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Laying the cornerstone for the FDR Library

On November 19, 1939, President Franklin D. Roosevelt laid the cornerstone of the Roosevelt Library and Museum in Hyde Park, NY—the first Presidential library within the National Archives.

FDR Library Cornerstone Ceremony, November 19, 1939. (Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum)

FDR Library cornerstone ceremony, November 19, 1939. (Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum)

In front of an estimated 1,000 onlookers, Roosevelt placed inside the cornerstone a metal box containing several items including the Articles of Incorporation of the Franklin D. Roosevelt Library, Inc.; several congressional resolutions, reports, and hearings related to the library; copies of deeds related to the property; Archivist of the United States R.D.W. Connor’s 1939 Society of American Archivist address on the Roosevelt Library; and copies of New York daily newspapers from November 19, 1939.

During his Presidency, Roosevelt contemplated what to do with his papers. After careful consideration, he devised a plan to preserve, intact, all his correspondence, public papers, pamphlets, books, private papers, and other valuable source material into an archive to be housed on his family estate at Hyde Park. However, he did not intend for the collection to be privately owned—Roosevelt wanted the Federal Government to own the material and for it to be open to the public.

In July 1939, Congress approved the establishment and maintenance of the library, authorizing the Archivist of the United States to accept land in Hyde Park, NY, and permit a nonprofit to construct the library. Once complete, FDR would donate material for the library’s collection, and the National Archives would manage it.

During the cornerstone laying ceremony, with R.D.W. Connor in attendance, FDR remarked, “This wholly adequate building will be turned over, as you know, to the Government of the United States next summer without any cost whatsoever to the taxpayers of the country. During the following year the manuscripts, the letters, the books, the pictures and the models will be placed in their appropriate settings, and the collections will be ready for public inspection and use, we hope, by the spring of 1941.”

Roosevelt’s comment about the library opening in 1941 caused immediate speculation that he would not run for a third term (as we know he ran for a third . . . and fourth term). The museum opened to the public on June 30, 1941, but the research room did not open until a year after Roosevelt’s death.

FDR Library Cornerstone Ceremony, November 19, 1939. (Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum)

FDR Library cornerstone ceremony, November 19, 1939. (Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum)


Was Harding’s mistress a spy? The National Archives knows and tells.

Today’s post comes from Miriam Kleiman of the National Archives Public Affairs Staff.

I’ve worked at the National Archives for many years and have always been content with our 13 Presidential libraries (Hoover through Bush 43). Sure, I’ve thought wistfully about a Washington, Adams, or Lincoln Library. But only recently did I long for a Warren G. Harding Library to be part of NARA!

Warren G. Harding. (111-P-1627, National Archives Identifier 530676)

Warren G. Harding. (111-P-1627, National Archives Identifier 530676)

Our neighbors down the road at the Library of Congress recently shared online more than 1,000 pages of love letters from Warren Gamaliel Harding to his longtime paramour, Mrs. Carrie Fulton Phillips.

I’ve read letters between John and Abigail Adams, and between Harry and Bess Truman. And while interesting, those seem G-rated in comparison to the wild, impassioned, heated, salacious letters (the early 20th-century version of sexting) from Warren to Carrie.

Is this news?

Historic Presidential affairs are not news; we’ve long heard of Harding’s carnal appetite. He boasted to a group of reporters: “It’s a good thing I’m not a woman. I would always be pregnant. I can’t say no.” Even during his Presidency, there were reports of mistresses, dalliances with young aides, and even illegitimate children.

But many of the affairs of other past Presidents didn’t leave a paper trail.

What is unique about this affair is the newly available extensive documentation. And the mix of personal and political: Harding vacillates between pillow talk and debate, and his letters reflect passion as well as growing uncertainty and fear of exposure to both the American public and to the German government.

Was the mistress a spy?

The question is not “Did she or didn’t she?” The Library of Congress has that covered. It’s clear that Mrs. Phillips and Mr. Harding had a long and torrid affair. The question is not “Was she pro-German?” It’s clear she supported Germany and opposed U.S. entry into World War I. The question to pursue in National Archives records is “Was she, or wasn’t she, a German spy?”

