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Library of Congress Manuscripts: An Illustrated Guide

Founding of the Nation

The founders of the United States are not only those statesmen who installed our republic form of government but also the colonists who struggled to establish European settlements in the New World, the patriots who fought for American independence, and the pioneers who persistently expanded the country's boundaries. The experiences and contributions of all these founders are richly illustrated in the holdings of the Manuscripts Division.

Huejotzingo Codex. Mexico. 1531. Harkness Collection. Library of Congress Manuscript Division.
This painting is one of eight Indian paintings from the 1531 Huejotzingo Codex, part of the documentation in a legal action brought by the conqueror of Mexico, Hernán Cortés, against members of the first audiencia or the Spanish high court in Mexico, who earlier had tried to take over Cortés's land and power. The eight paintings in the codex illustrate the testimony of Indians called as witnesses in the case. This painting illustrates the contributions of the Huejotzingo people to Cortés's conquest of New Galicia. The image of the Madonna and Child framed in the blue rectangle represents the standard of the expedition's leader, Nuño de Guzman, and is one of the earliest native references to Christianity.

The records of the Virginia Company of London document some of the earliest contacts between European settlers and the Indians, whose complex civilizations in the Americas began centuries before. The military and diplomatic interaction between later generations of colonists and Native Americans may be researched in the papers of Andrew Jackson, James McHenry, Timothy Pickering, and the Return Jonathan Meigs family. Other holdings, like the Indian Language Collection and the papers of ethnologist Henry R. Schoolcraft, reflect more subtle and intellectual efforts of both civilizations to understand one another. More than one hundred division collections focus on Native Americans and their part in the founding of the United States.

John Hancock. Enclosure, John Hancock to George Washington concerning the reading of the Declaration of Independence to the Revolutionary army. 4 July 1776. George Washington Papers. Library of Congress Manuscript Division.

In 1898, within a year of its creation, the Manuscripts Division acquired Benjamin Franklin Stevens's collection of facsimiles and transcripts of British manuscripts. Soon thereafter it obtained photoreproductions of additional papers relating to the founding of the Americas held in European archives. Donations from two private sources—James B. Wilbur in 1925 and John D. Rockefeller, Jr., in 1927--provided financial resources for the expansion of the division's Foreign Copying Program, which today has grown to include thousands of volumes of transcripts, photostats, microfiche, and microfilm. Although the main focus has been on manuscripts in British, French, and Spanish archives, materials have also been collected from Italy, Germany, the Netherlands, and Russia.

Supplementing the foreign reproductions were donations from two private collectors of original materials concerning the early Spanish and Portuguese explorations and settlements. The gifts of Edward S. Harkness in 1927 and Hans Kraus in 1969 have made available to the public invaluable documents for the first two centuries of European exploration, conquest, and settlement of the Americas. One document collected by Kraus is the manuscript "La Corónica Mexicana," written around 1600 by Fernando Alvarado Tezozómoc, a descendant of Aztec emperors, that traces the history of the Aztec empire before the arrival of Hernán Cortés. Letters of Merigo Vespucci, whose name still graces the Americas, are another fascinating part of the Kraus legacy.

The papers assembled by Peter Force—a printer, mayor of Washington, D.C., and publisher of the massive compilations Documentary History of the American Revolution and The American Archives—make up one of the division's most important collections relating to the founding of the nation. Force and his assistants toured the eastern United States in the early to mid-nineteenth century collecting original papers and transcripts about the settlement of the and its Revolutionary period. Many of the original documents copied by them have now been lost to scholars and exist only in the transcripts held by the Library.

Indian treaty signed at Portsmouth, New Hampshire, 13 July 1713, and addendum signed at same location. 28 July 1714. Levi Woodbury Papers. Library of Congress Manuscript Division.
The "Eastern Indians" and the governments of New Hampshire and Massachusetts signed this treaty at Portsmouth, New Hampshire, on 13 July 1713. The Indians' pictographic signatures are of particular interest to cultural historians.

Force augmented his transcriptions with other people's collections. He acquired Ebenezer Hazard's newspaper, pamphlet, and manuscript collection relating to colonial and Revolutionary America, George Chalmers's British imperial documents, and Pierre E. Du Simitière's manuscripts relating to the American Revolution. He also transcribed large parts of the collections of Jeremy Belknap, Joseph Vallance Bevan, and William Buell Sprague. The Force collection includes documents as diverse as Native American papers relating to Anglo-Indian treaty negotiations; military papers of Revolutionary War heroes John Paul Jones and Nathanael Greene; accounts of Amsterdam merchant Jean de Neufville and London agent Joshua Johnson; and scientific correspondence, sketches, and other manuscripts of clergyman Jacob Cushing and steamboat inventor and craftsman John Fitch.

Other important collections of American, built by private individuals, are the papers of physician Joseph M. Toner (early medical and military records and Washingtoniana), Mary E. Powel (naval history), Hugh T. Taggart (early history of Maryland and the District of Columbia), John P. Morgan (signers of the Declaration of Independence), and J. Kelsey Burr, Jr. (Bank of the United States). The autograph collections of Sarah Stone, Henry A. Willard, and William Bebb also include letters and manuscripts of prominent early Americans, including the Revolutionary statesmen most often thoughts of as the nation's founding fathers.

Many of these leading founders are represented as well by their own collections of personal papers, which are vital to preserving and understanding our national heritage. Josiah Barlett, the Pinckney family, Roger Sherman, Oliver Ellsworth, John James Beckley, the Breckinridge family, William Plumer, Elbridge Gerry, Gouverneur Morris, Robert Morris, and William C. Rives are just a few of the scores of founders whose papers are held in the Manuscript Division. To these must be added the papers of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and James Monroe, whose founding roles culminated with their service as four of the nation's earliest chief executives.