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American Historical Review


HE care which a nation devotes to the preservation of the monuments of its past may serve as a true measure of the degree of civilization to which it has attained." The chief monument of the history of a nation is its archives, the preservation of which is recognized in all civilized countries as a natural and proper function of government. No government has expended larger sums of money for the purchase of historical papers (many of which should never have passed from the possession of the state), or made more lavish appropriations for the publication of historical documents (too often selected at random and ill edited), than that of the United States; and no government has more signally failed in the fundamental and far more imperative duty of preserving and rendering accessible to the student the first and foremost of all the sources of the nation's history, the national archives. It is to a review of this failure and of its consequences, and especially to a consideration of the remedies to be adopted, that the present article is devoted.

The archives of the federal government are composed of the letters, orders, reports, accounts, and other documents produced in the course of transacting the public business, whether located within the District of Columbia, or wherever the operations of the government extend. The value of these archives may truly be said to be inestimable. In the transaction of current business those of recent date are in constant use while those of earlier origin are frequently referred to. They constitute the chief protection of the state against unfounded or ill-founded claims. In international discussions or disputes they are the principal source from which arguments may be 1Les Archives Principales de Moscou du Ministère des Affaires Étrangères (Moscow, 1898), p. 3.

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drawn to support, the contentions of the government. On them are based the titles to millions of acres of land and to thousands of patent rights. The actual money loss, to say nothing of the inconvenience, that would result to the government and to citizens as well, by the destruction of any considerable part of the federal archives, can hardly be calculated.2

One might suppose it unnecessary in this connection to dwell at *length upon the historical value of the archives, yet there seem to be reasons for doubting that this is sufficiently appreciated, even by those engaged in historical work. For nearly ten years the writer has been in a position where he is nearly certain to learn of any serious historical research that is being conducted in Washington. archives, yet for that entire period he can recall not more than two score of such investigations. When one reflects upon the hundreds who frequent the Public Record Office or the Archives Nationales in the course of a single year one is strongly tempted to conclude that those who should be the best friends of the archives have but slight appreciation of their worth. Naturally certain classes of material have less interest than others. Files of money-order receipts do not have the same attraction for the historian as do the volumes of diplomatic correspondence, and the archives of the Department of the Navy are more frequented than those of the Land Office. But it would be a great mistake to suppose that the records of the Department of State and of the Navy and War departments contain all of the historical material in the federal archives. It may be worth while at this point to pass in review certain groups of records in the different departments and bureaus that are deserving of greater attention from investigators than they have received.

In the Department of State the diplomatic archives although well known have in reality been but little used. Here is a group of more than three thousand volumes, comprising the despatches from diplomatic agents abroad, the instructions sent to them, and the correspondence with the agents of foreign powers resident in the United

2" The destruction by fire of any one of the executive departments would cause almost irreparable injury, confusion, and delay in the transaction of its business, and this is especially true of the Treasury. This department is the great clearing house of the Government. Here all its debts are paid, and here are preserved the evidences of such payment . . . in the event of their destruction numberless claims against the government would at once arise to embarrass it." (Annual Report of the Secretary of the Treasury, 1899, p. xlvii.) An almost unlimited number of similar citations could be made, all emphasizing the purely material value to the government of its archives. See for example History of the Movement for a National Archives Building (Sen. Doc. 297, 62 Cong., 2 sess.).


Exclusive of work done in the Library of Congress where collections are not, for the most part, archival, and exclusive also of the service commandé of the Carnegie Institution.

