Of Note: Lincoln Reelected. Simple Message, Complex Messaging System

Of Note is an occasional series in which we share items that have caught our eye.

Handwritten message on printed telegram form

Cassius Marcellus Clay to Anson Burlingame, November 23, 1864, Box 2, Anson Burlingame and Edward L. Burlingame Family Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

Sometimes a document catches your eye for the complexity behind the simplicity. On November 23, 1864, Cassius Marcellus Clay (1810-1903), the United States envoy extraordinary and minister plenipotentiary in Russia, sent a telegram to his counterpart in China, Anson Burlingame (1820-1870). The message was simple enough: Abraham Lincoln had been reelected president.

Burlingame standing between two seated unidentified Chinese associates with photo studio backdrop

Anson Burlingame and unidentified Chinese associates, undated carte de visite by Mathew Brady studio, New York, Box 2, Anson Burlingame and Edward L. Burlingame Family Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

What prompted me to linger on this telegram was not the content of the message, but its context. Clay sent the message from St. Petersburg, Russia, using a telegraphic form printed in Russian. He directed it to be delivered by mail to Burlingame in Peking (now Beijing), China. The message itself was written in French, the language of diplomacy and diplomats in the nineteenth century. Thus, this one little telegram involved two American ambassadors, serving in two different nations, based in cities located on two different continents, communicating in two different international languages (or perhaps three languages, considering the Morse code used to transmit the text), all to confirm the news that Abraham Lincoln had won the 1864 presidential election back home. A momentary intersection of communications technology, domestic politics, and international relations all contained in a roughly 8.5” x 10.5” piece of paper.

This telegram is now housed among Anson Burlingame’s State Department and diplomatic documents in container 2 of the Anson Burlingame and Edward L. Burlingame Family Papers, in the Manuscript Division of the Library of Congress.

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