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Enabling Student Wonder to Drive Exploration of Presidential Papers

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In the October 2020 issue of Social Education, the journal of the National Council for the Social Studies, our “Sources and Strategies” article featured presidential correspondence from the collections of James Garfield, Ulysses S. Grant, Benjamin Harrison, William Howard Taft, Theodore Roosevelt, and Calvin Coolidge.

Benjamin Harrison Papers: Series 4, Telegrams, image 15

The Library of Congress Manuscript Division holds the papers of 23 U.S. presidents, reflecting official and personal business. Individual items can serve as points of entry for student exploration into not only the presidency, but also into leadership, decision making, current events, communication, technologies, and much more. Simply put, they can make students wonder. Explore some of the featured items and see what questions and connections they spark in your students!

For example, W.H.H. Hutton, a surgeon in the U.S. Marine Hospital Service sent a telegram to Benjamin Harrison, congratulating him on his victory. In just a few lines, it shared his insight into the South, the Republican Party, tariff issues, and race relations. The article suggested presenting the telegram to students as a launching point to further explore the collection or to investigate questions it prompts.

William H. Taft Papers: Series 6: Executive Office Correspondence, image 502

The article also featured a telegram from Lucien A. Howard of Dayton, Ohio, delivered to President William Howard Taft just a few days after the RMS Titanic struck an iceberg in the north Atlantic. Referring to the sinking of the Titanic, the telegram commented on the leadership styles of President Theodore Roosevelt (who had served from 1901-1909) and Taft, and how each might have responded as captain of the ship. The telegram sums up Howard’s thoughts on the sinking of the Titanic as well as his opinions on the two presidents. Encourage students to brainstorm questions and then conduct research to gather information.

Calvin Coolidge Papers: Series 1: Executive Office Correspondence, image 88

On May 23, 1927, John H. Becker, of The Foto Shop in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, sent a letter to President Calvin Coolidge on his company’s letterhead. His handwritten note, drafted just two days after American aviator Charles Lindbergh successfully completed the first non-stop trans-Atlantic flight aboard the Spirit of St. Louis, suggested a day of celebration. Such a document, shared with students, is also likely to prompt many questions about both the content of the letter itself and, from the letterhead, they may wonder about photography in the 1920s.

These represent a fraction of the Library’s holdings. To learn more, students might explore the “About this Collection” section that accompanies each collection or browse related “Articles and Essays,” which might include a timeline of key events in the president’s life, as well as indexes and finding aids. These materials provide valuable guidance for exploring the collection materials. Most of the collection items are not described individually, so searching for specific items can be challenging. Simply exploring a series, however, can allow for unexpected discoveries.

Let us know in the comments what your students discover – and what they wonder about.

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