States. The idea seems to have obtained that a large part of this material has been published, but in the part most fully exploited -that prior to 1828 as published in the American State Papershardly a fourth of the documents has been published. Another group of material, almost unknown and even less used, is the series of some four thousand volumes known as the Consular Archives, which contain the correspondence of the department with our consular officers abroad and with foreign officers within the United States. Many of the consular despatches are the work of keen observers and contain detailed and valuable accounts of conditions and events in the vicinity of their respective posts, especially of such matters as affect American interests. The character of this material is well illustrated by the group of documents recently printed in this journal respecting Toussaint Louverture and the relations between the United States and Santo Domingo. Another group of quite unused material in the Department of State is composed of the two series Domestic Letters and Miscellaneous Letters which together fill about 1,500 volumes. Here is to be found correspondence between the Secretary of State and other officials, both national and state, relating to an infinite variety of subjects, such for example as the suppression of the slave-trade and opium traffic, police service in Asiatic waters, return of fugitive slaves, Mexican troubles, international boundaries, etc. In the Department of State are also papers relating to the administration of the territories, applications for office, and the archives of the Russian-American Company, some seventy-five volumes, in Russian, covering the years 1817 to 1867, and transferred to Washington upon the cession of Alaska. That the various groups which have just been mentioned have been so little used is the more surprising when one considers that they are all in a department where students have long been accustomed to work and where better accommodations are provided than in most of the other departments.


Turning now to the Department of War, we find a very different state of affairs. It is here that the greatest concentration of the

A. C. McLaughlin, Report on Diplomatic Archives (Washington, Carnegie Institution, 1904), P. 4. For a fuller account of the archives of the various departments and offices see Van Tyne and Leland, Guide to the Archives of the Government of the United States in Washington (second ed., Carnegie Institution, 1907), or W. G. Leland, "The Archives of the Federal Government ", in Columbia Hist. Soc., Records, XI. 71-100 (Washington, 1908).


See David M. Parker, Calendar of Papers in Washington Archives relating to the Territories of the United States (Carnegie Institution, 1911).

'See Gaillard Hunt, Calendar of Applications and Recommendations for Office during the Presidency of George Washington (Washington, 1901).

records has been effected and most of the archives are in the office of the adjutant-general. For years, however, no one not connected with the department has been permitted to have access to the records, and it is not surprising therefore that little use has been made of them-except such as have been printed-for historical purposes. It has never been possible even to know with exactness what the war archives comprise. Revolutionary records there are, but in no very great quantity; the correspondence of the Secretary of War is complete since 1800; the records of the regular army and of the volunteer armies are complete since about 1805; and there are also the captured archives of the Confederate government, the records of the Freedmen's Bureau, as well as much else which until within a few months has been wholly inaccessible to students. In other offices of the Department of War, however, a more liberal policy has obtained and the student might have-but seldom has-made good use of considerable material. Thus the office of the inspector-general contains several volumes of early inspection reports, which present an admirable picture of the condition of the army between 1812 and 1836. In the office of the judge-advocate-general are the proceedings of all general courts-martial, and courts of inquiry, while the office of the chief of engineers possesses over 50,000 maps and charts, and the Bureau of Insular Affairs has the records of the Philippine insurrection and of the occupation of Cuba.


In the Navy Department, where students have long received generous treatment, there is material which of late years is becoming better known. Especially is this true of the correspondence between naval officers and the department, which begins in 1802 and fills about three thousand volumes arranged in various series. greatest variety of subjects is touched on in these letters: Mediterranean affairs, difficulties with the Barbary powers, protection of American commerce, the slave-trade, Central and South American. affairs, protection of American missionaries in Syria and Egypt in 1850, the reception of the Hungarian refugees in 1851, scientific and exploring expeditions, negotiations with Japan, and countless other matters are treated in these volumes. Other groups consist of the log-books of the naval vessels, the records of the navy-commissioners, 1815-1842, proceedings of courts-martial and boards of inquiry, and the records of the Marine Corps.

In the Treasury Department the correspondence of the secretary's office-several thousand volumes-constitutes a rich and unexplored field. Such matters are touched on as the removal of the public money to banks, issues of treasury notes, tonnage duties on Mexican vessels, the French indemnity, public lands, the embargo, act, nulli

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