THE GILDER LEHRMAN COLLECTION
by David Brion Davis
In early January 1995 I spent several days immersing myself in the Gilder Lehrman Collection of American history at the Pierpont Morgan Library in New York. I soon discovered that a genuine exploration of the tens of thousands of documents (now exceeding an estimated thirty-five thousand separate items--documents, letters, manuscripts, prints, photographs) would require many months of concentrated effort. Indeed, it almost seemed as if a team of the most renowned American historians, having access to the Library of Congress and all the archives of the major university libraries and historical societies, had selected representative documents to illustrate important themes, events, conflicts, tragedies, and achievements from the colonial era to the end of the Civil War (with some sources stretching back to Columbus and forward to Theodore Roosevelt and Richard Nixon).
No less remarkable, the materials ranged from letters of Washington, Franklin, Jefferson, the two Adamses, Marshall, Jackson, and Lincoln--some of which have never been printed--to the letters and archives of former slaves, unknown soldiers, and eloquent women such as Mercy Otis Warren and Lucy Knox, the wife of Washington's secretary of war. Immense special collections, such as the Livingston-Redmond Family Papers, including documents in English, French, Dutch, and Algonkian, shed light on the manorial system and political intrigues of upstate New York from the early colonial period to the mid-nineteenth century. And the rich meanings conveyed by pen were complemented by a wealth of pictorial imagery that ranges from cartoons, broadsides, and prints to dazzling Civil War photographs. In the forty-odd years I had devoted to historical research, in Britain, France, Brazil, the West Indies, and many American states, I had never encountered such a breathtaking single collection. And I was particularly struck by the vivid way the manuscripts documented the origins and history of the struggle against slavery that finally led to the Civil War. How on earth, I kept wondering, had Richard Gilder and Lewis E. Lehrman acquired and made public such a priceless window on the American past?
People who have never committed themselves to serious collecting find it difficult to understand the collector's mixture of passion and systematic achievement. Lewis Lehrman began collecting a few historical documents when he was an undergraduate history major and then in 1961 a lowly paid Carnegie teaching fellow at Yale. I can tes