Researcher Stories: Charles W. Calhoun and the American 19th Century

Historian and author Charles W. Calhoun. Photo: Bonnie Calhoun.

Charles W. Calhoun is Thomas Harriot distinguished professor of history emeritus at East Carolina University. He has spent countless hours immersed in the Manuscript Division’s collections. His discoveries have informed multiple books, including his most recent, “The Presidency of Ulysses S. Grant.”

What first brought you to the Library?

I have long thought of the Library of Congress as my second home. My research in the Library’s Manuscript Division extends back more than 50 years. As an undergraduate at Yale University in the late 1960s, I wrote my senior essay on the political career of Walter Q. Gresham, a Civil War general, federal judge and cabinet officer. The Library holds a good-sized collection of Gresham’s papers, and I traveled by train from New Haven, Connecticut, to Washington, D.C., to examine them. I had previously used microfilm editions of the Manuscript Division’s collections of presidential papers, but now there I was, holding in my hands actual documents. I was hooked.

I can’t recall how many trips I made to the Library that year. I consulted not only Gresham’s papers but several other collections as well. Conducting this research and writing the essay was transformative for me. I switched my long-held career goal of becoming a lawyer to going to graduate school in history.

The Gresham essay wound up being the germ of my doctoral dissertation which evolved into my first book. My specialty is late 19th-century American political history, a subject for which the Manuscript Division’s holdings are particularly rich. Whenever I am developing a new project, one of the first questions is always: What pertinent collections are in the Library of Congress?

Over the years, I have used other parts of the Library, including the general book collection, the Law Library and the Newspaper and Prints and Photographs reading rooms — all of them, of course, superb. But I have spent most of my time in the Manuscript Reading Room. Its staff is absolutely top-notch.

Which collections have you used?

They are too numerous to list by name. For my Grant presidency book alone, I read more than 40 manuscript collections at the Library. Many of the presidential papers collections are quite large. But others rival them, including the 600-plus bound volumes of the letters of John Sherman, the senator and cabinet secretary. Some collections are small, comprising only a folder or two, but even these can yield useful gems. In addition to the Library’s own holdings of manuscripts, the division houses many microform editions of collections held elsewhere.

What are some of your favorite discoveries?

The examples abound, so I’ll mention just a few.

Benjamin Harrison in 1896. Prints and Photographs Division.

I was struck by how many of the ideas that Benjamin Harrison expressed in his college papers informed the policies he later pursued as a senator and president. The understated prose of Hamilton Fish’s diary takes us behind the scenes during the Grant administration — he served as Grant’s secretary of state. He not only brings policymaking and political maneuvering to life, but he also offers numerous choice nuggets, such as Grant’s thoughts of resigning within a year of taking office. In processing John Sherman’s papers, were the Library’s archivists dutifully preserving a manifestation of obsessive compulsion when they included a receipt Sherman kept for an umbrella he had left on a train? And the tiny collection of Jacob William Schuckers, private secretary to U.S. Supreme Court Justice Salmon P. Chase, contains a marvelous memorandum describing Sen. Charles Sumner as “an extremely intolerant man; a species of Sir Anthony Absolute in politics; very easy to get along with if you always humbly agreed with him.”

Tell us about your use of the presidential collections online.

In the era of shrinking research budgets and dwindling travel funds, the Library’s decision to offer these indispensable resources online represents a tremendous boon to scholarship. The shutdown associated with the COVID-19 pandemic underscores the wisdom of that decision. I am delighted to see that additional collections are being made available even while the Library is closed.

Viewing the materials online is a bit more cumbersome than flipping pieces of paper, but the payoff is the same. And you can do it in the comfort of your own home any time of day or night, seven days a week.

How would you advise researchers new to navigating the collections?

The reading rooms house finding aids for a great many of the collections. These describe in detail the materials in the collections (kinds of documents, dates covered and so forth), so that readers can target their research on what is pertinent. Over the past few years, the Library staff has updated and improved many of these finding aids. Many of them are also available online, so that one can plan one’s research effort in advance of making a trip to the Library (or in conjunction with using a digitized collection).

And, a point that is relevant to research in other repositories as well: You have to know cursive. Now that elementary schools are omitting instruction in this basic skill, graduate departments are enjoining their rising scholars to acquire it. But even for researchers of earlier generations for whom cursive is second nature, reading the handwriting found in historical collections can be challenging.

Oddly enough, I have discovered that many 19th-century newspaper editors suffered from terrible penmanship, sometimes making their letters practically illegible. Horace Greeley, John W. Forney and Murat Halstead seemed locked in competition for the prize for most indecipherable hand. Halstead’s letters are sometimes accompanied by a “translation,” perhaps prepared by a clerk to make them intelligible to the recipients.

But it is also true that handwriting may suggest something about an individual’s personality or character. I’m no handwriting expert, but it strikes me that Benjamin Harrison’s supposed cold rigidity may be reflected in his writing, which is precisely uniform but as jagged as a readout of an EKG. James Harrison Wilson’s brash egotism shines through in his bold, rounded, well-formed words.

What’s next for you?

I am currently working on a project examining the presidential elections of 1868 and 1872 won by Grant. I am particularly interested in these campaigns and elections as critical steps in the reconstruction of the American political system after its profound disruption by the Civil War and its immediate aftermath. Once again, the Manuscript Division is the first stop in the journey.

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