Washington’s Papers Slept Here

PresidentsIn April, I wrote about the Library of International Relations (LIR), which has been a valuable part of the Law Library’s collection since 1983. Today, let’s take a closer look at one of the gems of the LIR.

In the summer of 1894, Congress commissioned the publication of the first official set of presidential papers, and charged James Richardson, a representative from Tennessee, with its compilation. The ten-volume retrospective set he published, A Compilation of the Messages and Papers of the Presidents, covered the presidencies of George Washington to Grover Cleveland. Over the next two decades, the “Richardson Set” was republished fourteen times and expanded to twenty volumes, covering the next several presidents after Cleveland.

One of these twenty-volume sets, reaching into Woodrow Wilson’s first term to the end of 1915, now resides on the eighth floor of the Law Library, thanks to Eloise ReQua’s dedicated curatorship of the LIR. The set begins with the texts of the Declaration of Independence, the Articles of Confederation, and the Constitution. Then, volume one devotes nearly 200 pages to the papers of George Washington’s presidency, beginning with his remarks upon his election as the nation’s first president, under the heading, “Proceedings Initiatory to the First Presidential Inauguration.”

“I have been accustomed to pay so much respect to the opinion of my fellow-citizens that the knowledge of their having given their unanimous suffrages in my favor scarcely leaves me the alternative for an option. I can not, I believe, give a greater evidence of my sensibility of the honor which they have done me than by accepting the appointment.”

The twenty-volume set here in the Library is one of several editions issued by private publishers in the years after the publication of Richardson’s original, ten-volume collection. Like the original, they bear the words, “Prepared Under the Direction of the Joint Committee on Printing, Pursuant to an Act of the Fifty-Second Congress of the United States,” but in fact, neither the Joint Committee nor Congress had anything to do with the compilation of papers later than those of the original, official edition.

It’s also worth noting that there are some curious omissions, such as President Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. So for researchers looking for the papers of any of the early presidents, the set is really only a starting point rather than a comprehensive collection. But if your research ever brings you to the papers of any of our first twenty-eight presidents – or if you’re just interested in digging into any of these chapters of our nation’s history at your leisure – the Richardson set is an often-overlooked treasure of early documents. You can find it in the bookstacks on the eighth floor of the Library, at the call number J 81 .C656.

By Kevin McClure

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