Harding praised Phillips’s “perfect thighs” and “beautiful form” but found her pro-German sympathies less attractive. National Archives records show that a few U.S. Government agencies found such sympathies of even greater concern, and monitored Phillips at home in Marion, OH, and during her visits to Harding in Washington.

In March 1915, a few months after the start of World War I, Harding wrote “I have never approved of your war attitude, but I have loved you no less.”

In February 1917, Harding recognized her “intense partnership and sympathy for and devotion to Germany” but stated, “I can and will do my duty accordingly to my best conscience and understanding and then take the consequences” if asked to support the war.

Department of Justice memorandum concerning Mrs. Phillips's pro-German sentiments. (Records of the ..., Record Group ..)

Department of Justice memorandum concerning Mrs. Phillips’s pro-German sentiments. (Records of the Military Intelligence Division, Records of the War Department General and Special Staffs, RG 165)

In April 1917, the month the United States entered World War I, Harding criticized Phillips for switching from lovemaking to politics during their last liaison, expressing the “shock” “when out of the very halo of blissful existence . . . you suddenly threatened me with exposure to the Germans.”

This is where the Archives trail gets hot. The War Department’s Military Intelligence Chief wrote then-Senator Harding (referencing Phillips and her daughter), asking “whether you do know them and anything you may know concerning them which would throw light on their loyalty to this country.”

Letter from the Chief of the War Department's Military Intelligence Section to Senator Harding, November 12, 1917. (Records of the ..., Record Group ...)

Letter from the Chief of the War Department’s Military Intelligence Section to Senator Harding, November 12, 1917. (Records of the Military Intelligence Division, Records of the War Department General and Special Staffs, RG 165)

Excerpt from Senator Harding's reply to the Chief of the Military Section, November 23, 1917. (Records of the ... , Record Group ...)

Excerpt from Senator Harding’s reply to the Chief of the Military Intelligence Section, November 23, 1917. (Records of the Military Intelligence Division, Records of the War Department General and Special Staffs, RG 165)

In February 1918, Harding begs Phillips to “be prudent in talking to others” about her pro-German sympathies. In June, he says people are discussing her pro-German sympathies “at home and echoed in 40 directions” and that she has been “reported to the departments here.” Furthermore, the senator writes: “People said you influenced my votes.” He urges her to be cautious.

An intelligence report that month cites accusations that Mrs. Phillips “has made many unpatriotic statements,” “is a traitor to her country,” and is “receiving money from German Government.” Department of Justice records show that officials there were tracking her visits to Senator Harding.

Extract from a Justice Department intelligence report, February 16-18, 1918. (Records of the ..., Record Group ...)

Extract from a Justice Department intelligence report, February 16-18, 1918. (Records of the Military Intelligence Division, Records of the War Department General and Special Staffs, RG 165)

Stay tuned as we explore the National Archives’ paper trial. While not as salacious as the Library of Congress’s trove, these records may yield definitive information about whether Philips’s pro-German activity veered beyond sympathy into active support.

And a shout-out to Florence, Harding’s long-suffering wife (about whom he wrote “there isn’t one iota of affection in my home relationship . . . It is merely existence, necessary for appearance’s sake.”)

Florence supported his political career and once remarked, “I have only one real hobby—my husband.” Tammy Wynette would be proud.


Discovering “Origin Stories” of the National Archives

Today’s post comes from Alan Walker, an archivist in the Textual Processing unit in the National Archives at College Park, MD. In celebration of American Archives Month, Alan gave a talk on interesting finds in the Records of the National Archives. You can view Alan’s talk on the National Archives YouTube Channel

National Archives Employee Identification Cards, 1941. (Records of the National Archives)

National Archives Employee Identification Cards, 1941. (Records of the National Archives)

What’s so great about a bunch of old employee ID cards? You might well wonder.

