Letters to Lincoln: Transcribing the Past

Posted in Feature

By Professor Chandra Manning

On Nov. 14, History 480 made its mark on history! Or at least on the sources available to people investigating the history of Abraham Lincoln. Together, students participated in the Letters to Lincoln Crowd Sourcing Project.

For two and a half hours, they zoomed in on letters written to Abraham Lincoln in 1858 and 1859 that had been scanned by the Library of Congress, and they painstakingly transcribed them letter by letter. In the process, they came face to face with idiosyncratic 19th-century spelling and the challenges of sloppy handwriting, but they also caught a glimpse of Lincoln’s world in a new way.

They encountered letters to Lincoln the lawyer about upcoming legal cases or recent judgments, which were often mundane but sometimes included amusing tidbits, such as one young man’s note about how he was sure that Lincoln won’t mind that he had named him as a reference since Lincoln knew his mother and father.

They waded through missives of political intrigue as supporters assured Lincoln that his chances of the Republican nomination were good as early as 1858 or 1859, which were earlier dates than we expected. They were struck by the logistics of politicking; several worked on a letter from a supporter who trekked the state of Illinois drumming up support for Lincoln. They also could not help but notice a lot of trash talking about Seward, the frontrunner for the Republican nomination, who was alternately portrayed as “weak”, “lame” or full of “chicanery.” And they nominated “cabal” as the most frequently used 19th-century political word, which seems to have now fallen by the wayside.

The class also reflected on the letter as a medium. Even though the letters we viewed were chiefly legal or political in nature, they often revealed surprisingly intimate and confiding qualities. A writer from Auburn, New York wrote about living as Seward’s neighbor, while another good friend of Seward admitted that he thought Seward was too weak to be nominated. The tone seemed notably different from email communications today, in which we all keep up our guard a bit more. “The only time I really write an actual letter is a thank you letter,” one student reflected, “and these feel different.”

The students’ efforts made a measurable impact; when we began, 31% of the project’s 1858-1859 letters had been completely transcribed, but by the time we finished, that number had jumped to 36%.

Our small but important contribution to the project was both a foray into the work of historians and a glimpse into the intimate concerns of Lincoln and his contemporaries.