National Archives // Oliver F. Atkins
National Archives // Oliver F. Atkins

Richard Nixon's Impromptu Piano Recital

National Archives // Oliver F. Atkins
National Archives // Oliver F. Atkins

Richard Nixon isn't considered America's most charming president. He certainly wasn't even in the running for that honor at the height of his Watergate controversy, which is where he was on this day in 1974. Seven of his former administration officials had been indicted less than a week earlier, and the grand jury had named Nixon as a co-conspirator.

But on this day, 42 years ago, he still had a job to do, and that involved hosting White House dinners for various groups and supporters. On March 7, Nixon welcomed the National Governors’ Association, including then-Governor of California Ronald Reagan. Singer and Nixon supporter Pearl Bailey—whom Nixon had dubbed the official “Ambassador of Love”—provided the entertainment for the night.

During the festivities, Bailey pulled the president up on stage—and he was more prepared to participate than most would have been. Unbeknownst to many, Nixon was an accomplished musician who could play the piano, accordion, violin, saxophone, and clarinet. He even wrote his own concerto titled “Richard Nixon Piano Concerto #1.” Nixon showed off his skills on the Jack Paar Program in 1961:

So when Bailey asked him to perform with her that night, he obliged.

“You don’t play as well as I sing,” the singer told him. “But I don’t sing as well as you govern.” Undaunted, Nixon banged out a couple of somewhat basic tunes, starting with “Home on the Range.”

“Mr. President, I wanted to sing a song, not ride a horse,” she told him. Obligingly, he moved on to “Wild Irish Rose” and “God Bless America” and participated in some playful banter as they worked through the tunes.

Reagan pronounced the performance "absolutely tops," while the Washington Post called it “The Dick and Pearl Show,” acknowledging that the president had managed to draw attention away from “Watergate, the energy crisis, troubles in the Middle East and the economy.” And, he was rather charming—at least for one night.

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

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:


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.


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.”


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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