The Alfred Whital Stern Collection of Lincolniana


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Stern's Gift of Lincolniana to the Nation

At the end of 1847, a newly elected member of the House of Representatives from Illinois departed the east side of the United States Capitol in search of living quarters.  Crossing the intersection of First Street and Independence Avenue, he happened upon a boardinghouse under the proprietorship of Ann Sprigg.  Finding the accommodations satisfactory, he made the necessary arrangements with Mrs. Sprigg to make this his Washington home for the next two years.  This seemingly commonplace transaction carried sufficient weight to be recorded by historians in later generations.

Subsequent events point to the significance of Lincoln’s domicile.  In the 1880s, the block containing Mrs. Sprigg’s boardinghouse was demolished to make way for a new home for the Library of Congress—which had outgrown its space in the Capitol building.

Among the most prized of the Library’s possessions are collections that have been expressly gathered to celebrate the life and legacy of a man who once resided on its grounds as an unknown congressman. That man is Abraham Lincoln, the 16th president of the United States.

Lincoln treasures are found in various sections of the Library. The Manuscript Division is especially noteworthy as the home of the Abraham Lincoln Papers at the Library of Congress as well as of the papers of individuals with whom Lincoln was closely associated such as William Herndon and John Hay. The Prints & Photographs Division stores many of the renowned images of Mathew Brady and Alexander Gardner. Depictions of Lincoln in motion pictures, radio, and television are represented in the Motion Picture, Broadcasting, & Recorded Sound Division.

Bibliophiles will gravitate to the holdings in the Rare Book & Special Collections Division. This division contains such priceless items as the 1828 edition of English Grammar in Familiar Lectures, the earliest of Lincoln’s extant books and one that he assiduously studied following his 1830 arrival in the village of New Salem, Illinois. One astonishing achievement of Lincoln’s life is that a man with less than a year of formal schooling managed to educate himself enough through reading to write the Gettysburg Address and other acknowledged masterpieces of English prose. A glimpse of this remarkable self-education lies within this modest volume.

Artifacts presented to the Library in the 1930s by descendants of Lincoln’s family also reside in the Rare Book & Special Collections Division.  For millions of Americans, perhaps no items are more special than the contents of the president’s pockets on the night of his fateful trip to Ford’s Theatre on April 14, 1865. However, no review of the Lincolniana within the division would be complete without a special acknowledgment of the contributions of a largely unsung Illinois businessman.

Alfred Whital Stern
  Alfred Whital Stern

Of the noted Lincoln collectors active in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Alfred Whital Stern (1881-1960) was in many respects the most unlikely. A native New Yorker, Stern migrated to Chicago as a young man and quickly established himself as a successful manufacturer. In 1923, he vacationed with his family in Atlantic City, New Jersey. Stern discovered that his seven-year-old son John had forgotten to bring his school texts and proceeded to a nearby bookshop in search of a reading primer. The best substitute that he could come up with was Gilbert Tracy’s Uncollected Letters of Lincoln (1917). Whether John was suitably appreciative of this volume has been lost to history, but his 42-year-old father was immediately struck with the power and intellect of the Great Emancipator. This volume became the initial acquisition in a Lincoln collection that by 1950 was judged the largest such collection in private hands.

The majority of the noted Lincoln collectors from the generation preceding Stern’s tended to specialize in one particular format.  For example, Daniel Fish collected books; Oliver R. Barrett, manuscripts; Frederick Hill Meserve, photographs; and Andrew Zabriski, numismatics.  Stern appears to have commenced his avocation by following the bibliographic example of Fish.  This direction was further reinforced via a friendship with Joseph B. Oakleaf, compiler of the highly esteemed Lincoln Bibliography (1925).

A perusal of the shelves containing the Library’s monographs and pamphlets reflects its strengths as a scholarly resource. Every significant edition of the canon of Lincoln biography is available at one’s fingertips—including the works of Albert J. Beveridge, Ida Tarbell, Carl Sandburg, and Benjamin P. Thomas. If such imprints fail to excite the imagination, there are other unique and valued titles midst these tomes to impress even the least bookish observer.

