Blog

November 7, 2020

NEW: Teacher Resources Curricula Now Available at Shapell

The Shapell Manuscript Foundation is happy to announce the release of teacher resources. These new resources, in the form of four lesson plans for middle and high school, are available on our website. 

Developed to improve students’ historical thinking skills, the four lesson plans are based on primary sources from the Shapell Manuscript Collection. They provide teachers and students the opportunity to explore meaningful, and sometimes lesser-known scenes from history. 

John F. Kennedy and Service (intended for 7th or 8th grade Civics or History) uses the unique example of Kennedy to explore what it means to live a life of service. Designed for 11th grade U.S. History, Abraham Lincoln and the Jews introduces students to the attitude of our 16th president towards various religious minorities; Americans Tourists in the Holy Land explores early tourism with the help of the writing of Mark Twain; and third-party politics during the historic 1912 election are explored in Theodore Roosevelt and the 1912 Election, which could also be used for 12th grade U.S. Government. 

Each lesson plan fits within state and national educational standards, and includes ideas for differentiation, assessment form, and AP History practice questions (when applicable). 

These lesson plans were developed in partnership with Nate Sleeter and Kris Stinson, of the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media at George Mason University. 

Add to History Board Share
August 27, 2020

Harry Truman’s Post-Presidential Recollections

Harry Truman was “one tough son-of-a-bitch of a man,” according to General Harry Vaughan. Vaughan would know. He served alongside Truman in France during WWI and also in the White House. But Truman had a vulnerable side, too. These seven letters, which span the period between Truman’s final days as president in January 1953 and the domestic and international turmoil of the early 1960s, reveal an unknown personal side to Truman. The letters were all written to Dean Acheson, Truman’s trusted Secretary of State. The two developed a close friendship during their White House years, and maintained a regular correspondence during Truman’s post-presidential years. In May 1971, more than eighteen years and scores of letters later, Acheson wrote his final letter to Truman, wishing his friend a happy eighty-seventh birthday. Truman would pass away the following year.

The modest, straight-talking Harry Truman took on the “terrible responsibilities” of the presidency after Franklin Roosevelt’s death in April 1945. It was baptism by fire for Truman. He had to navigate the final months of WWII and make the decision to use atomic weapons against Japan. After narrowly defeating Thomas Dewey in the 1948 election, Truman chose not to run for reelection in 1952. His approval rating was low and he withdrew his candidacy after losing the New Hampshire primary. Truman’s post-presidential years were marked by financial hardship, which inspired Congress to finally pass legislation to provide a pension for past presidents. Truman also faithfully campaigned for Democratic candidates.

These letters clearly communicate one element of Truman’s personal life – his love for history. He found great value in applying the lessons of the past to the problems of the present. He was an expert in presidential history, and referred to past presidents often in these letters. The writer and humorist Mark Twain is usually credited with the clever observation that “history doesn’t repeat itself, but it often rhymes.” These Truman letters illustrate the rhyming nature of history. They touch on topics – such as racial tension, conflict on the Korean Peninsula, sour relations with Russia, biased newspaper coverage, and partisan politics – that are still relevant today, though in different contexts.

Truman continually feuded with the Kansas City Star for its pro-Republican coverage and often derided columnists who wrote unflattering accounts of his presidency. He almost certainly would have used the phrase “fake news” if it was popular at the time. Instead, he went as far as to call many in the media “prostitutes of the mind,” in a famous letter from December 1955.

While bemoaning negative newspaper coverage, Truman, less than a year after leaving office in 1953, wrote of recent editorials that “if it weren’t tragic it would be the best comedy in history… I’ve read the press on Washington, Jefferson, Adams, Jackson, Lincoln, Cleveland, Teddy R., Wilson and F.D.R. and there seems to me to be no parallel” In another letter, Truman reviews his presidency and compares himself to Andrew Jackson, Abraham Lincoln, and Grover Cleveland – presidents who took decisive action and employed the full power of the Executive to handle domestic and international crises. He also compliments his good friend Acheson for being an extraordinary secretary of state, and compares Acheson to Thomas Jefferson and William Seward, who served George Washington and Abraham Lincoln, respectively.

Truman wrote in his memoirs, “My debt to history is one which cannot be calculated. I know of no other motivation which so accounts for my awakening interest as a young lad in the principles of leadership and government.” With little formal education, Truman was self-taught from voracious reading: in 1962 he wrote to Acheson about his childhood experiences reading books from the library: “Our public library in Independence had about three or four thousand volumes, including the ten encyclopedias! Believe it or not I read ‘em all… Maybe I was a damphool [damn fool],” Truman noted, “but it served me well when my terrible trial came.”

Read more in this selection of post-presidential correspondence between Truman and Acheson.

Add to History Board Share
Ralph Waldo Emerson (detail.) Ralph Waldo Emerson / L. Grozelier 1859 ; lith. by L. Grozelier Boston. Library of Congress.
March 1, 2020

National Grammar Day: Mark Twain on Ralph Waldo Emerson: His Grammar is Like Gravel in Bread

What could be more appropriate to read on National Grammar Day (March 4th) than Mark Twain criticizing Ralph Waldo Emerson’s grammar? Though Twain was a little harsh writing about Emerson (who had been dead for four years,) Twain did respect Emerson, and had occasion to visit him a few times. Emerson, for his part, found Twain entertaining, and especially enjoyed The Innocents Abroad.

