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National Archives commemorates Memorial Day with video

To commemorate Memorial Day, the National Archives has released a short video about the importance of the holiday.

Timed for the 150th anniversary of President Abraham Lincoln’s death and the upcoming sesquicentennial of the 1866 founding of the Grand Army of the Republic (the fraternal organization of Union Civil War veterans), the National Archives created the video “Memorial Day 2015: Why it Matters.”

The video features Rodney Ross, an archivist in the Center for Legislative Archives in Washington, DC, with an introduction by Archivist of the United States David S. Ferriero.

Ross demonstrates the importance of National Archives records to everyday Americans through the prism of a single National Archives document—a page from the muster roll of a Civil War soldier from his hometown of Batavia, Illinois.

Oscar F. Cooley's Compiled Military Service Record. (Records of the Adjutant General's Office, National Archives)

Oscar F. Cooley’s Compiled Military Service Record. (Records of the Adjutant General’s Office, National Archives)

The soldier, Union Pvt. Oscar F. Cooley, was killed in action during the siege at Vicksburg on June 8, 1863.

In the video Ross recounts his Memorial Day memories as a child growing up in Batavia, and shares an image of a statue from Batavia’s West Side Cemetery inscribed with the names of Batavians, primarily those with the 124th Illinois Volunteer Regiment, who fought for the Union in the Civil War.

Ross speaks at the Grand Army of the Republic Monument on Pennsylvania Avenue—just across the street from the National Archives Building in Washington, DC.

This monument honors the sacrifice of Union soldiers who fought and died to keep the United States of America “a free and undivided republic.”

Ross explains the origin of Memorial Day, the holiday originally called “Decoration Day.”

The holiday was officially proclaimed on May 5, 1868, by Gen. John Logan, a Civil War Union veteran and national commander of the Grand Army of the Republic, in his General Order No. 11.

Logan proclaimed: “The 30th of May, 1868, is designated for the purpose of strewing with flowers, or otherwise decorating the graves of comrades who died in defense of their country during the late rebellion, and whose bodies now lie in almost every city, village and hamlet churchyard in the land.”

No longer an “unknown” soldier, in this video Ross honors fellow Batavian Private Cooley and his supreme sacrifice.

Visit the Batavia Historical Society for information on Batavia, Illinois, and Memorial Day.

Grand Army of the Republic Memorial with National Archives Building in the background, May 18, 2015. (Photograph Courtesy of Jeff Reed)

Grand Army of the Republic Memorial with National Archives Building in the background, May 18, 2015. (Photograph Courtesy of Jeff Reed)


“Rogue Island”: The last state to ratify the Constitution

Today’s post comes from Samantha Payne, intern in the Center for Legislative Archives in Washington, DC. 

In 1781, Rhode Island began acquiring nicknames.

American newspapers called it “the perverse sister.” “An evil genius.” The “Quintessence of Villainy.” The name “Rogue Island” stuck all the way to 1787, when the Constitutional Convention began and the small state refused to send delegates. Although this press war started because Rhode Island vetoed an act passed by Congress under the Articles of Confederation, it lasted for nearly 10 years.

George Washington’s letter notifying Congress that Rhode Island had ratified the Constitution, June 1, 1790. (Records of the U.S. Senate, National Archives)

George Washington’s letter notifying Congress that Rhode Island had ratified the Constitution, June 1, 1790. (Records of the U.S. Senate, National Archives)

On May 29, 1790, “the rogue’s” persistent efforts to defy the national government finally failed, and it became the last state to ratify the Constitution, more than a year after it went into effect.

Ironically, Rhode Island played a key role in advancing the Constitution it strongly opposed. In 1786, an electoral revolution took place in Rhode Island that swept the populist Country Party into power. Infuriated by the prospect of a national tax, this faction opposed the expansion of the national government and favored an inflationary monetary policy.

In a single month, the legislature printed 100,000 pounds worth of paper currency. The resulting rampant inflation made Rhode Island—for many Americans—a dark symbol of what ailed the Confederation. Opponents of state-issued paper currency called for a new Constitution that would ban it. At the Constitutional Convention in 1787, no state was more reviled than Rhode Island—the only no-show.

Between September of 1787 and January of 1790, Rhode Island’s legislature rejected 11 attempts to ratify the Constitution.

