BY PETER ROWE
MONDAY, FEBRUARY 7, 2011 AT 9 P.M.
1649 El Prado, Suite 3, Balboa Park, San Diego; (619) 232-6203
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With malice toward none; with charity for all; with legalese where appropriate.
Thanks to an archivist’s curiosity and quick thinking, the San Diego History Center now has two newly-authenticated Abraham Lincoln documents.
One of these prizes is a two-page legal argument, handwritten by Lincoln; the other, the other bestowing one of his last presidential appointments on a San Diegan. While neither contain the poetic turns of phrase the Great Emancipator unleashed on other occasions, both are making historians’ pulses race.
“We didn’t know about these two documents,” said Daniel Stowell, director and editor of “The Papers of Abraham Lincoln,” a project of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum in Springfield, Ill. “It’s great the San Diego History Center called us about this.”
Both documents go on display today in the center’s Balboa Park museum. While the timing is ideal — Saturday is Lincoln’s 202nd birthday — it’s also coincidental. Until recently, the center had no idea it owned these twin treasures.
The center possesses hundreds of uncataloged collections. In storage are boxes crammed with handwritten letters, official documents, charts and photographs, most from the 19th and 20th centuries.
“It’s hundreds of linear feet of material,” said David Kahn, the center’s executive director.
In January, archivist Jane Kenealy was exploring a batch of unprocessed material when she saw an unfamiliar container, about three feet across and three inches deep.
“I opened the box,” she said, still sounding awed, “and there it was.”
“It” was a framed parchment, with “The President of the United States” printed across the top. The document had been pre-printed, with blanks for someone’s name (in this case, Lewis C. Gunn) and appointment (here, Assessor of Internal Revenue for the First Collection Division of California).
There was also a space for a signature. The name flows in black ink: “Abraham Lincoln.”
Like every American, Kenealy had seen the name countless times. But she was sure that she had once seen that same handwriting, marching across the center’s two-page handwritten 1841 court document from Logan & Lincoln, an Illinois law firm where Lincoln was a junior partner.
The letter, though, was unsigned.
Kenealy e-mailed digital copies of the 1841 letter and the 1865 appointment to Stowell. About two weeks ago, he verified Kenealy’s suspicions — both were authentic, and the entire letter was in Lincoln’s hand.
While neither document radically alters our understanding of Lincoln, both are significant.
In fact, the Lincoln library and museum has a transcript of the 1841 letter, but didn’t know the original’s location. Lincoln was writing on behalf of clients, trying to collect an overdue and, in his time, sizable debt: $137.50.
For the future author of the Gettysburg Address and the Second Inaugural Address, the prose is remarkably dull. One 294-word sentence begins “For that whereas the said defendants heretofore, towit, on the twelfth day of April in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and thirtyone … ”
But the letter illustrates the sort of work Lincoln performed early in his legal career.
For several reasons, the document appointing Gunn has even greater impact. Most of Lincoln’s presidential papers were signed with a hurried “A. Lincoln.” This paper, though, is signed “Abraham Lincoln” — scrawled just 23 days before his assassination.
“I can’t tell you the Gunn appointment will revolutionize Lincoln studies,” Stowell said. “But it does point out the far-flung nature of the responsibilities he had to deal with.”
Today, Lincoln is remembered as a great president. But he was also a pragmatic politician, which makes his appointment of a San Diegan intriguing. While Lincoln had won California’s electoral votes in 1860 and ‘64, he had lost San Diego County both times.
“My guess,” Stowell said, “is that Mr. Gunn was perceived to be a good loyal Republican.”
We should note that he was also a father. In 1878, his daughter, Anna, would marry a prominent San Diego haberdasher and philanthropist, George W. Marston.
In 1928, Marston would found the San Diego Historical Society.
In 2008, the society would be renamed the San Diego History Center.
And in January 2011, Jane Kenealy would find a jewel in the center’s archives, carefully boxed long ago by Gunn’s son-in-law.
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