The head of state. The commander-in-chief. The leader of the free world. The president of the United States is referred to by many titles, but none quite encapsulate Americans’ relationship with their elected leader — sometimes tenuous, sometimes deferential, but always intrigued.
Unbeknownst to most students, an intimate glimpse at the public personas and personal lives of the presidents can be found here on campus. A hidden gem on the fifth floor of Lauinger Library, the Booth Family Center for Special Collections houses a variety of artifacts and documents, among which is the Presidential Autographs collection.
The Booth Center is home to four scholarly collections: rare books, manuscripts, archives and works of visual art, housing more than 100,000 printed volumes in the Rare Book Collection alone. All four collections are carefully preserved in the state-of-the-art facility, which reopened in March 2015 after a year of renovation.
The Presidential Autographs Collection is in the manuscripts collection and contains memorabilia with signatures from every president since George Washington to Ronald Reagan.
The collection was first developed when the university acquired the papers of John Gilmary Shea, a former member of the history department at Georgetown and a preeminent historian of American Catholicism, who had amassed an immense collection of documents, including presidential signatures. Upon his death in 1892, his papers were donated to the university archives, and over time, the collection has amassed more and more presidential autographs.
One of the oldest items in the collection is a letter written by Washington to Colonel Daniel Morgan. Dated July 26, 1777 and emblazoned with the distinctive signature of the nation’s first president, the letter helps to explain a variety of Washington’s strategies throughout the Revolutionary War.
Lynn Conway, who has served as the university archivist for almost 17 years, said that the letter provided context and insight into the famed general’s thought process.
“It’s also not just an artifact with a signature. There’s a lot of interesting information that’s being conveyed. There’s tactics; there’s just the fact that communication during this time was such a delay that Washington actually has to go through a whole series of ‘If this, then that,’” Conway said. “You think of how difficult it must have been to coordinate what was going on when you were literally sitting and writing a letter.”
Most of the letters can be handled directly, but some of them are more fragile and must be kept in a
plastic sleeve, like a letter dated July 23, 1815 from second president Thomas Jefferson to Bernard McMahon, Jefferson’s gardening mentor in the skills of gardening. McMahon regularly sent Jefferson various fruits and vegetables to try and, in this letter, Jefferson returns the favor by sending McMahon a box of seeds. The letter demonstrates the difficulty of transporting goods from Monticello to Philadelphia, as Jefferson relied on a random passenger on a stagecoach to somehow track down McMahon to deliver the letter and seeds.
Some of the recent letters in the collection deal directly with Georgetown University. For example, in a letter from Nov. 1, 1956, Dwight Eisenhower, the 34th president of the United States, wrote Fr. Edward Bunn, S.J., the 44th president of Georgetown University from 1952 to 1964, to send his condolences on the death of Fr. Edmund Walsh, S.J., namesake of the School of Foreign Service and the Walsh Building.
“Eisenhower came to the dedication ceremony. He was awarded an honorary degree on that occasion,” Conway said. “He and Fr. Walsh were friends. They actually knew each other going back to the 1920s. It’s actually quite a touching tribute to Edmund Walsh and the impact that he had throughout his career.”
In another letter written to Bunn dated Nov. 30, 1963, Lyndon Johnson, the 36th president of the United States, thanks him for his prayers and messages following the death of John F. Kennedy, the 35th president of the United States. A little-known fact about Johnson is that he attended the Georgetown Law Center for two months in 1934. Although he did not ultimately graduate, he was awarded the John Carroll Award for Alumni Achievement in 1963.
One of the more recent letters in the collection is written by Reagan to Fr. Timothy Healy, S.J., the 46th president of Georgetown University from 1976 to 1989. In the letter, Reagan thanks Healy for the opportunity to speak at Georgetown’s bicentennial celebration. Through these letters over the course of Georgetown’s history, it is clear the university’s ties with the White House have consistently been strong.
“In the 19th century, it was the practice that the U.S. president would come to the Georgetown College commencement and hand out the prizes and diplomas every year. He would not speak, but he would literally just be there. A lot of U.S. presidents did that, and it really was a tradition that carried on into the early 20th century as well,” Conway said.
Although the collection is mostly composed of letters, it holds a number of other items and documents. For example, there is a military commission signed by Abraham Lincoln, the 16th president of the United States. The commission, signed July 17, 1862, promotes Julius Garesché to the rank of lieutenant colonel and assistant adjutant general during the American Civil War. Garesché attended Georgetown in 1833 before going to the United States Military Academy at West Point in 1837.
Another unique historical artifact is a photograph signed twice by Harry Truman, the 33rd president of the United States. The photograph is of the dedication of the children’s wing to Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the 32nd president of the United States, at the Georgetown University Hospital on Dec. 1, 1948. Pictured are Truman, Fr. Lawrence Gorman, S.J., the 41st president of Georgetown University who served from 1942 to 1949, Fr. Paul McNally, S.J., a dean of Georgetown’s School of Medicine from 1946 to 1952, and Elliot Roosevelt, Franklin Roosevelt’s son.
Viewing these unique items is a remarkable experience on its own, but the opportunity to work with the original documents themselves is invaluable. These primary documents allow students to analyze and interpret history through their own lenses. An integral part of the learning process is going to the Booth Center, touching and interacting with the original document rather than digitally viewing it on a computer screen.
For this reason, Tad Howard, associate dean in the College, in his course “College, Culture, and Conflict,” takes students to visit the archive collections in the Booth Center to see, through primary documents, how curricula at Georgetown has changed over time.
“It’s right there, and it’s beautiful, and it feels, to me, different to look at something and breathe its air, than to see the same thing digitized online,” Howard said. “There is a ton of stuff over there, and the only way to know that it exists is to find it, get your finger on it and sit in that beautiful room and be with it for a little while. Otherwise, it basically does not exist, unless you go get it and make it exist again.”
“I had this desire for the students to do their own history, to choose what they care about and go find and make this connection to the past that would be more personal, which is different from going to the library and browsing the stacks,” Howard said. “Your experience with this past is mediated through how somebody else is telling it, as opposed to getting the letter and looking at the handwriting.”
The staff at the Booth Center is eager and willing to help students with projects or to simply answer questions. Coupled with the staff’s perspective and knowledge, the collections at the Booth Center provide value and knowledge for students to absorb. Archives like those at the Booth Center hold immense power. After all, according to Conway, the study of the past has the potential to explain the present and shape the future.
“Having material that reveals, in a variety of ways, things that have happened in the past is important,” Conway said. “You can’t understand the present without understanding the past, so they provide context for why things are the way they are today and how things could be in the future.”
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