New-York Historical Society Library Exhibitions

Inventing the American Presidency

Now on view in the Reading Room of the Patricia Klingenstein Library: Inventing the American Presidency.  

This exhibition is being presented as a part of the Society’s Presidency Project.

Locke Civil Government

Locke, John, 1632-1704

An essay concerning the true original extent and end of civil government. Boston: Re-printed and sold by Edes and Gill, in Queen Street, 1773

As the executive office has evolved, its powers have expanded considerably. Among the most contested, “executive prerogative” derives from the political philosophy of John Locke, though it does not explicitly appear in the Constitution. Locke’s concept gives discretionary, extra-legal power to the executive in exceptional circumstances, and originated in his Two Treatises of Government (1689). On the eve of revolution this edition of the second treatise, which includes his theory, appeared in Boston. It is the frequent references the framers made to Locke which underpin the argument that this special power is implied in the Constitution, if not specifically expressed.

Washington Livingston letter

George Washington Letter to Robert R. Livingston, May 31, 1789

Robert R. Livingston Papers

One of the powers the Constitution grants to the president is the appointment of executive officers. As adviser to George Washington and Chancellor of New York, Robert R. Livingston had hoped to secure a position in Washington’s government, eliciting this candid response from the newly inaugurated president. In it, Washington stresses his devotion to the “public good,” and his desire to remain “free from every engagement that could embarrass me in discharging this part of my administration.”  Whatever his “personal attachment,” Washington was keenly aware that his use, or abuse, of executive powers would shape the office under his successors.

Spirit of Laws

Charles de Secondat, baron de Montesquieu

Complete works of M. de Montesquieu. Volume 1. London: printed for T. Evans, in the Strand, and W. Davis, in Piccadilly, 1777

The Constitution’s separation of federal powers among three branches, including an independent executive, offered a practical solution to the ineffectiveness of Congress under the previous Articles of Confederation. It was Baron de Montesquieu, the most cited Enlightenment political theorist during the convention, who proposed separating political powers into independent legislative, judicial and executive branches in his treatise De l’Esprit des Lois (The Spirit of the Laws), first published in 1748. This copy of his Complete Works includes the treatise and is from the personal library of founding father Robert R. Livingston.

Federal Hall

“View of the Federal Edifice in New York.” Massachusetts Magazine, [vol. I, no. VI], Boston: June 1789

On April 30, 1789, George Washington took the oath of office as America’s first president at Federal Hall, the short-lived seat of the federal government in New York. This plate accompanied a Massachusetts Magazine piece describing the building, formerly City Hall, and recently adapted to accommodate the First Congress.

John Adams letter to Benjamin Lincoln

John Adams Letter to Benjamin Lincoln, May 8, 1789

With President George Washington barely a week into his first term, John Adams highlights the importance of the executive “as a Protector against a dangerous Aristocracy” still present in the legislature. He also counters the assumption that monarchy bears the greatest threat to the fledgling government. Instead, he acknowledges the “large Monarchial [sic] powers” that the founders reserved for the executive to strike a balance with the legislature.

Rufus King

Rufus King

Notes on the Committee of the Whole, June 1, 1787
Rufus King Papers

In this rare glimpse onto the drafting of the Constitution, Massachusetts delegate Rufus King records the debate over the nature of the executive office. James Wilson, of Pennsylvania, argues against a plural executive and emphasizes the importance of “vigour” in that office. In defending such a powerful executive, he offers that “The people of [America] did not oppose the British King but the parliament – the opposition was not [against] a unity but a corrupt multitude.” The resulting “presidential democracy,” defined by its strong, independent executive, is perhaps America’s most enduring contribution to modern republics.

HAMILTON: A Life in Documents

In conjunction with the success of the Broadway musical Hamilton, the Patricia D. Klingenstein Library at the New-York Historical Society is exhibiting a selection of original manuscript documents and contemporary printed works in the library reading room evoking the remarkable life of America’s first Secretary of the Treasury, Alexander Hamilton (1757?-1804). Like a great number of his contemporaries, Hamilton wore many hats; he was an immigrant, scholar, soldier, statesman, and infamously, duelist. Several of these roles are represented in this selection of the documents on display.


[Alexander Hamilton]

The Farmer refuted: or, A more impartial and comprehensive view of the dispute between Great-Britain and the colonies… James Rivington: New York, 1775

Alexander Hamilton first ventured into the revolutionary fray with his pen while a student at King’s College, publishing two political tracts in response to “A.W. Farmer.” Shown here is his second effort which provides a glimpse of his evolving political philosophy. This copy contains annotations of Thomas Bradbury Chandler, a fiercely loyalist New Jersey clergyman who fled the colonies for England the year of its publication.



