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Library of Congress Digitizes Its Huge Trove of Teddy Roosevelt Papers

Among the thousands of documents is a letter containing the first use of the president’s famed maxim: ‘Speak softly and carry a big stick’

Gelatin silver print of Theodore Roosevelt. Dimensions: Mount: 9 × 17.9 cm (3 9/16 × 7 1/16") ( National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution)
smithsonian.com

The Library of Congress boasts the world’s largest collection of Theodore Roosevelt papers. For many years, this trove—totaling some 276,000 documents—about the nation’s 26th president has been available for in-person research through hundreds of rolls of microfilm. But searching the collection just got a lot easier. As Shaunacy Ferro reports for Mental Floss, the library has released a new digital archive of Roosevelt’s papers, just in time to mark the 160th anniversary of his birthday on October 27.

The papers, many of which have never been digitized before, date for the most part between 1878 and 1919, the year of Roosevelt’s death. Containing speeches, executive orders, diary entries, letters and many other documents, the newly digitized collection covers defining moments of Roosevelt’s life in public service. You can now peruse a list of the “Rough Riders” a rag-tag volunteer regiment that fought alongside Roosevelt in the Spanish American War. There is also a 1900 letter documenting his first use of the phrase “Speak softly and carry a big stick,” a favorite maxim that Roosevelt quoted often as he pushed to make the United States a more influential player on the world stage. A 1912 document records a speech that Roosevelt made in Connecticut during his failed bid for another shot at the presidency.

Other documents in the vast archive shine a more personal light on the 26th president. A remarkable diary entry from February 14, 1884, contains just one sentence: “The light has gone out of my life.” On that terrible day, both Roosevelt’s mother and his first wife, Alice, died. The blow of the twin tragedies was so great that Roosevelt withdrew from politics for a period—at that early point in his career, he was serving on the New York State Assembly—sequestering himself for two years on a ranch in the Dakota Badlands.

The Library of Congress spent years amassing its Roosevelt collection, which is the largest presidential collection at the institution. Members of Roosevelt’s family made important contributions, including his eldest daughter, also named Alice, who donated seven volumes of her father’s diaries in 1958. But the bulk of the materials were a gift from Roosevelt himself. He was friends with George Herbert Putnam, who served as the Librarian of Congress from 1899 to 1939. Almost two decades into Putnam’s appointment, on December 1916, Roosevelt sent him a missive intimating that he would like to donate his many papers to the library—on several conditions.

“Mrs. Roosevelt and I have been talking over the disposition of my great mass of papers,” he wrote in the letter. “They include, in immense numbers, copies of my letters and of letters to me while I was President; also letters from sovereigns, etc., etc. If I sent them to you, could they be catalogued and arranged, and permission given to me, or any of my representatives, to examine them at any time, with a clear understanding that no one else was to see them until after my death?”

Putnam agreed to comply with Roosevelt’s requests, and not long after, six large, locked boxes containing the coveted papers arrived at the library. In a subsequent note to Roosevelt, Putnam noted that staff was waiting on the keys to arrive before they started classifying and arranging the documents. Roosevelt seemed eager for the process to begin.

“The Lord only knows where the key is,” he fired back. “Break the cases open and start to work on them!”

About Brigit Katz

Brigit Katz is a freelance writer based in Toronto. Her work has appeared in a number of publications, including NYmag.com, Flavorwire and Tina Brown Media's Women in the World.

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