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I don’t have to rely entirely on my memory for this details about this find, as I wrote out the details on the day it happened. Another intern (Johanna Schein) and I spent the afternoon of June 15, 2010 looking through antislavery petitions from the 25th Congress (1837-39). We were searching for well-preserved examples sent from groups of women for use in an upcoming Capitol Visitor Center exhibit.

A few hours after we began, and as we were getting ready to leave, Johanna found one sent from Concord, MA that was signed by two or three females with the last name “Thoreau.” She googled the names and determined that they must have been close relatives of Henry David Thoreau. I’d already declared myself done for the day, but Johanna’s good fortune emboldened me, and I decided to open one last folder. Here’s what I found: (click image to enlarge)

I immediately recognized Ralph Waldo Emerson’s signature (2nd column, 6th from bottom) from the golden days when I used to collect historical autographs. And to find a petition with three Thoreaus (1st column, 9th-11th from top) was exciting, of course, though I’ll admit to some initial disappointment that the Thoreau hadn’t signed it. But he probably did, Johanna soon insisted—as did his father, John, and his brother, John Jr.  Henry David Thoreau was born David Henry Thoreau, she’d discovered. He started calling himself “Henry David” after graduating from Harvard, though he never changed his name legally. He was only a few months out of college when this petition was sent to Congress in January 1838. Another signer, William Whiting, served as Solicitor of the War Department from 1862-65. His The War Powers of the President, and the Legislative Powers of Congress in Relation to Rebellion, Treason, and Slavery (1862) helped convince Lincoln that emancipation was constitutionally justified as a matter of military necessity. So it’s perhaps more historically gratifying to find his signature affixed to an antislavery petition than Thoreau’s or Emerson’s. I’ll humbly posit that these 63 Concordians were spurred into action by news of the murder of the abolitionist minister and journalist Elijah Lovejoy two months before.

Did I/we “discover” this treasure? Well, that depends. Can a record of Congress really be the object of an archival “discovery?” We obviously weren’t the first ones to see this petition, in the 19th century or the 21st, but I suppose it’s conceivable that no one before us realized two literary geniuses had signed it. It’s also possible that the Center for Legislative Archives was internally aware of the document’s importance—that its most famous endorsers had once been noted, probably without much fanfare. I’ve found one reference to the petition on the internet: the author of A Historical Guide to Henry David Thoreau mentions it in a footnote (though he needs to re-count the number of signatures). It seems likely that he was aware Thoreau and Emerson had signed the petition, though I don’t have access to the text that prompted the footnote, so I can’t say for sure.

Regardless of whether this is news to anyone, it sure was thrilling to find the document so unexpectedly. I’ll eventually post about another petition that might have been a legitimate discovery, in the sense that I don’t think scholars (hint: Lincoln scholars) are yet aware of it.