Presidential records from George Washington to Donald Trump
Affidavit to search Trump’s Mar-a-Lago says 184 classified files were found in January
Until the 1970s, former presidents could do pretty much what they wanted with their presidential papers. This was often a problem. Some newspapers “were deliberately destroyed, while others were victims of accidental destruction,” a 1978 congressional study concluded. “Others were scattered to the four winds.”
As the country’s first president, Washington set a precedent. He planned to construct a building in Mount Vernon to store his papers, but he did not. On the last day of his life in late 1799, according to Mount Vernon historians, Washington said to his secretary Tobias Lear, “I find that I will, my breath cannot long go on…arrange and save all my letters and overdue military papers—arrange my accounts and settle my books.
Washington left his papers to a nephew, Supreme Court Justice Bushrod Washington. Justice lent many documents to Chief Justice John Marshall, who was writing a biography of the first president. The nephew later lamented in a letter to James Madison that Marshall had stored papers where they had been “extensively mutilated by rats and otherwise damaged by dampness”.
Meanwhile, after her husband’s death, Martha Washington burned most of the letters they had exchanged. “Only a few are known to remain, including two, both tender and tense, that George Washington wrote just before he left for the war,” The Washington Post reported in 2015.
John Adams, the second president, and his son, President John Quincy Adams, both kept detailed records, which the heirs then donated to the state of Massachusetts. But after that, the fate of the presidential newspapers was unpredictable.
When President John Tyler of Virginia left office in 1845, most of his papers were transferred to a bank in Richmond. After the Civil War began, Tyler died in 1862 on his way to the Confederate Congress. His papers in Richmond were destroyed in April 1865 when rebel forces burned down the town to keep it out of Union hands. The rest of Tyler’s papers “were left at Tyler’s home in Sherwood Forest, which was repeatedly occupied and ransacked by Union and Confederate forces,” the Congressional study said.
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Most of the late President Zachary Taylor’s papers were destroyed when Union troops occupied his son’s Louisiana home in 1862. After Abraham Lincoln’s assassination in 1865, his son Robert Todd Lincoln “a destroyed many of his father’s papers—those he considered unnecessary—before placing the rest in the Library of Congress,” the report states. Lincoln’s papers were not made public until 1947.
President Ulysses S. Grant had trouble keeping up with his papers. “The only place I have ever found in my life to put a paper in order to find it was either a side coat pocket or the hands of a more careful employee than me,” he wrote. As a result, Grant simply lost many of his presidential papers.
President Chester A. Arthur hated the idea of journalists interfering in his affairs. The day before his death in November 1886, “he ordered his son to destroy” his presidential papers, write the congressional researchers. “Three large trash cans were used to burn most of the presidential papers.”
President Grover Cleveland didn’t care much about the preservation of papers during his two nonconsecutive terms. He regarded all papers addressed to him as his private property, he said, “and if I saw fit to destroy them, no one could complain.” Cleveland lost track of many of his papers after he left office in 1897 and gave other papers to autograph seekers.
After President Warren G. Harding died of a heart attack in 1923, his wife, Florence, “destroyed numerous papers which might have been embarrassing to Harding’s memory,” according to the congressional report.
It didn’t help. Nan Britton, Harding’s former secretary, claimed in a tell-all book that he fathered her child. DNA confirmed his paternity in 2015.
President Calvin Coolidge kept diligent records, which were overseen by one of his assistants, Edward T. Clark. Later, Clark wrote that Coolidge wanted all papers in his so-called personal files destroyed.
“Nothing would have been preserved if I hadn’t taken some things on my own,” Clark said.
Some presidents have gone to great lengths to preserve their papers. In the early 1900s, Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft organized presidential collections that were passed on to heirs and then provided to the Library of Congress. The Taft papers totaled over 700,000 documents.
Finally, President Franklin D. Roosevelt set a precedent by donating his archives to the National Archives and Records Administration. He also created a presidential library. Roosevelt modeled his library on the first presidential library, the Rutherford B. Hayes Presidential Library & Museums, which opened in Fremont, Ohio, in 1916 with papers held in trust after Hayes left in 1881.
FDR opened his library in Hyde Park, NY on June 30, 1941. “As president, I accept this new house in which the people’s records are kept,” he said. On the first day, 161 people paid 25 cents each (about $5 now) to visit the library, the Associated Press reported.
The government began designating secret documents as classified just before World War II. All FDR presidents turned over their papers to the government until Richard M. Nixon attempted to retain control of some Watergate papers after his resignation in 1974.
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Nixon eventually relinquished 42 million pages of documents after Congress passed legislation resulting in the Presidential Documents Act of 1978 making the papers of presidents and vice presidents the property of the government.
Trump is the first former chief executive since Nixon to try to retain personal possession of presidential documents.
During the House debate on the 1978 Act, first-term Rep. Dan Quayle (R-Ind.) suggested that the preservation requirements “should also apply to members of Congress.” Rep. Allen Ertel (D-Pa.) replied, “I might say, Mr. Quayle, there’s one thing you need to remember…I can’t imagine any historian being interested in the papers of ‘a freshman congressman.’
Quayle, of course, later became US Vice President under President George HW Bush.