Musings on Manuscripts

Researching printed documents, even if only a transcript, has definite advantages over reviewing manuscripts.  When determining the value of particular material, the ability to read it quickly can be essential.  In contrast to printed text, manuscripts are often difficult to decipher.  Moreover, in a long series of documents, the various styles and hands add to the legibility issue.

Yet reading a manuscript has advantages.  You can envision the author, quill or pen in hand, laboriously recording the proceedings of a court or legislature, or sending communications to various acquaintances and political allies.   Even when the author has questionable handwriting or spelling ability, you know that he was there when “it” happened.  Moreover, at times, the researcher can even speculate about the writer’s personality.

A great example of diversity in styles can be found in LLMC #24625, which contained various census returns from North Carolina from 1784 to 1787, and digitized from records originally held by the Department of Archives and History in Raleigh, North Carolina.    In the 1787 volume, on July 7, 1787, one recorder noted the list contained the number of “Souls in Capt. Johnson’s Dist[rict].”  Another hand used “inhabitants;” no poetry in his numbers (volume 1786), followed again by our gatherer of “souls.”  Some of the census takers didn’t even bother with titles – it’s quickly to work, beginning a table of the various categories with “white males from 21 to 60 years.”   Just comparing the methods and terminology of the various census takers makes one wonder who created those tables. 

Even North Carolina session laws (in LLMC #99917) can fuel speculation about the recorder of the various acts and bills.  For example, the 1734 session record may seem like business as usual.  However, the recorder’s use of underlining when referring to “public bills of credit” could be suggesting that he was unhappy with “evil disposed persons to counterfeit the same.”  His emphasis continued throughout, often underlying sums of money, acts of the assembly and whatever he seemed to consider very important.   While most current writers have learned that emphasis stems from the context, not use of italics, underlining, or other artificial device, this note taker (or maybe some subsequent party) decided to leave nothing to chance!  Reading this section makes one wonder if this topic was upsetting, or stirred his pride in his fellow legislators in dealing with these evil people – or was simply a summary of the essence of the act.

One last example of the benefits of reading the original manuscript can be found in the writings of R.B. Hinton, a member of the Confederate House who represented Florida during the Civil War (LLMC #20014). These notes on the various legislative sessions covered August 23, 1863-February 6, 1864; a section beginning February 3, 1864 dealt with President Jefferson Davis’ recommendation to suspend the writ of habeas corpus.  Hinton’s comments added depth to this debate, beginning with his observation that Davis’s request was “rec[eive]d amid profound silence.”  During the following days, Hinton’s numerous notations of the various positions were enlightening and gave one man’s sense of Congressional maneuverings to postpone – or push forward – President Davis’ request for an increase in martial law.  For example, Representative Henry Foote’s speeches against Davis and his policies were particularly harsh, arguing that the president failed to do “his duty” when he neglected to go to Congress for advice on the suspension of habeas corpus, thereby forcing Congress to intervene.   In contrast, Representative Conrad from Louisiana supported Davis, and argued he had done his duty, given the facts before him and the state of the war against the enemy.  Hard constitutional issues are not rubberstamped, as demonstrated in these manuscript pages of Mr. Hinton. 

So why read manuscript?  Because we can, now that LLMC Digital has allowed us to view the originals without our white gloves, fear of tearing delicate pages, or going through various procedures to gain access to these manuscripts.  The LLMC Digital searchers have enhanced assistance with locating these relevant, fascinating documents, due to the availability of detailed cataloging metadata as well as supplementary abstracts written by legal experts.  Even when manuscripts have transcripts available, a dedicated researcher may find it necessary to review the original, both for content and those subtle extras of personality and style.  Certainly that opportunity is worth a bit of eyestrain! 

Early State Records is one of LLMC’s most substantial initiatives, thanks to the patronage of several libraries which are listed *here*.  In Phase One, LLMC is digitizing 1028 reels from the Library of Congress’ microfilm collection, containing the records, treatises, newspaper accounts and other legal or related documents from pre-colonial through early statehood of the 15 Atlantic Coast states as well as Native American tribes.  Applying advanced digitization post-processing and value-added metadata  to these primary and secondary sources which were held in numerous state, federal and foreign libraries, historical societies, archives and legislatures, LLMC’s LLMC Digital online service will make many rare and little seen documents, such as the broadsides, available to researchers and society as a whole. 

Written by Joyce Savio Herleth, Saint Louis University School of Law