By Dan Zak
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 29, 2009
Even lionized super-presidents occasionally placed boneheads in prominent positions, and paid a price for it. A certain memo from Abraham Lincoln, donated to the National Archives by a private collector yesterday, reminds us of this.
Four days before he went to Gettysburg in 1863 to deliver a certain address, Lincoln made time to deal with an annoyance, a trifle compared with the Civil War. The secretary of the Treasury had investigated one Robert Stevens, the son-in-law of Lincoln's dear friend Sen. Edward Baker (R-Ore.), and charged him with corruption during his tenure as superintendent of the San Francisco Mint. Stevens wanted to see the evidence against him. To grease the bureaucratic wheels, Lincoln penned a letter to Secretary Salmon P. Chase.
The note is curt and quick -- maybe because Lincoln thoroughly disliked Chase, maybe because he was still smarting from the backlash to his appointment of his friend's son-in-law, maybe because he had more pressing persuasive writing to complete:
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.
The memo seems a startling distraction to a president embroiled in a cataclysmic and bloody war. Thus it neatly illustrates one of the immutable laws of presidential politics then and now: Individual imbroglios fester at will, anytime, without regard for the deeper national crisis.
And now -- in the bicentennial year of Lincoln's birth, four months after President Obama's call for transparency in presidential records -- the dashed note is back in the hands of the people. Written on 5-by-8-inch Executive Mansion letterhead in iron gall ink, the letter had been missing for a long time, perhaps as long as a century, from a volume of Treasury Department correspondence bound in 1891. It was returned yesterday by Lawrence Cutler, an attorney and collector from Scottsdale, Ariz., who bought the letter at an auction in 2006.
The National Archives, which combs online auctions for materials that may belong in its collection, contacted Cutler after confirming that the letter was indeed missing, torn out of the volume.
Did it fall out in transit? Was it torn out by a mischievous clerk 100 years ago? No one knows. Either way, it's back where it belongs, a one-sentence marriage of failure and grace tucked into Page 5 of a giant volume of ephemera.
"Even though this item is seemingly routine, it is in fact very important," said James Hastings, director of access programs for the archives. "It shows his regard for [Senator Baker], and shows his political interest in the West Coast, even in the midst of the Civil War."
Lincoln, who wept at the news of Baker's death in battle in 1861, appointed Stevens to the mint that same year as a favor to the Baker family. When a delegation from San Francisco traveled to Washington to oppose this patronage, Lincoln flew into a rage and threw their written complaints in the fireplace. Stevens was eventually fired in 1863, but the president wanted the son-in-law of his friend to have access to pertinent information.
The note shows the president's core values of fair play, attention to courtesy amid chaos and reliance on political patronage, says Michael Burlingame, author of "Abraham Lincoln: A Life."
"Lincoln believed the key to the victory of the North was maintaining the unity of the North, and in order to do that you had to maintain unity of Republican Party," Burlingame says. "He believed the time and energy devoted to a judicious distribution of patronage was an investment in national unity."
This particular volume of correspondence, meanwhile, is now unified. Cutler flew to Washington to officially hand over the letter at a news conference yesterday morning. He declined to say what he had paid for the letter in 2006, but noted that he'd seen a similar Lincoln letter sold for $78,000.
"It was the cornerstone of my collection, the most expensive and dear item," Cutler said. "Certainly it's bittersweet, but knowing it's going back to the public is more of an honor than a consolation."
The archives gave Cutler a facsimile of the letter to show its gratitude for shedding a sliver of light on the ordeal, but that pales in comparison to the rest of Cutler's collection. He owns at least one document signed by every single president of the United States -- except one.
"If Mr. Obama is listening," Cutler joked at the news conference, "please send me a letter with your signature on it."