The First Congress met for the first time in March of 1789, and that September the Governor of Rhode Island wrote to Congress, explaining why the people of his state still had “not separated themselves from the principles” of the old Confederation. He explained that they wanted “further checks and securities” limiting federal power, before “they could adopt it.”

An Act to Restrict Trade with Rhode Island, May, 18 1790 (Records of the U.S. Senate, National Archives)

An Act to Restrict Trade with Rhode Island, May 18, 1790. (Records of the U.S. Senate, National Archives)

By 1790, Congress was losing patience. The Governor had asked that the United States not treat Rhode Island as a foreign nation. Spurred on by petitions from Rhode Island merchants who became “zealous advocates” for the new Constitution, and feared the consequences of import taxes on their businesses, Congress granted an exemption until January.

In January, Rhode Island lobbyists persuaded Congress to postpone the deadline again, this time so the state could hold a ratifying convention in March.

When this convention adjourned without a vote, Congress took action. On May 18, 1790, the Senate passed a bill to prohibit commercial intercourse with Rhode Island.

In the House, Rhode Island’s lone defender was John Page of Virginia, who compared the bill to the Boston Port Act, an embargo enforced by the British prior to the American Revolution.

Threatened and divided, Rhode Island finally ratified the Constitution on May 29, 1790, by a vote of 34 to 32.

Still hoping to limit federal power, the state attached a list of 18 human rights and 21 amendments with its ratification, requesting a ban on poll taxes, the draft, the importation of slaves, and curiously, for Congress not to “interfere with any one of the States in the redemption of paper money.”

One newspaper reported that when Rhode Island joined “the Great American Family,” bells rang across the town of Newport.

Three months later, in August of 1790, “Rogue Island’s” only representative in Congress arrived—fashionably late.

The Center for Legislative Archives is marking the 225th anniversary of the First Congress by sharing documents on Tumblr and Twitter; use #Congress225 to see all the postings.


Hitler’s Final Words

This post comes from Greg Bradsher’s latest article “Hitler’s Final Words” in Prologue magazine. Bradsher is a senior archivist at the National Archives and a frequent contributor to Prologue.

A little after 11 p.m., Gertrude Junge, the 25-year-old secretary to Adolf Hitler, woke from a one-hour nap, and, thinking it was time for the nightly tea with her boss, headed for his study.

“Have you had a nice little rest, child,” her boss asked her as he shook her hand. “Yes, I have slept a little,” she replied.

Getting any sleep in Hitler’s bunker, deep underground in Berlin, might have been difficult that night in April 1945.

Russian troops were only about 1,000 yards away, and the war was all but lost by then. The head of Hitler’s dreaded SS, Heinrich Himmler, was already negotiating with the Western Allies. The Third Reich was almost over.

Adolf Hitler and eva Braun, ca. 1942. They married in Hitler's Berlin bunker on April 29 and both committed suicide on April 30, 1945. (242-EB-27-15E)

Adolf Hitler and eva Braun, ca. 1942. They married in Hitler’s Berlin bunker on April 29, and both committed suicide on April 30, 1945. (242-EB-27-15E)

But the dictator had something else on his mind at tea time.

“Come along,” he said to Junge, “I want to dictate something.”

They went into the conference room next to Hitler’s quarters, and Junge began to uncover the typewriter she usually used to take down his dictation.

Not this time, however, as Greg Bradsher recounts in “Hitler’s Final Words” in the Spring 2015 issue of Prologue magazine, the National Archives’ flagship publication.

“Take it down on the shorthand pad,” Hitler said. So she sat down and waited for him to begin.

“My political testament,” he said.

Then came words that millions had heard before, she later recalled, “the explanations, accusations and demands that I, the German people and the whole world would know already.”

After finishing his “political testament,” he dictated his personal will, then told Junge to type the documents out in triplicate and bring them to him.

Signature page of Hitler's will. (National Archives Identifier 6883511)

Signature page of Hitler’s will. (National Archives Identifier 6883511)

Marriage certificate of Adolf Hitler and Eva Braun. (National Archives Identifier 6883511)

Marriage certificate of Adolf Hitler and Eva Braun. (National Archives Identifier 6883511)

The dictator then headed to another room in the bunker to marry Eva Braun and wait for Junge to finish her typing assignment. Hitler wanted copies of this testament and will to go to three different locations and wanted to see the couriers on their way before moving to the next item on his plan.

