The Paper Trust

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In February, 1938, Roosevelt wrote to his fellow sailing enthusiast and Harvard alumnus Samuel Eliot Morison, asking for advice on the “somewhat ambitious thought” of creating a repository for materials “relating to this period of our national history.” Without a special effort they would be scattered throughout libraries and collections across the entire country. “For example,” Roosevelt noted, “my own papers should, under the old method, be divided among the Navy Department, the Library of Congress, the New York State Historical Division in Albany, the New York City Historical Society, Harvard University, and various members of my family.” Morison quickly replied. He thought that a separate New Deal archive would not be a good idea. But the President’s own papers might well be kept together somewhere—it did not matter where, “as long as the repository is fireproof and the guardians faithful.” In conclusion Morison urged: “But, whatever you do Mr. President, don’t break up the collection, giving some to your children, others to Harvard, etc! Although alma mater would profit, such dispersion offends all my professorial principles.”

Yet even the modest goal of preserving the Roosevelt records, instead of a complete New Deal archive, posed a problem. For one thing, the volume of White House business had mushroomed enormously. As a single instance, F.D.R.’s ability to communicate directly with the public—“My Friends”—had stimulated floods of letters to him: where Hoover had received about four hundred a day, the Roosevelt daily average in 1940 came to over four thousand. Moreover, Roosevelt was a pack rat. “I have destroyed practically nothing,” he told guests at a dinner. “As a result, we have a mine for which future historians will curse me as well as praise me. It is a mine which will need to have the dross sifted from the gold.”

Roosevelt’s decision on how and where to locate his mine was announced after a luncheon on December 10, 1938, to which he had invited the Archivist of the United States, Robert D. W. Connor; the historian of New York State; two university presidents; the president of the League of Women Voters; such assorted literary and journalistic figures as Stuart Chase, Ernest Lindley, and Archibald MacLeish; and such past and present university professors as William E. Dodd, Frederic L. Paxson, Charles A. Beard, Helen Taft Manning, Felix Frankfurter, and Morison. The President emerged from the dining room to tell waiting reporters that after “consultation” with these luminaries, he had decided to place all of his collected papers, books, and other materials in a building to be erected, at private cost, on a portion of his Hyde Park estate that he would donate to the United States. (Eventually, he added, the entire estate would go to the federal government “to be maintained for the benefit of the public”—as in fact it has.) Within a short period of time a fund-raising corporation was established, and with a speed that later builders of Presidential libraries may well envy, the money was raised (some twenty-eight thousand individuals contributed), the building was constructed, and title was granted to the United States in mid-1940.

Roosevelt’s dream of retiring to putter among his collections was never fulfilled, of course. (In typical fashion, he had jauntily refused at the December, 1938, press conference to say when he proposed to settle down in Hyde Park, leaving his possible third-term intentions as unclear as ever.) But the Roosevelt pattern was destined to endure. This was probably due to Truman’s decision to follow his predecessor’s model; it is the second man in a sequence who turns idiosyncrasy into tradition. One of Truman’s administrative assistants worked with Tom L. Evans, a Kansas City businessman, to raise contributions for the building; the city of Independence gave thirteen acres for a site near Truman’s home; and on July 6, 1957, the Truman Library was dedicated.

The man from Independence immediately took a hand in making it a working institution. He had an office for himself, which he occupied faithfully from nine to five, six days a week, while working on his memoirs. (To the distress of historians he sequestered large bodies of his papers for this purpose, and they have not yet been released for general use.) From time to time, according to the present assistant director of the library, he would bounce out to chat with the librarians, secretaries, and researchers at work amid the file cabinets and would often address visiting classes of schoolchildren in the library’s auditorium for film displays. The staff also got accustomed to the sight of Truman leading distinguished old friends, visitors from all over the world, through his library with proprietary gusto.