Since I was a kid, I’ve been drawn to pictures. I would devour illustrated children’s encyclopedia volumes over my morning cereal. Even now, if a nonfiction work has a picture section, I always go to it first. While I read, I constantly flip back to the photos. Images help to give my imagination a framework, a point of reference.

Over the past five years, as I have worked to arrange and describe the office files of the National Archives. I’ve read reams of documents from employees of this agency. I’ve often wished I could see a photo of that person; to make that small connection with someone who helped to make the history of one of our nation’s most important institutions.

Wish granted.

As an archivist in the Textual Processing unit at the National Archives, I am constantly elbow-deep in old, filthy boxes filled with the routine, the bizarre, the touching, and the amazing. To have the privilege of working on my own’ agency’s records is great enough, but to discover such finds as these is really like a small present from the past.

And those presents just keep coming. To see more of such finds as these, view my recent presentation about this amazing project:

 


On Exhibit: John Wilkes Booth’s Calling Card

Today’s post comes from Emma Rothberg, intern in the National Archives History Office. 

John Wilkes Booth's Calling Card, 04/14/1865. (National Archives Identifier 7873510)

John Wilkes Booth’s Calling Card, 04/14/1865. (National Archives Identifier 7873510)

Tucked in a corner in the Lawrence F. O’Brien Gallery at the National Archives in Washington, DC, is a rectangular piece of paper faded grey with time. It is unobtrusive and, due to its small size, could easily be missed among the larger and flashier documents and artifacts. But this card is a reminder of one of the most resonant and well known stories of American history—that of President Abraham Lincoln’s assassination by the actor and Confederate sympathizer John Wilkes Booth.

Vice President Andrew Johnson, undated. (National Archives Identifier 530496)

Vice President Andrew Johnson, undated. (National Archives Identifier 530496)

On April 14, 1865, Vice President Johnson was staying at the Kirkwood House—a hotel that stood at the corner of 12th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue, NW.  Also in the hotel, and in a room directly one floor above the Vice President’s suite, was George Atzerodt. He was a fellow conspirator in Booth’s larger plot to murder President Lincoln, Secretary of State William H. Seward, and Vice President Johnson and thus throwing the recently victorious North into chaos and disarray. Atzerodt—a German carriage painter from Maryland who had spent the Civil War years ferrying Confederates across the Potomac—arrived at the Kirkwood House on the morning of the 14th. His task: to assassinate Vice President Johnson.

Like a character from a bad cop movie, Atzerodt proved to be an inept conspirator—he signed for the room with his own name and spent most of his “surveillance” time in the hotel bar asking suspicious questions about Johnson. Once drunk, Atzerodt armed himself and asked the desk clerk to point him in the direction of the Vice President’s ground-floor room. When told that Johnson had just returned to his room, Atzerodt balked and immediately left the hotel. He spent the next several hours drunkenly wandering around the streets of Washington. Vice President Johnson left shortly afterward for his own meeting with Lincoln at the White House.

John Wilkes Booth, undated. (National Archives Identifier 518136)

John Wilkes Booth, undated. (National Archives Identifier 518136)

Later that afternoon, just hours before he assassinated Lincoln, John Wilkes Booth arrived at the Kirkwood Hotel looking for George Atzerodt.  Upon learning of his co-conspirator’s flight, Booth asked for a blank card, addressed it to Vice President Johnson and wrote, “Don’t wish to disturb you Are you at home? J. Wilkes Booth.”

This card is now on display in “Making Their Mark: Stories Through Signatures,” an exhibit at the National Archives Building in Washington, DC.

We all know the rest of the story. President Lincoln, joined by his wife Mary, Maj. Henry Rathbone and his fiancée, Clara Harris, attended a staging of the popular comedy Our American Cousin at Ford’s Theatre on 10th Street on the night of April 14. Having acted on its stage, Booth knew the ins and outs of the theatre, and he was also quite familiar with the play. He walked up the back stairs, waited for the line that would garner the most laughs (Mr. Trenchard: “Well, I guess I know enough to turn you inside out, you sockdologizing old man-trap”), and fired into the back of Lincoln’s head.