The couriers left. Finally, at 3:30 p.m. on April 30, 1945—the war in Europe just eight days from an Allied victory—Hitler and his new bride committed suicide.

Today, one set of the documents is in the holdings of the National Archives, where it first went on display in April 1946. Greg Bradsher’s article also tells the story of the documents’ journey to the National Archives.


On Exhibit: sketch of the RMS Lusitania’s lifeboat storage mechanism

Today’s post comes from Zach Kopin, an intern in the National Archives History Office in Washington, DC. 

To honor the pivotal role its sinking played in turning U.S. popular opinion against Germany during World War I, a sketch of the RMS Lusitania’s lifeboat storage mechanism is now on display at the National Archives in Washington, DC.

Sketch Showing Lifeboats Stowed and Secured on Board the RMS. Lusitania, 12/6/1917. National Archives Identifier 17369675

Sketch Showing Lifeboats Stowed and Secured on Board the RMS. Lusitania, 12/6/1917. (National Archives Identifier 17369675)

Built in England, the RMS Lusitania was the pride of the Cunard Line’s fleet. Lusitania completed 201 Atlantic ocean crossings between her maiden voyage in September 1907 and May 1915, holding the record for the fastest time between 1907 and 1909.

The Lusitania left New York for the final time on May 1, 1915, under good weather, but that did not mean she was entering calm waters.

Although technically still neutral in 1915, the United States continued to conduct commerce with the Great Britain, a practice that put the Lusitania at risk. Fearing passenger boats would be used to ship war material, the German government approved unrestricted submarine warfare in February 1915.

After sighting her on May 7, 1915, off the coast of Ireland, the German submarine U-20 fired a single torpedo at the ship at 3:10 p.m. It was a direct hit.

A secondary explosion rocked the Lusitania shortly after the torpedo hit, only adding to the confusion on the ship. As passengers and crew scrambled to the lifeboats, survival took precedence over custom and law as those aboard discovered that many lifeboats were impossible to launch.

Survivor James Leary recalled that he reminded a crewmember that sailors were legally required to save passengers before abandoning ship. The crewman replied “passengers be damned: save yourself first.”

Eighteen minutes after being struck, the Lusitania lay beneath the waves. In total, 1,198 civilians perished, including 128 Americans, largely due to the Lusitania’s poorly designed lifeboat launch system.

A century later, historians question whether the U-20’s sinking of the Lusitania led the United States to enter World War I. Yet, they generally agree that it played a significant role in turning public opinion against Germany. Past blogs have explored this relationship, which can be found here and here.

Regardless of whether or not it was a contributing factor in sending our doughboys to France, the Lusitania is a notable chapter in the history of World War I and the United States more generally.

In recognition of the centennial of the sinking of the Lusitania, a sketch of the lifeboats will be on display in the East Rotunda Gallery of the National Archives in Washington, DC, from April 30 through June 3, 2015.

Interested in learning more about the United States and World War I? Check out George H. Nash’s article “’An American Epic’: Herbert Hoover and Belgian Relief in World War I” in the Spring 1989 issue of Prologue.


Opening the Doors to Debate

Today’s post comes from Kate Mollan, archivist in the Center for Legislative Archives in Washington, DC. 

Resolution to Open the Doors of the Senate Chamber, April 29, 1790. (Records of the U.S. Senate, National Archives)

Resolution to Open the Doors of the Senate Chamber, April 29, 1790. (Records of the U.S. Senate, National Archives)

From the earliest days of the First Congress there were clamors for the Senate to open the doors to its chamber so that the public and press could witness the proceedings. Unlike the House of Representatives, the early Senate chose to hold its deliberations in secret.

On April 29, 1790, a resolution to open the chamber was made. A day later, the Senate rejected it. This was the first of several unsuccessful motions to open the chamber during the first few years of the Senate’s history.

As there is no record of the debate, the Senate’s reasons for maintaining secrecy are largely unknown. However, it is likely there was concern that the impulse to speak to the assembled public and use more impassioned rhetoric might impede doing the people’s business in an expedient fashion. By keeping its doors closed, the Senate was following the example of the Continental and Confederation Congresses as well as the Constitutional Convention.

Yeas and Nays on Motion to Open the Doors of the Senate, February 18, 1794. (Records of the U.S. Senate, National Archives)

Yeas and Nays on Motion to Open the Doors of the Senate, February 18, 1794. (Records of the U.S. Senate, National Archives)

Meeting in secret also meant greater freedom of discussion. Many senators looked with disdain at the tumultuous House and accused the members of playing to the gallery rather than focusing on the business at hand.