Excerpted from Twain’s original manuscript:

Dear Mrs. Benjamin :

You are right — it is from Emerson, grammar & all : a selection of my wife’s, who has been an Emersonian devotee all her life.  I do not mean that the grammar is not correct, I merely mean that in one place it all at once arrests the flow of your serenity for a moment, like gravel in the bread.

To read the complete original manuscript: Mark Twain on Ralph Waldo Emerson: His Grammar is Like Gravel in Bread

More on Twain and Emerson’s history: Mark Twain bombs in history’s first roast

 

Add to History Board Share
Details, from left: Willie Lincoln, Calvin Coolidge Jr., Benny Pierce.
February 24, 2020

Tragedy in the White House: U.S. Presidents Who Lost Children

On February 24th, President Abraham Lincoln sent word to his wife Mary’s friend, Senator Charles Sumner, requesting his presence. Mary was inconsolable; only four days earlier, on February 20th, 1862, the Lincolns’ son, Willie Lincoln, age 11, passed away in the White House. The 24th was the day of Willie’s funeral.

While a surprising number of presidential families have suffered the loss of a child, those who went through this tragedy while serving in office is much smaller. This collection explores how presidents and their families endured this pain while serving the country, and after.

Add to History Board Share
Image: Zvi Hirsh Heller (aged 15) of Petach Tikva studied at the Hebron Yeshiva. He was a victim of the 1929 Hebron Massacre and died of his wounds in hospital in Jerusalem. Rechavam Zeevy, Wikimedia.
August 29, 2019

A Presidential Response to the 1929 Hebron Massacres

In August 1929, following inflammatory sermons and inciting rumors, pogroms were instigated in which Arabs slaughtered Jews in British Mandate Palestine. The Hebron Riots of 1929 – part of the Palestine Riots of 1929 – sent shock-waves around the world, and ended centuries of continued Jewish presence in Hebron. Americans were particularly aghast as newspapers reported that a number of those massacred were students from New York and Chicago. Americans campaigned for the government to intervene on behalf of the Jewish Americans and their property in Palestine.

This letter from President Herbert Hoover is in answer to one such missive, where he manages to respond, yet says very little.

 

Add to History Board Share
Council of Four at the WWI Paris peace conference, May 27, 1919. British Prime Minister David Lloyd George, Italian Premier Vittorio Orlando, French Premier Georges Clemenceau, U.S. President Woodrow Wilson. Image: U.S. Signal Corps, Wikimedia Commons.
June 28, 2019

Treaty of Versailles Centennial: June 28, 2019

Exactly 100 years ago today, on June 28, 1919, the Treaty of Versailles, the primary treaty which officially ended World War I, was signed by Germany and the Allies. President Woodrow Wilson was instrumental in negotiating the treaty, as well as in conceiving of the League of Nations, the intergovernmental organization meant to maintain world peace. The United States Congress, which was growing increasingly isolationist, had no interest in ceding power to join the League of Nations, and ultimately refused to ratify the treaty. 

These two letters by Wilson, just a few years apart, are strikingly different in tone. In the first, Wilson is desperately mounting the campaign to garner Republican votes in favor of the treaty. In the second, an ailing former President Wilson, explains that he cannot read or speak too much of the war because he is “too much affected and upset by it.”

Add to History Board Share
Harold Holzer, Historian and Lincoln Expert.
January 31, 2019

Historians Explain Why We Collect Manuscripts

People who are interested in history collect manuscripts because they want to know what somebody was really like. When you look at a letter, you’re looking at what was going on in a person’s life – what did this feel like to the person experiencing it at that time – and before you know it, you have a whole world coming alive.

Add to History Board Share
Northridge earthquake. United States Geological Survey.
January 17, 2019

25 Years Since the Northridge, California, Earthquake

Natural disasters do not discriminate. These letters about the impact of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake are recalled today on the 25th anniversary of the more recent Northridge earthquake, and following this exceptionally difficult year for Californians.

“We have the dreadful news that an earthquake has almost destroyed San Francisco.  The wires are down, and it is difficult to get accurate information…. It is impossible, however, to hear anything, and we are in the dark.” – William Howard Taft, Secretary of War. April 18, 1906.

Secretary of War William H. Taft Reports That San Francisco is Almost Destroyed in the Earthquake

Mark Twain on the San Francisco Earthquake and a Picture He Cannot Get Out of His Mind

Jack London, Hit Hard By the San Francisco Earthquake

Add to History Board Share
Image: Alfred Dreyfus. Circa 1894. Aaron Gerschel, Wikimedia Commons.
January 14, 2019

Inspirational Letter from the Wrongly Imprisoned Alfred Dreyfus

This shockingly inspirational letter from Alfred Dreyfus was written shortly after he was wrongly convicted of treason and degradated in a public military ceremony. Writing to his sister and brother-in-law, he tells them of his suffering; not of the conditions he is subjected to, but the suffering and pain in being so powerless to prove his innocence. Despite this weighing heavily on him, he tells them his “pure and clean conscience will give [him] superhuman strength,” and he will clean his name “from the stain that has been inflicted upon it unjustly.” He exhorts them to “not bow your head, but to keep it higher than ever” as he will also do.