Private box in Ford's Theater where President Lincoln was assassinated by John Wilkes Booth, on the night of April 14, 1865. (National Archives Identifier 559275)

Private box in Ford’s Theater where President Lincoln was assassinated by John Wilkes Booth, on the night of April 14, 1865. (National Archives Identifier 559275)

The crowd was at first unaware of what had happened, thinking it was a part of the play, until audience members heard Mary’s scream from the Presidential box and saw Booth jumping to the stage. As he jumped, he caught his boot spur on the bunting and broke his left shin bone as he landed. Booth then uttered his famous line, “Sic semper tyrannis”—“Thus always to tyrants,” the Virginia state motto—before hobbling off the stage and making his escape on horseback.

President Abraham Lincoln died the next morning at 7:22 a.m. on April 15, 1865.

Historians continue to debate why Booth would have left this card for Vice President Johnson. The Senate’s biography on Andrew Johnson posits the idea that, upon knowing that Atzerodt was not up to task, Booth devised a plan to implicate the Vice President in the conspiracy. Having to explain a calling card left by the assassin of the President of the United States would certainly create problems for Johnson and further Booth’s ultimate plan of throwing the North into confusion.

Fortunately for Johnson, his secretary William A. Browning picked up the mail (including Booth’s calling card) assuming it was for him. Browning had met Booth once after a theater performance.

Whether or not this is the whole story behind the calling card, the signature gives us pause.

We know what it speaks to, we know the date it was signed, and we recognize the name. We recognize this calling card and this signature—a signature that played a direct role in the assassination of one of the United States’s most beloved Presidents—as small yet important parts in a story that we all know so well.

The exhibit “Making Their Mark: Stories Through Signatures” is free and open to the public in the Lawrence F. O’Brien Gallery of the National Archives Building in Washington, DC, through January 5, 2015.


The Ike Jacket

Today’s post comes from Timothy Rives, deputy director of the Eisenhower Presidential Library and Museum. In honor of Veterans Day and those who have worn a uniform while serving their country, here’s the story behind the famous jacket now on display in our exhibit “Making Their Mark: Stories Through Signatures.”

General Dwight D. Eisenhower considered the Army’s World War II military uniform to be restricting and poorly suited for combat. Instead he had a standard issue wool field jacket tailored to be “very short, very comfortable, and very natty looking.” The resulting “Eisenhower jacket” or “Ike jacket,” as it came to be known, was standard issue to American troops after November 1944. This “Ike jacket” was worn by Eisenhower.

One of General Eisenhower's jackets is currently on display in the "Making Their Mark" exhibit at the National Archives Building in Washington, DC.

One of General Eisenhower’s jackets is currently on display in the “Making Their Mark” exhibit at the National Archives Building in Washington, DC.

Ike urged theater-wide adoption of the shorter jacket in a May 5, 1943, letter to General George C. Marshall, the Army Chief of Staff:

I have no doubt that you have been impressed by the virtual impossibility of appearing neat and snappy in our field uniform. Given a uniform which tends to look a bit tough, and the natural proclivities of the American soldier quickly create a general impression of a disorderly mob. From this standpoint alone, the matter is bad enough; but a worse effect is the inevitable result upon the general discipline This matter of discipline is not only the most important of our internal military problems, it is the most difficult. In support of all other applicable methods for the development of satisfactory methods we should have a neater and smarter uniform. I suggest the Quartermaster begin now serious work to design a better woolen uniform for next winter’s wear.

Ike’s argument won the day, and the “Wool Field Jacket, M-1944” debuted in the European Theater of Operations in November 1944. The iconic jacket continued to be issued to American troops until 1956, when a general phase out begin. The Ike jacket was gone from the Army inventory by October 1960, according to the US Army Center of Military History.

Buried in a plain Army casket and adorned in his namesake jacket, Eisenhower rests in peace in the Place of Meditation on the grounds of the Eisenhower Presidential Library in Abilene, Kansas.

Dwight D. Eisenhower Presidential Library and Museum, National Archives (63-92)

Dwight D. Eisenhower Presidential Library and Museum, National Archives (63-92)