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Benjamin Harrison and the White House's First Christmas Tree

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getty images/istock

Most Americans don’t know much about our 23rd commander-in-chief. Furthermore—adding insult to injury—many of the things for which Benjamin Harrison is remembered have little or nothing to do with his actual achievements. He famously interrupted Grover Cleveland’s non-consecutive terms. His opponents called him “Little Ben” due to his 5’ 6” stature. And his grandfather, William Henry Harrison, was also president...albeit one who kicked the bucket after just 31 days in office. Yet Benjamin Harrison broke lots of new ground and, thanks to some holiday décor, helped establish a festive White House tradition.

December 1889 was a tragic month for the first family. After a lengthy struggle in the hospital, Elizabeth Lord, sister of First Lady Caroline Harrison, passed away on the 10th. Three days later, her husband’s 25-year-old nephew, William Sheets Harrison, also met an untimely demise. Needless to say, it was a trying period for the newly-elected president, who found little solace on Pennsylvania Avenue. Harrison glumly bemoaned, “This big house—about which I wander without any sense of its being a home.”

However, “Little Ben” wasn’t about to let heartache spoil the most wonderful time of the year. After all, his grandkids were spending their holiday at the White House and, as he later said, “I am an ardent believer in the duty we owe ourselves at Christmas to make merry for children at Christmas time”. As Harrison readied the seasonal trappings, he installed something the presidential mansion had never seen before: an indoor Christmas tree.

Lovingly placed on the second floor, it was a majestic specimen which one witness described as “the most beautiful and perfect tree that could be found in all the country.”

“From the topmost point to the floor,” reported executive clerk William H. Crook, “it was laden with decorations, with toys innumerable for the children and gifts for the older ones.”

But not every present was reserved for youngsters: on Christmas morning, every single member of Harrison’s domestic staff was summoned to receive some token of appreciation—married men got turkeys and their bachelor co-workers were given choice dining gloves (presumably to be worn while eating out). Harrison also took full advantage of his generous beard by grabbing a red and white costume and prancing about as Kris Kringle himself before an adoring audience.

“If my influence goes for aught in this busy world,” the satisfied president said of their celebration, “let me hope that my example be followed in every family in the land.”

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History
Abraham Lincoln Letter About Slavery Could Fetch $700,000 at Auction
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Christie's Images Ltd. 2017

The Lincoln-Douglas debates of 1858, in which future president Abraham Lincoln spent seven debates discussing the issue of slavery with incumbent U.S. senator Stephen Douglas, paved the way for Lincoln’s eventual ascent to the presidency. Now part of that history can be yours, as the AP reports.

A signed letter from Lincoln to his friend Henry Asbury dated July 31, 1858 explores the “Freeport Question” he would later pose to Douglas during the debates, forcing the senator to publicly choose between two contrasting views related to slavery’s expansion in U.S. territories: whether it should be up to the people or the courts to decide where slavery was legal. (Douglas supported the popular choice argument, but that position was directly counter to the Supreme Court's Dred Scott decision.)

The first page of a letter from Abraham Lincoln to Henry Asbury
Christie's Images Ltd. 2017

In the letter, Lincoln was responding to advice Asbury had sent him on preparing for his next debate with Douglas. Asbury essentially framed the Freeport Question for the politician. In his reply, Lincoln wrote that it was a great question, but would be difficult to get Douglas to answer:

"You shall have hard work to get him directly to the point whether a territorial Legislature has or has not the power to exclude slavery. But if you succeed in bringing him to it, though he will be compelled to say it possesses no such power; he will instantly take ground that slavery can not actually exist in the territories, unless the people desire it, and so give it protective territorial legislation."

Asbury's influence didn't end with the debates. A founder of Illinois's Republican Party, he was the first to suggest that Lincoln should run for president in 1860, and secured him the support of the local party.

The letter, valued at $500,000 to $700,000, is up for sale as part of a books and manuscripts auction that Christie’s will hold on December 5.

[h/t Associated Press]

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3 Fascinating Items in Abraham Lincoln's Newly Released Archives

The Abraham Lincoln collection in the Library of Congress just got a major boost. The 16th president’s full papers are now entirely available online in full color for the first time, giving you high-resolution access to his letters, campaign materials, speeches, and more.

Lincoln’s papers took a roundabout route to the Library of Congress. After his assassination, Lincoln’s son Robert Todd Lincoln sent the president’s papers to one of the former congressman’s associates in Illinois, Judge David Davis, who worked with Lincoln’s presidential secretaries to organize them. Robert Todd Lincoln gave them to the Library of Congress in 1919, and in 1923, deeded them to the archive, mandating that they be sealed until 21 years after his death. They were opened in 1947.

This isn’t the first time some of these documents have been available online—scanned images of them first appeared on the Library of Congress’s American Memory website in 2001—but this 20,000-document collection provides higher-resolution versions, with new additions and features. Previous papers were uploaded as image scans from microfilm, meaning they weren’t particularly high quality. Now, researchers have better access to the information with scans from the original documents that you can zoom in on and actually read.

There are searchable transcriptions for about 10,000 hand-written documents in the collection, including those written in Lincoln’s hand, along with annotations that provide contextual explanations. Here are three items in the collection not to miss:

1. THE EARLIEST VERSION OF THE EMANCIPATION PROCLAMATION

Lincoln read this early version of the Emancipation Proclamation to his cabinet in July 1862, telling them he was going to propose freeing slaves held by Confederate rebels. Secretary of State William Seward convinced him that he should wait until there was a major Union victory to announce the proclamation.

2. A LETTER FROM MRS. LINCOLN

In the fall of 1862, Mary Todd Lincoln wrote her husband during her month-long trip to New York and Boston about her dressmaker and confidant, a former slave named Elizabeth Keckley, asking him for money to give to her to buy blankets for escaped slaves, then referred to as “contrabands.”

3. A DRAFT OF THE GETTYSBURG ADDRESS

This may be the only copy of Lincoln’s famous Gettysburg address that was drafted before he delivered it. There are five known drafts of the speech, but three were written out for people who requested copies afterward. It’s unclear if one of the other copies was made before or after the speech, but this one was definitely drafted beforehand. It belonged to Nicolay Hay, Lincoln’s secretary, who also helped organize his papers after the president’s death. It differs a little from the speech we’re familiar with, so you should definitely read the transcript. (Click “show text” above the image on the Library of Congress page for the text and annotations.)

You can see all the documents here.

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