Alexander Hamilton

“Pay Roll for the Colony Company of Artillery commanded by Alexander Hamilton from March 1st to April 1st, 1776.” April 4, 1776

Fulfilling an ambition to prove himself on the battlefield, Alexander Hamilton commanded an artillery company in the earliest days of the revolution. He would reluctantly leave the field to join George Washington’s staff as an aide-de-camp but Hamilton’s military exploits would prove an important step in his ascent into the ranks of the new nation’s founders.




[Alexander Hamilton]

“The Federalist. No. 1.” The Independent Journal, October 27, 1787

To orchestrate support for a federal constitution Alexander Hamilton, John Jay and James Madison published a series of eighty-five essays that comprise The Federalist, now regarded as among America’s chief contributions to political thought. The first, by Hamilton, debuted in this issue of the Independent Journal, a semi-weekly New York newspaper.  Later essays appeared only in the comprehensive two-volume The Federalist: A Collection of Essays, Written in Favor of the New Constitution, as Agreed Upon by the Federal Convention, September 17, 1787, first published in the spring of 1788.



Alexander Hamilton

Letter to Philip Van Brugh Livingston, April 2, 1792

In the spring of 1792, facing a financial panic brought on by the wild speculation of men such as “King of the Alley,” William Duer, an exasperated Hamilton divulges his own remedy:

This [public shaming] must be cultivated among the friends of good government and good principles. The relaxations in a safe system of thinking, which have been produced by an excess of the spirit of speculation must be corrected. And contempt and neglect must attend those who manifest that they have no principle but to get money.

 As secretary of the treasury, Hamilton successfully mitigated the panic’s fallout while helping to build his reputation as architect of the nation’s economic system.

SLAVERY AND THE CIVIL WAR: Selections From a Private Collection

While the immediate abolition of slavery was not one of Lincoln’s aims as President, as the Civil War went on Lincoln saw the ending, or at least curtailment, of slavery as a potent weapon to use against the South.  Indeed, were it not for the Civil War, slavery would have continued for some time in the South and beyond.  Some of the threads in this complicated and momentous story are on display here in this marvelous show assembled from an important private collection.  It is being mounted in honor of Black History Month.

This exhibit reminds us that institutions such as libraries, archives, and historical societies don’t hold everything on a topic, that private collectors seek out and acquire the kind of primary documentation that is the stuff of research and learning.  It reminds us, too, that collectors are often public-spirited people, open to sharing their collections with others.

We are privileged to be able to present these documents on public display as well as on the web, and we are grateful to the collector for giving us the opportunity.





Michael Ryan





Abraham Lincoln
Letter to John M. Palmer, September 7, 1854

On January 4, 1854, the Committee on Territories reported a bill to the Senate that would lead to the Kansas-Nebraska Act. The prospect of slavery spreading above the Missouri Compromise line displeased Lincoln who here encourages Democrat John M. Palmer to stand against the Kansas-Nebraska Act by appealing to his anti-slavery sensibilities. Palmer’s dissatisfaction over his party’s stance on slavery would lead him to join Lincoln as a Republican and found the Illinois Republican Party two years later.

Full Document



John Brown
Letter to Samuel L. Adair, April 22, 1856

As a result of the provisions of the 1854 Kansas-Nebraska Act, pro- and anti-slavery groups poured into Kansas in a scramble to control the territory’s fate. Abolitionist firebrand, John Brown, describes confronting a pro-slavery court in the Kansas Territory in this 1846 letter to his brother-in-law. As his letter suggests, Brown was preparing for the violent confrontations with pro-slavery settlers that would define “Bleeding Kansas,” as the ensuing battle over the territory came to be known. His first raid would take place a little over a month later on May 24 near Pottawatomie Creek, Franklin County.

Full Document



John McLean
Legal notes for the dissent in Dred Scott vs. John F.A. Sanford, 1856-1867

In 1846, Dred Scott, a slave who had accompanied his master through both a free state and free territory, began legal proceedings to obtain freedom for himself and his family. By 1856, the case had made it before the Supreme Court of the United States. Though the Court decided against Scott, Dred Scott vs. John F.A. Sanford fueled the intense national debate over slavery, becoming one of the most controversial decisions in the court’s history. John McLean, one of two justices who opposed the decision, made these notes in preparation for his dissent.

Full Document



William Tecumseh Sherman
Letter to J.E. Williams, November 16, 1858

Despite his role as a General in the Union Army, William T. Sherman was relatively tolerant of slavery, particularly in the lead up to the Civil War. In 1858, Sherman opined to the president of the Metropolitan Bank in New York about the political turmoil over the future of slavery. His objections to its northward spread are rooted in its appropriateness for the region and legality, rather than any ethical questions slavery prompted. This outlook likely served Sherman well in two years employed as superintendent at the Louisiana Military Seminary before he re-enlisted in 1861.

