By the People volunteers have helped the Library of Congress return over 52,000 transcriptions back to loc.gov, making the Library’s collections more discoverable and accessible for all. To celebrate the impact our virtual volunteers have on the Library and its patrons, we are highlighting some of the ways that scholars, educators, and community members have used transcriptions in their work. In this post, By the People’s Abby Shelton interviews Jonathan W. White, Associate Professor of American Studies at Christopher Newport University. Jon White originally reached out to us on Twitter about his use of the Lincoln transcriptions, which you can view for yourself on loc.gov.
Abby Shelton: Can you tell us a little about your research and teaching at Christopher Newport University?
Jon White: Every year at CNU I teach lower-level courses on the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution. These classes explore what those documents meant to Americans of the Founding Era, and how they have been appealed to and debated ever since. Every other spring I teach an upper-level elective called “Treason in America” (American Studies 330). This is a fun class that looks at the actions of nefarious scoundrels from Jamestown to the present. I also occasionally teach an Honors seminar on slavery and the Civil War in film, as well as a senior seminar on Abraham Lincoln. In Spring 2022 I’m looking to develop a new seminar on the black military experience from the American Revolution to the Civil War.
What are some of your more recent projects?
Much of my work has focused on Abraham Lincoln and the Civil War. In recent years I’ve published books about Lincoln and civil liberties, the presidential election of 1864, the famous ironclad vessel USS Monitor, college life of white Americans and education for former slaves, and on the dreams that men and women had while they were living through the war years. In trying to understand the experiences of Americans who endured a very dramatic and traumatic period in history, I strive to bring military, political, cultural, social, gender, race, and constitutional issues together into coherent narratives.
How did you first hear about By the People and the transcriptions for the Abraham Lincoln papers?
I’ve been using the papers of Abraham Lincoln – originally on the American Memory website – since I was an undergrad at Penn State in the late 1990s. In graduate school at the University of Maryland they were remarkably helpful for my dissertation research. In recent years, my friend Michelle Krowl (the Manuscript Division’s Civil War and Reconstruction specialist at the Library of Congress) has kept me in the loop whenever new materials from the LC become available online, and she helped me learn how to mine the By the People transcriptions.
How did you use those transcriptions in your research and writing?
Later this month I am publishing a collection of 125 letters from African Americans to Abraham Lincoln entitled To Address You As My Friend: African Americans’ Letters to Abraham Lincoln (University of North Carolina Press, 2021). Most of the letters are from the National Archives, but 21 of them are from the Lincoln Papers at the Library of Congress. These tend to be the letters that Lincoln wanted to save for himself, so they were routed through the federal bureaucracy to other departments or personnel. They often have very touching sentiments. I found these letters by doing searches in the transcriptions that were done by the Lincoln Studies Center at Knox College as well as by the By the People volunteers. I am so grateful for the work that they did. Without it, I would have missed out on some real gems.
How do you think having access to transcriptions benefits historians?
Like most digital projects, the Library of Congress’s crowdsourced transcription projects make manuscripts accessible for all sorts of uses. In the past I’ve had students dig into the Lincoln Papers for research papers, and I plan to do so again next semester when I teach on the black military experience. In my own research on the site I’ve found hundreds of letters that I’ve incorporated into my books and articles. In the “olden days” historians would have had to scroll through microfilm reel after microfilm reel to find these sorts of materials. And that could take months, even years. Now we can search from the comfort of our own homes, and in a matter of minutes we can find things that otherwise might never have been found. In a very real way, By the People has democratized historical research. Anyone can go on the site and find incredible treasures and can then write about them and present them to the public.
That said, my good friend Scott Sandage of Carnegie Mellon University often says that “search is not research.” It is very important for us to remember that when we find letters in collections like the Lincoln Papers we cannot assume that they are representative of what is out there. We need to examine them critically and be sure to understand them within their broader context.
What were some of the most interesting or meaningful items you looked at in the Library’s digital collections?
Some of my favorite letters from African Americans to Lincoln are in the Lincoln Papers at the Library of Congress. Black men and women wrote to Lincoln to thank him for issuing the Emancipation Proclamation, to show him how they were learning to read and write, to ask him for assistance, and to tell him they were praying for him. In one letter at a former slave told Lincoln that he had seen the President in his dreams. In another letter, a Christian minister included a picture of his son and daughter.
Many letters show that African Americans felt a real, personal connection to the president. A South Carolinian named John Proctor told Lincoln, “I have had the onner of righting to you these fue lines hoping that tha may find you in A most Perfic state of helte as it left me the saim.” Proctor then told Lincoln that he wished “that I only cold have right Better so that I cold Exspriss my word Better—tho wat little I have got I Stold it when I wEr with my rebble master so that I hav never had the right schooling.”
Proctor continued by explaining that “sence I have got a way from the rebbles I hav throne my Self in to the collard regemint So that I may have the Pleger of capttor my master Bueregaurd.” Proctor went on to say that he had spent enough time “under” his former owner. Now it was time for his enslaver to spend “sum of his time under me and my hot shot.” Wow! One can only imagine the satisfaction Lincoln must have felt when he held this letter in his hands and read it. He had to have been moved by this black soldier’s story—“stealing” education while enslaved, running away to freedom, and now fighting in the Union cause with the hope of capturing or killing his former enslaver. Letters like these are powerful reminders of the steps that enslaved people took to fight for a new birth of freedom.
What’s next? What kinds of research projects are you working on now?
In November I’ll be publishing a book with the University of Virginia Press called My Work Among the Freedmen: The Civil War and Reconstruction Letters of Harriet M. Buss, which I transcribed and edited with a student of mine named Lydia Davis. Then, in February 2022, I’ll be publishing a history of African American visitors to the Lincoln White House called A House Built By Slaves, with Rowman and Littlefield. A House Built By Slaves grew out of To Address You As My Friend because many of the letters were personally handed to Lincoln when African Americans boldly went to the White House and met with the President. For my next work, I am thinking about writing some children’s books. I’d like to make these stories accessible to younger readers – I think they are important, and if told well, can capture kids’ imaginations.