash) whose directors sensed the vital importance of the neglected records to historical research. The Library of Congress worked hard at getting a complete Presidential collection and up to 1940 had spent $170,000 in purchases of ex-Presidents’ papers. Universities and state and local historical societies acquired fragments of individual Presidents’ papers.

There were shining exceptions. The family of Rutherford B. Hayes presented his carefully kept papers, as well as the family estate, to the state of Ohio, which built a memorial library on the site. Opened in 1916, it has since become an important center for the study of the Reconstruction era. The bulk of the papers of the Presidents from James A. Garfield through Calvin Coolidge—with the exception of Warren Harding, whose papers are at the Ohio Historical Society, in Columbus—were given to the Library of Congress. Herbert Hoover deposited his in a special library, now known as the Hoover Institution on War, Revolution and Peace, on the campus of Stanford University; there they joined the materials he had accumulated in a world-ranging career as engineer and famine relief administrator (but as it turned out later, they did not stay there). When Franklin Roosevelt began to think about leaving the White House, he might have followed what has been called the Library of Congress model. But he regarded himself as having a special problem, and, characteristically, he looked for a precedentbreaking way to solve it.