Thursday, May 28, 2009

Long-lost Lincoln letter returned

An extremely valuable letter by Abraham Lincoln dated November 14, 1863 -- missing from public records for maybe 100 years -- has been donated today by a private collector to the National Archives.

The brief note on Executive Mansion letterhead in the President's handwriting signed "A.Lincoln" was sent to Treasury Secretary Salmon Chase. It was written five days before Lincoln delivered the Gettysburg Address, providing insight into the president's regard for a personal friend and his interest in West Coast politics even in the midst of the Civil War.

National Archivists discovered the Lincoln letter being sold online in 2006. It originally had been torn or fallen from an 1880 bound volume of government correspondence to the Treasury Department. There is no evidence that the letter was ever stolen, and how it went missing remains a mystery.

When contacted by Archivists, the letter's owner, Lawrence Cutler, a private collector in Tempe, Arizona decided to donate it during the bicentennial of Lincoln's birthday. Cutler would not disclose what he paid for the letter at auction three years ago, but said a similar Lincoln letter sold for $78,000.

Lincoln's note concerns the misfortunes of Robert Stevens, the son-in-law of Lincoln's old friend, Oregon Sen. Edward Baker. Baker, a fellow Republican, died in battle in 1861. That year, Lincoln had appointed Stevens to a patronage job as head of the U.S. Mint in San Francisco. However, in April, 1863 Treasury Secretary Chase fired Stevens based on an investigative report listing six charges against Stevens:

1) the hiring of bad men
2) partiality as to the wages of clerks and laborers
3) encouragement of insubordination and contempt for authority
4) "Sponges and Barnacles" on the payroll
5) purchase of inferior supplies at exorbitant rates
6) being arrogant and discourteous to his managers.

Stevens protested his firing, finally resorting to writing to President Lincoln. While Lincoln was not willing to override Chase's decision, he did feel that Stevens deserved to see the charges againt him, and that prompted the President to write this newly returned letter:

Hon. Sec. of Treasury

My Dear Sir,

Mr. Stevens, late Superintendent of the Mint at San Francisco, asks to have a copy, or be permitted to examine, and take extracts, of the evidence upon which he was removed. Please oblige him in one way or the other.

Yours truly, A.Lincoln


  1. Too late! I thought I'd be first with that story, Gin, but glad it got posted. After I read it, I couldn't help wondering about those "sponges and barnacles on the payroll" CA is currently being subjected to daily cries of "the sky is falling" and each day some new group of state workers/services is to be on the Governator's chopping block. AFAIK, the only sponges & barnacles in the payroll here are the state legislators who are so paralyzed by fear of being ousted (or to go against the dictates of their interest group "sponsors" that they don't do what they were elected to do. These combine with a statutory requirement for a balanced budget, a requirement for a 2/3 vote on any fiscal measure and an exhausting level of participatory democracy through ballot initiatives that dictate where large portions of the state budget is to go...well, our fair land fast approaches the status of, how you say, a failed state.

  2. New York, I find what is happening in California frightening. It seems like it could be a predictor of things yet to come.

  3. I liked the sponges and barnacles, too.

    I'm just at the point where Lincoln is having second thoughts about the head of the Department of War, who also has his own barnacles and, oblivious, seems to be dithering with scraps of paper in his pocket while Rome burns.

    I am continually amazed at what Lincoln was able to accomplish considering those he had to work with.

  4. New York:

    RE California:

    Nearly all of the billions of dollars in cuts the administration has proposed would affect programs for poor Californians, although prisons and schools would take hits, as well.

    “Government doesn’t provide services to rich people,” Mike Genest, the state’s finance director, said on a conference call with reporters on Friday. “It doesn’t even really provide services to the middle class.” He added: “You have to cut where the money is.”

  5. Hi avrds: I didn't read the article, the quote was enough to elicit an ARRGGGHHH! As IF the state doesn't provide to rich people! I guess they don't use schools, roads, sewers, emergency services, law enf. etc., etc. In CA the state certainly favors them that has...largely by way of the infamous Proposition 13 in 1978 that radically altered the property tax that, in most places, is the foundation of funding for state goods/services, switching the burden here to payers of income tax (progressive in nature but not so much in application) and sales tax (regressive since it's the same rate for rich and poor so it hurts the poor more).

    (Dunno if it's legit to keep posting in here since the ToR discussion is under way, so will bow out here and go there.)

  6. Yes, I had a couple responses to this article -- one was that the rich and middle class have brought this down upon themselves with their Prop 13 and refusal to pay taxes to keep the infrastructure of the state going. The other was, well they got theirs, so to heck with the others.

    But it's still hard to read that the state will cut where it's easiest -- in services to the poor. It does not bode well for the future of your state. Or the country.

    Do you know the work of Josh Kornbluth? He tours a little bit but mostly performs in Berkeley and SF at the Magic Theater and at the old fort. He has a new one-man show on taxes which I would love to see. I think he's a genius.

    Here's his website just in case:

  7. Yes, I am indeed a Kornbluth fan and happy to meet another and to have that link because I haven't seen him for some time.

    For a while he had a weekly half-hour interview show on the local PBS station--his "endearing nebbish" persona makes for a unique interview style.

  8. I hope you've had a chance to see him in person. His shows are amazing!

    Years ago, I went to see the Mathematics of Change, about "hitting the [math] wall" at Princeton. My SF friends thought I was nuts going to see a one man show about mathematics, but it was incredible.

    Then I got to see his show about Franklin which is another stunner and involves Franklin's relationship with his son as a mirror to his relationship with his own father. There are also lots of interesting asides about the woman at Yale who edited Franklin's letters, who was at the performance I attended.

    He's an amazing talent. Glad you know of him!