Not losing faith, he is sure that “with all of our combined efforts, our wills focused into a single one, we will succeed” in revealing the truth and clearing his name. Read the full transcript of this stirring letter and view the original papers here.

Add to History Board Share
Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas.
September 2, 2018

The 2018 Mid-Term Elections: Where the Debates all Started

It is to be supposed that the 2018 mid-term elections will be fraught with controversy, and
some anguish. The recent past will be raked over; accusations lobbed; the word
“unprecedented” exhaled as commonly as breath. None of this, however, is new to American
elections. In 2016, so much candidate verbiage was expelled and expounded
in so many primary and general election debates, that any reasonable person might well have
assumed “Debate” was a weekly television series. Now, with the advent of the Labor Day
holiday, traditionally marking the “official” start of the campaign season, that live program,
after a two year hiatus, is back. But how it came to be made, and become as much a part of
the American election cycle as ballots themselves, is the story told here. It began, humbly, with
Abraham Lincoln.

The Lincoln-Douglas Debates – In a Prelude, Lincoln Shadows Douglas Around Illinois

Add to History Board Share
President Ulysses S. Grant. U.S. Bureau of Engraving and Printing, Wikimedia Commons.
August 14, 2018

The 150th Anniversary of Ulysses Grant’s 1868 Election Year

It’s hard to keep up these days with who is shouting what. Not gone entirely unnoticed, however, is the disquieting rise of an old contagion thought, in the United States at least, long extinct. Whether chanted in torch-lit marches, argued on college campuses, or broadcast by fringe candidates in local political races, antisemitism is back in the news.  That “It Could Happen Here”, and did, is the subject of this letter about the worst blemish in the life of the Union’s greatest commander. When, in an 1862 order, General Ulysses S. Grant ordered that all Jews living in Tennessee, Kentucky, Mississippi ,and parts of Southern Illinois, vacate, within 24-hours, their homes and businesses and leave, forever,  the area of his command, he promulgated the most sweeping, and shocking, anti-Jewish regulation in American history. Here, writing six years later – and eagerly pursuing the presidency – Grant sought to explain his notorious “Jew Order” to the man, in fact, who inspired it: his father.

Running for President, Ulysses S. Grant Tries to Lose the Antisemite Label Engendered to Him During the Civil War By His Infamous “Jew Order”

Add to History Board Share
Robert Huston Milroy. Photograph: Matthew Brady. Library of Congress.
November 19, 2013

Lincoln’s Eloquence

Lest anyone think that Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address – delivered 150 years ago, today – came out of thin air, one has only to look at the wonderful, if weary, elegance of his 25 words written to General Robert Huston Milroy on October 19, 1863, just one month prior. Whether a warm-up to narrowing down his thoughts in a short, concise, and understandable manner, or merely a discrete example of the same,  Lincoln was capable, we see here – be it in a national address,  a debate, or on a simple card –  of a literary brilliance unsurpassed by any other American president and barely, by any other American, period. This, then, is perhaps the best presidential short composition ever.

Lincoln Would be Glad to See General Milroy, “Were it not that I Know he Wishes to Ask for What I Have Not to Give”

 

Add to History Board Share
Carte de Visite of John Wilkes Booth. Black & Case of Boston. Wikimedia Commons.
September 17, 2013

An Assassin Prepares

Famous people, as a general rule, do not become assassins. The man who shot Abraham Lincoln point-blank in the back of the head, however, was the most popular actor of his time. Yet John Wilkes Booth, for most of the Civil War, did not see himself in the role of assassin, but spy.  At twenty-six, he was rich, handsome, adored – and a secret Confederate agent. Here, writing 150 years ago today, Booth works behind the scenes to appear in Washington, at Ford’s Theatre – an appearance which would prove but a rehearsal for the role in which he is still reviled:  assassin.

Add to History Board Share
May 29, 2013

JFK’s 1944 Flight Logbook

The man who, for an entire generation, embodied youth and vigor, would have been 96 this year. At 43, he had been the youngest man elected President; at 46, the youngest to die in office, assassinated. But Jack Kennedy never expected, one way or the other, to live long. In chronic pain, suffering a myriad of illnesses, he had received the last rites of his Church three times before he was 40 – and that wasn’t counting the near-fatal sinking of the legendary PT-109 in World War II. Perhaps that was why he lived so fearlessly, intensely, joyously – and fast. He wanted to do everything, and he did – all of it, well. He could even fly. This war-time flight logbook, virtually unseen, is thought to be the only proof of this hitherto-unknown fact. Lieutenant Kennedy, USNR, it is noted, soloed once – on his 27th birthday. He is not known to having piloted an aircraft ever again.

John F. Kennedy’s 1944 Flight Logbook

Add to History Board Share