A popular myth of 1937, based upon the inventive imagination of Nicholas Murray Butler, President of Columbia University, claimed that Robert Todd Lincoln destroyed many of his father’s papers. A decade later the great Lincoln scholar David Mearns amply documented why Butler was mistaken in his assumptions about what Robert was burning. Undoubtedly Butler may have seen Robert burning papers, but they were not those of Abraham Lincoln. They were probably Robert’s own correspondence and cancelled checks. What is most often overlooked by historians is what Abraham and Mary Lincoln destroyed before they left for Washington, D.C.
Carl Sandburg’s 1949 portrait of famed Lincoln collector Oliver Barrett provides an entire chapter to describe Barrett’s acquisition of Lincoln manuscripts saved from the flames. Colorful monikers such as the “hot stove letters” or the “bonfire letters” indicate that the Lincolns themselves were the agents of destruction. All of the incidents occur as part of their housecleaning in the period immediately before the Lincolns left Springfield in 1861. The “hot stove letters” threatened death or physical violence upon the president-elect. Lincoln gladly gave these letters to a cabinetmaker who wished some type of souvenir from Springfield’s most famous citizen. The “bonfire letters” contained some of the only correspondence exchanged by the Lincolns while he served in Congress. Mrs. Lincoln was attending to a burn pile in the backyard when a neighbor asked for some of these items.
Further evidence of this practice comes from a letter, now in the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library, of Truman H. Bartlett to Mrs. Ada Bailhache. She was the daughter of Mason Brayman, a legal associate of Abraham Lincoln, and the wife of the editor of the Illinois State Journal. Bartlett was a Boston artist who spent years interviewing individuals who had known Lincoln, and trying to collect every bit of information about Lincoln’s appearance and habits. Writing on July 2, 1908, Bartlett inquires:
“Dear Mrs. Bailhache,
Can you remember if the photo you think is the best of Lincoln was originally a photo or an ambrotype or tintype & small size? Many of the early pictures of Lincoln were tintypes & ambrotypes. I have heard on good authority that Mrs. Lincoln burnt many of these little pictures just before she left for Washington in ’61. Horrid fact!
T. H. Bartlett”
Writing on Bartlett’s original letter, Ada Bailhache replied:
“I cannot remember if the photo I thought best of Lincoln was an ambrotype or tintype and I think it very probable that Mrs. Lincoln did destroy papers — before leaving for Washington as that is the usual custom of housekeeping on breaking up a home.”
While modern observers may share Bartlett’s shock that significant original materials pertaining to Lincoln were destroyed, the acts of destruction seemed less to hide information than to dispose of accumulated clutter. Both Abraham and Mary Lincoln freely allowed friends and neighbors to take what they wanted from burn piles. Unlike America’s founding generation, who were self-aware that they were making history and kept meticulous correspondence files, most Illinois political figures of Lincoln’s generation left meager paper trails. Stephen A. Douglas, a large figure in state and national politics, left correspondence comprising one small volume. A casual examination of The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln suggests that the dearth of letters from the 1840s and the early 1850s indicates that the bulk of material may have been consumed in burn piles.