Did you know that John Wilkes Booth was involved in an incident at Lincoln’s second inauguration, in March of 1865? It was seen as a mere scuffle at the time, but significant later on, as it happened about six weeks before Booth assassinated President Lincoln on that fateful day in April, 1865.
The whole fascinating story is told in a letter written by Benjamin French in 1865. I found this letter while browsing through the items in the Library’s online American Memory collection of presidential inaugurations, “I Do Solemnly Swear…”.
Here at The Signal we are joining other Library blogs in featuring inauguration-related posts. (For example, see the Teaching blog featuring Lincoln’s second inauguration.) The digital collection “I Do Solemnly Swear” includes over 400 items relating to presidential inaugurations, up to and including materials from President Barack Obama’s first inauguration in 2009.
Michelle Krowl, a historian in the Library’s Manuscript Division, offers some insight into this material. “As a Civil War specialist I typically visit the Lincoln inauguration pages most frequently.” She says the Benjamin French letter, noted above, stands out in her mind. “Commissioner of Public Buildings Benjamin B. French wrote this to his son shortly after Lincoln’s assassination in 1865. He recalls in some detail having helped thwart an incident with an aggressive spectator at the March 4, 1865 inauguration, and upon being shown a photograph of John Wilkes Booth after the assassination, was certain it was the same man he saw at the inauguration.”
The value of this and other American Memory digital collections is the easy access to a wealth of historic documents – some of which are physically located in several library divisions, or even different institutions, but are here provided through one virtual location. Krowl says, “I Do Solemnly Swear provides one-stop shopping for basic elements of presidential inaugural history. In one site, a researcher can typically find presidential inaugural addresses and transcriptions, photographs or other visual elements, and related documentation about the event. They are all available to any interested visitor anywhere in the world, presented in a conveniently curated package.”
This particular collection features a variety of items from presidential collections in the Library’s Manuscript Division, but there are also items from other divisions including Prints and Photographs, Rare Book, and Music divisions. In addition, there are items from other organizations including the Architect of the Capitol, the White House, and the United States Senate Office of the Sergeant at Arms. Also included are the inaugural addresses and transcriptions from the collections of Yale Law School.
Everything is arranged chronologically, and the items include diaries, letters, photographs, programs, tickets, sheet music, and of course, drafts and textual transcriptions of the inaugural addresses for each of the U.S. presidents.
Barbara Bair, a Manuscript Division historian who specializes in 19th century American history, notes the value of these digital materials for educators. She says the items “attract a lot of interest, especially around inauguration time. This is a great site to use for their study, especially for educators and those seeking entertaining and edifying primary documents for classroom projects. The special feature presentations offer a lot of quick facts, helpful to teachers and students but also to journalists and others with a curiosity about the traditions, quirks, and changes in inaugurals over time.”
And these materials can serve as reminders of major events in our presidential history. Bair says that “seeing William Henry Harrison’s March 4, 1841 23-page inaugural address always makes me stop to ponder human vulnerability, even for the famous. The address took Harrison an hour and forty minutes to deliver, in frigid weather, and the old military hero would be dead a month later from pneumonia before his intended administration really began.”
So during this inauguration week, take some time and get acquainted, or re-acquainted, with some of these historic items available through this digital collection, and find something new, or rediscover something fascinating about our history.
Visit this page to find more inauguration-related blog posts from the Library of Congress.