Electronic Newspapers

I am working away on my biography of Edwin Stanton, writing today the chapter that deals with 1861, the first few months of the Civil War.

As I write I do bits of research, to “fill in the gaps” and to answer questions.  This morning, for example, I was looking at letters between Stanton and former president Buchanan from May 1861.  Buchanan complained to Stanton on May 6 about what he viewed as an attack on his administration by Frederick Seward, son of my prior subject William Henry Seward.  Stanton counseled Buchanan on May 13 that there was no point responding to the “fling” by young Seward.  Other authors have found these letters, they are after all in the published works of Buchanan.  But no author has found the “fling” by Frederick Seward.  What, I wondered, did Frederick say?

Of course, until recently, no author had the tool we have today in electronic newspapers.  It took me a while; I finally had to look day by day at all newspapers in newspapers.com in late April and early May 1861 that used the word “Seward.”  And there, at last, I found it.  It was a little letter from Frederick Seward to Simeon Draper, published in several newspapers starting on May 2, 1861.  “There is not a word of truth in the report of an armistice. That sort of business ended on the 4th of March.”  Bingo.

Stanton, in his May 13 letter to Buchanan, said that the senior Seward would soon face criticism about his own negotiation with the Confederate commissioners.  I knew from my Seward work that former Justice John Campbell published a letter criticizing Seward at about this time.  But WHEN was it published?  Another electronic newspaper search, not as difficult, found the letter appearing first in the southern papers and then the northern papers, accusing Seward of “systematic duplicity.”  This makes Stanton’s next letter to Buchanan, defending Seward against Campbell’s criticism, more understandable.

Electronic newspapers today are good; but in the future they will be even better.  One weakness, for the Civil War years, is that there are no electronic versions of the two leading Democratic papers, the New York World and the Chicago Times.  Sometimes you can figure out what those two papers said because they were quoted in other newspapers.  But sometimes you have to find them on microfilm, and even that is not easy, the New York World is basically only at the New York Public Library.

Electronic archives today are good; but in the future they will be better.  The Library of Congress recently put its great collection of Stanton papers up online.  Hallelujah.  But there is no way to search through the papers for a particular word or date.  The papers are mainly in chronological order, so if you know the date of a letter you can find it, eventually, but it takes a while to hunt and peck through the boxes and images.  Some day the Stanton papers will be as easy to work with as the Lincoln papers are now, on that portion of the Library of Congress website.

So I know, as I write my Stanton book, that it will be superseded, some day, by a better book written with better research tools.  Still, I hope that my book will be a readable, balanced, thorough life of Stanton.  Back to work.