A paramount example in this unique collection is the Illinois Political Campaign of 1858, a scrapbook of the newspaper accounts of the Lincoln-Douglas debates assembled and annotated by Abraham Lincoln. As Lincoln never authored a book, the historic nature of the scrapbook is difficult to underestimate. Its importance becomes even greater as it traveled with John G. Nicolay to Columbus, Ohio, in January 1860 to serve as a printer’s copy for the first published version of the oratorical contests: Political Debates Between Hon. Abraham Lincoln and Hon. Stephen A. Douglas (1860).

In due course, Stern’s insatiable interest in the 16th president led him to acquire all types of memorabilia—manuscripts, broadsides, portraits, political cartoons, newspapers, medals, artifacts, and sheet music. The latter media can be viewed in the Alfred Whital Stern Collection of Lincolniana.

It goes without saying that having Illinois as a base of operations was beneficial to anyone pursuing Lincolniana at this time. In addition to the aforementioned Fish and Oakleaf, Stern worked with and befriended other Midwest connoisseurs, most notably William E. Barton, Emanuel Hertz, F. Lauriston Bullard, and Illinois Governor Henry Horner.

Another significant relationship with Stern was initiated in 1933, when Ralph G. Newman opened the Abraham Lincoln Bookshop in Chicago. Stern frequented the shop not only as a customer, but also as a regular attendee of the meetings for the Civil War Roundtable of Chicago, of which he and Newman were charter members from its establishment in 1940.

While Alfred Whital Stern was not primarily a collector of Lincoln manuscripts, the quality of the manuscripts he gathered is extraordinary. Of particular note are the August 17, 1863, letter to actor James Hackett, in which the president expounds upon his love of Shakespeare, and the January 26, 1863, letter to General Joseph Hooker offering the command of the Army of the Potomac. Purchased by Stern in 1941 for $15,000, this second letter is universally regarded to be among Lincoln’s greatest compositions.

Alfred Whital Stern was noted for having a magnanimous and egalitarian nature.   Whether prince or pauper, Lincoln enthusiasts visiting Stern’s Chicago apartment on Lake Shore Drive were greeted warmly and welcomed to freely examine his treasures. As Stern entered his sixties, it was only natural that he contemplated leaving his collections to institutions where they would be accessible to the larger public. Stern had served as chairman of the board of trustees of the Illinois State Historical Library in Springfield. He donated his library of some 2,000 volumes dealing with the American Civil War to that repository in 1943. This altruistic action was followed soon thereafter by a gift of 1,000 Lincoln books to the Hebrew University in Jerusalem.

On July 26, 1947, the Library of Congress opened the Papers of Abraham Lincoln to public inspection for the first time. As instructed by the donor, Lincoln’s son, Robert Todd Lincoln, the Library legally sealed the collection for 21 years following his death in 1926. A select group of leading scholars and collectors were invited to attend the opening ceremony, which was broadcast nationally on the CBS Radio Network. Rarely, if ever, was a more distinguished body of Lincolnphiles gathered at one time—Carl Sandburg, James G. Randall, Paul Angle, Louis A. Warren, Roy P. Basler, Jay Monaghan, and Alfred Whital Stern.

The idea of the Library of Congress as an appropriate home for his Lincoln collection doubtlessly was established in Mr. Stern’s thinking at this time. After several years of negotiations, and with the additional advocacy of his son, Thomas Whital Stern, the Library announced the gift on November 19, 1950, the four score and seventh anniversary of Lincoln’s immortal Gettysburg Address.

Stern generously included an endowment that permitted the acquisition of new materials and the “publication of catalogs, bibliographies, and studies designed to increase the collection’s usefulness.”  This later goal was achieved significantly with the publication of A Catalog of the Alfred Whital Stern Collection of Lincolniana in the Library of Congress (1960).  Luther H. Evans, the Librarian of Congress in 1950, sent a letter of acknowledgment to the donor that read in part:

“Please let me repeat the expression of gratitude and gratification which your munificent and public spirited gift inspires. There is a profound satisfaction in your assurance that the national collection of Lincolniana shall possess the dignity, resourcefulness, meaning, and primacy to which it and the people of the United States are so eminently entitled.”

Clark Evans, Rare Book and Special Collections Division