Full Document



John W. French
Letter to Jefferson Davis, December 9, 1860

Elected President of the Confederate States in November 1861, Jefferson Davis was initially reluctant to embrace secession. This may explain why just four months before South Carolina became the first state to leave the Union, the Rev. John W. French wrote this lengthy missive counseling his friend Davis, then a Mississippi senator, against secession. In the letter, French, West Point chaplain and professor, argues that “The sober second thought of the people will settle things to your satisfaction.” He considers that Davis’ mind is already settled though, fearing that his words “will have no influence.”

Full Document



Ulysses Grant
Letter to Jesse Root Grant, August 3, 1861

With civil war already under way, General Ulysses Grant, summarizes the situation in Missouri for his father. He labels those convinced that the war is fundamentally about the eradication of slavery as “entirely ignorant.” While Grant would later change his mind, he demonstrates the broadly held view, early on, that suppression of the rebellion was the war’s primary objective.

Full Document



Edward Everett Hale, et al.
Signed endorsement of Lincoln’s Proclamation of Prospective Emancipation, [circa September 1862]

While Lincoln officially issued his Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863, he released a preliminary document to the press on September 22 of the previous year. He intended that document as a warning to rebels of the consequences of refusing to lay down their arms by the beginning of 1863. The preliminary proclamation met with a wide range of responses, including this endorsement, by a group of Unitarian ministers. Their firm support reflects New England’s critical role overall, and that of Unitarians in particular, in the pursuit of abolition.



William H. Seward
Letter to William P. Fessenden, January 27, 1863

In a victory for abolitionists, Secretary of State William H. Seward entered into the Lyons-Seward Treaty with Great Britain in early 1862. Ostensibly the treaty sought to end the African slave trade but it also provided an implicit assurance that the British would not assist the Confederacy. Writing to Senator Fessenden, Seward provides an estimate of the costs associated with fulfilling the American end of the agreement.

Full Document



James Harper Graham
Letter to Samuel Gordon, January 11, 1864

Full Document


George Bliss, Jr., et al.
Circular letter regarding the 26th Regiment U.S. Colored Troops, January 13, 1864

Full Document


Vincent Colyer
Letter to James Harper Graham, January 14, 1864

Grasping the destabilizing effect it would have on the South, and slavery, Lincoln paved the way for recruiting African-American soldiers in his Emancipation Proclamation. This circular and letters regarding the 20th and 26th regiments document the successful recruitment effort that followed. New York would form three regiments of United States Colored Troops, with over four thousand men serving during the remainder of the war.



Abraham Lincoln
Annual Message to Congress, circa December 6, 1864

Among a number of subjects Abraham Lincoln covered in his last Annual Message to Congress, (now the State of the Union) on December 6, 1864 was his backing for the Thirteenth Amendment. At the time, the landmark amendment abolishing slavery had not yet passed; however, black men had already begun to enlist in the army, a fact Lincoln referenced in his typically eloquent address: “…while thousands, white and black, join us, as the national aims press back the insurgent lines.” A printer is reputed to have saved these leafs which are two of only three complete manuscript pages of the speech to have survived.

Full Document



The National Freedman, A Monthly Journal of the New York National Freedman’s Relief Association. Volume 1, Number 2. New York, December 15, 1865.

Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation freed slaves in those states in rebellion against the Union, but it was the Thirteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution that officially abolished slavery throughout the nation. This issue of The National Freedman, the organ of the New York National Freedman’s Relief Association, includes the text of Secretary of State William Seward certifying the ratification. Curiously, although Congress adopted the amendment on December 18, 1865, this issue is dated December 15.



William Beverly Nash
Letter to Myles L.M. Myers, February 10, 1870

On February 3, 1870, Iowa’s ratification of the Fifteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution, which was meant to enfranchise adult African-American men, provided the minimum twenty-eight states needed for final ratification. Here, a state senator for South Carolina, William Beverly Nash, celebrates the news. It was perhaps most satisfying for Nash, a former slave, who had gained his freedom only a few years before becoming senator.



Frederick Douglass
Autograph note regarding John Brown, 1883

Though Frederick Douglass regarded Brown’s failed raid at Harpers Ferry as imprudent, he remained an admirer, even sharing Brown’s views on the efficacy of violence in the abolitionist cause. This note, signed by Douglass, is excerpted from his “Lecture on John Brown” given in 1881 at the now-defunct Storer College, in Harpers Ferry. Established in 1867, Storer was open to all regardless of sex, race or religion.



Fitzhugh Lee
Letter to Magnus Lewis Robinson, December 12, [1885]

Despite its brevity, this letter signed by Virginia’s governor-elect, Fitzhugh Lee, suggests how the Civil War and reforms enacted during the Reconstruction era had ostensibly changed the position of blacks in the United States. Lee, a former Confederate general and nephew of Confederate hero Robert E. Lee, expresses his commitment as governor to “equal rights” for African-Americans in his response to Robinson, a journalist and the great grandson of Martha Washington’s personal slave.


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