In honor of Presidents’ Day (which is today), I’m going to share a little about a collection I’m processing (at the Dayton Metro Library) that has presidential ties.
For the past several months, I have been processing and creating a finding aid for the Bickham Collection (MS-017), which primarily consists of letters and news clippings pertaining to William Denison Bickham (1827-1894), the editor of the Dayton Journal newspaper from 1863 until his death.
The Journal was Republican in its politics, and after the arrest of Copperhead [anti-war Democrat] leader and Dayton congressman Clement Vallandingham, an angry mob set fire to the Journal office on May 5, 1863. (Read more about it.) The man who stepped up to the challenge of rebuilding (literally) the Journal was William Denison Bickham, a young war correspondent for the Cincinnati Commercial. The new Journal office would be at 25 N. Main (view photo) from 1864-1881. Bickham was said to have endured many threats for the things he wrote, but he never backed down.
What does this newspaper editor have to do with Presidents’ Day, you might be wondering. Well, I’m sure this will come as a shock, but politicians like to war with each other through the press, by writing letters and making sure their contents got printed.
(I say this only about half-sarcastically, because honestly, the idea of politicians attacking each other via the newspaper was something that I never really thought about until I was assigned to read Joanne Freeman’s Affairs of Honor in an Early American Republic course in 2003 – thanks, Dr. Wachtell! The book covers a much earlier period, but the sentiment is the same.)
But back to Bickham and the presidents. Depending on your specific criteria, Ohio lays claim to seven or eight U.S. Presidents. The problem lies with William Henry Harrison, who was actually born in Virginia; the other seven – Grant, Hayes, Garfield, B. Harrison, McKinley, Taft, and Harding were all born in Ohio. Interestingly enough – something I guess I never noticed until today – all of those seven Ohio-born presidents were from the Republican party. [W. H. Harrison is an outlier in this category as well - he was a Whig, but that's really just an "early Republican."] Of the seven Ohio-born presidents, four served during the period when Bickham was editor of the Journal, and the other three were already active in Republican politics.
Again, what does this have to do with Bickham? Well, upon digging into the Bickham Collection last year, I had no idea what the collection was about or who W. D. Bickham was. It was just “on my list” of things to do. Sure, I’d heard about the mob burning the Journal office after the Clement Vallandingham arrest, and yeah, I knew the Journal must have started up again because it existed until, what, the 1980s? But believe it or not, your local history librarians don’t just “know” everything there is to know about local history. Even we have to look things up. A lot. Shocking, I know.
So not knowing what the collection was about, imagine my surprise – and awe – when I found folders (it was semi-processed) labeled James A. Garfield, Warren G. Harding, Benjamin Harrison, and William McKinley — containing actual letters from those people! Wow – cool stuff. There are also quite a few letters from some “less famous” late-19th century politicians – mostly Republican – mostly from Ohio. There are letters from several Ohio governors; a handful from Cincinnatian Salmon P. Chase; there are many from John Sherman, a U.S. Congressman and later U.S. Senator from Lancaster, Ohio – and younger brother of Civil War General William T. Sherman.
In most cases, these men wrote to Bickham in order to “share their views” with him – and in most cases, that meant, Please publish my views in your newspaper, kthanks. I found some examples in this collection of the original letter, as well as a copy of the news clipping where he had printed the contents.
If they didn’t want Bickham to publish what they wrote, they would mark the letter as “private” at the top. It seems a little strange that they would write these “private” letters, but I suppose he probably developed real friendships with some of the men. Or perhaps they wanted Bickham to understand their position or actions (so he would keep supporting them!) but weren’t ready to share it with the world yet.
The Bickham Collection is not very large – about 1 linear foot of manuscripts plus several scrapbooks (2 of which pertain to Bickham’s son Charlie’s military service in the Spanish-American War and the Philippine Insurrection). However, what it lacks in volume, it makes up for in richness and quality. This collectino is just full of gem after gem. I hold history in my hands every day, but some things just make you feel…privileged.
For the record, Dayton Metro Library does not restrict access to any materials based on perceived research “value.” Our collections are available for use by all. But for sure, any serious researcher of Ohio Republican politics in the late 19th century really shouldn’t miss this collection.