Moreover, most senators felt that the Senate Journal, the constitutionally mandated record of Senate proceedings, was adequate for providing sufficient information to the press and public. The Journal provides the minutes of floor proceedings, including votes, but does not record debate or speeches of individual senators.

The movement to open the doors was led by state legislatures, which appointed the senators for their states. Many states believed that there should be increased accountability. Critics of closed-door proceedings protested that the Senate Journal was not adequate, and that by withholding the deliberations from public view, senators were less answerable to the citizens of their states.

The press accused the Senate with aristocratic arrogance in not allowing reporters or the public to listen to debate. They argued that abuses of power might go undetected.

It wasn’t until 1794 that a resolution finally passed to open the Senate chamber. In December of 1795, after suitable visitors’ galleries were constructed at Congress Hall in Philadelphia, where Congress met from 1790 to 1800 before moving to the District of Columbia, members of the press and public were allowed to hear debate from senators for the first time.

Debates were subsequently summarized and published by Philadelphia newspapers, which sent reporters to cover the proceedings from the gallery. Because of the difficulty in hearing all the activity from the gallery, in 1802 stenographers were allowed onto the floor of the chamber.

Soon the National Intelligencer, a Washington newspaper, began to regularly print verbatim debates. Future publishers of that newspaper, Joseph Gales and William Winston Seaton, later expanded their coverage of debates in the publication Register of Debates, which was a forerunner to the Congressional Record.

Letter to the Honorable Ernest E. Garcia, Sergeant at Arms, from Charles McC. Mathias, Jr., Chairman of the Rules Committee, July 18, 1986, page 1. (Records of the U.S. Senate, National Archives)

Letter to the Honorable Ernest E. Garcia, Sergeant at Arms, from Charles McC. Mathias, Jr., Chairman of the Rules Committee, July 18, 1986, page 1. (Records of the U.S. Senate, National Archives)

More recently, in the 1980s, the Senate faced another difficult decision: whether to allow television coverage of its deliberations. Televised proceedings of the House of Representatives began in 1979, and from 1981 through 1986, the Senate debated the issue of allowing television cameras in the chamber.

The arguments over TV coverage were similar to those made almost 200 years earlier about opening the doors to the chamber.

Advocates, such as Tennessee Senator Albert Gore, touted increased transparency, more informed debate, and an increase in the Senate’s visibility among the public.

Opponents argued the temptation to play to the gallery would be too great; that individual senators would give more speeches of a partisan nature, furthering their own narrow causes; and the television cameras would threaten the customs and traditions of the Senate.

“My fundamental objection to television is rooted in my deep concern that television in the Senate will result in an increase in political expediency at the expense of statesmanship,” said Louisiana Democrat Russell B. Long.

Letter to the Honorable Ernest E. Garcia, Sergeant at Arms, from Charles McC. Mathias, Jr., Chairman of the Rules Committee, July 18, 1986, page 2. (Records of the U.S. Senate, National Archives)

Letter to the Honorable Ernest E. Garcia, Sergeant at Arms, from Charles McC. Mathias, Jr., Chairman of the Rules Committee, July 18, 1986, page 2. (Records of the U.S. Senate, National Archives)

The Senate had previously televised special events. In 1974, television cameras were allowed in the Senate chamber for the first time, to show the swearing-in of Nelson Rockefeller as Vice President.

Since the 1950s, television cameras captured committee hearings of great public interest, such as the hearings of the Special Committee on Organized Crime in Interstate Commerce (the Kefauver Committee). There was still some reluctance, however, on the part of the more senior senators to allow full television coverage of the Senate’s regular business.

In 1986 that all changed. After a two-month experiment of televising chamber proceedings, more senators grew comfortable with the idea of television. The Senate voted to allow permanent television coverage of the proceedings in the chamber.
Like the House, the Senate controlled the cameras and made the footage available to the C-SPAN network, where a nationwide audience can tune in to watch Senate floor proceedings broadcast live.

Critics may still decry the effect of openness on the Senate, as well as on the House, but the push for accountability and transparency continues in the digital age, with new technologies ensuring that “to the end that such of the citizens of the United States as may choose to hear the debates of this house may have an opportunity of so doing,” as the first resolution to open the Senate’s doors urged.