Thursday, May 14, 2009

Lincoln's Final State of the Union Address

By Lincoln’s own Hand: 23 lines from his final State of the Union, at auction in Dallas

Original copy literally plucked from the trash by Superintendent of Public Printing J. D. Defrees in 1864, up for bid at Heritage, June 16-17

DALLAS, TX – A handwritten page from President Abraham Lincoln's December 1864 State of the Union message, an important document that was literally rescued from the trash 145 years ago, is being sold by a Midwestern historical society. Written four months before his assassination, the page with 23 lines written in Lincoln’s own longhand script will be offered to the public through Heritage Auction Galleries ( as part of an auction of Historical Manuscripts, June 16 and 17.

In December 1864, just after he had won a closely contested second term in office and with the nation in the final throes of its bitter, bloody Civil War, Lincoln released his annual assessment of America’s health, and addressed the ongoing conflict.

“... We are not exhausted, nor in process of exhaustion,” he wrote. “... We are gaining strength, and may, if need be, maintain the contest indefinitely.”

Today, if a President even touches a piece of paper it is put under glass, documented and archived down to the minutest detail. When Lincoln wrote his 1864 message, however, the original manuscript was taken to a printer, typeset for printing, reading and distribution to the cabinet, congress and ultimately the national press, and then summarily tossed – literally – onto the dustbin of history. Fortunately for posterity – as documented in Carl Sandburg’s seminal 1949 book Lincoln Collector – “several manuscript sheets were given to various persons by the Superintendent of Public Printing, J. D. Defrees..." (page 190).

It was Defrees who was in charge of the office that typeset the address, and it was Defrees who thought the pages might make good gifts for friends of his. His quick thinking, and hands, saved an important piece of American history that day, a piece of which only 11 fragments survive.

“In this portion of his address we hear an unbending and hardened Lincoln,” said Sandra Palomino, Director of Rare Manuscripts at Heritage. “It was an important message for many reasons, not the least of which was this call for fortitude from Union supporters and Lincoln’s trumpeting of the large popular vote totals he received, especially from enlisted men.”

While the 13th Amendment is not mentioned in the 23 lines that Heritage is offering, it was a large component of Lincoln’s domestic segment of the speech, and played a critical role in his call to arms to the Northern United States to see the Civil War through to its conclusion. Lincoln takes special care to note that “thousands, white and black, join us, as the national arms press back the insurgent lines.”

Research shows that Lincoln began working on this important Annual Message just a week after the Nov. 8, 1864 election by writing telegrams to several governors asking them to "[p]lease send, as soon as practicable, exactly, or approximately, the aggregate of votes cast in your State at the late election. It is desired with reference to the forthcoming Message."

The manuscript comes to Heritage from a Midwestern Historical Society and is accompanied by a 1952-dated, notarized affidavit describing the chain of ownership for this manuscript, from its original owner William P. Doyle, who was Indian Affairs Commissioner under Lincoln, through to the current owner. The story detailed in the affidavit matches exactly the description given by Sandburg in his aforementioned 1949 book.

The most recent of these fragments to appear on the market was in the October 2002 auction of the Forbes Collection of American Historical Documents at Christie's, where the 11-line manuscript (ex. Philip D. Sang) sold for $251,500 (with Buyer’s Premium). That example was the top half of page 39. There is no way to predict when the next offering of one of these manuscripts will take place. It carries a pre-sale estimate of $90,000-$120,000.

“The phrase is, perhaps, overused,” said Palomino, “but this lot truly does represent a rare opportunity to own a piece of history, as well as an artifact from America’s most revered leader.”

For more information on the June Grand Format Rare Manuscripts Auction, to read a detailed description of this, or any other, lot, and to download full-color, enlargeable images, go online to

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