Lincoln Letter May Fetch $3 Million at Auction

A rare collection of historic manuscripts goes on sale at Sotheby's Thursday. The highlight is a letter dated April 5, 1864, in which President Lincoln replies to a petition sent by 195 children from Concord, Mass., requesting that he free "all the little slave children in the country."

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And now to a time when politics was less expensive.

Tomorrow night, some significant letters by President Abraham Lincoln are coming up for auction at Sotheby's in New York City. They include Lincoln's response to a children's petition against slavery. It's part of a private collection of more than 100 historic manuscripts.

NPR's Margot Adler reports.

MARGOT ADLER: It's hard to believe that a small, handwritten letter might go at auction for between $3 and $5 million. In fact, Robert Small, a physician and the owner of this valuable letter, has said that before he started collecting, he didn't even know that presidential documents were publicly available.

Selby Kiffer is a specialist in Sotheby's books and manuscripts department.

Mr. SELBY KIFFER (Specialist, Sotheby's Books and Manuscripts Department): It's a relatively small collection in terms of numbers, maybe 110 items. But it's really top-notch in terms of content.

ADLER: There are letters by Washington and Jefferson and John Brown. There are leads from an autograph book signed by President Lincoln and other dignitaries on the day of the Gettysburg Address in 1863.

Mr. KIFFER: It's the one tangible relic or artifact that survives of Lincoln's being at Gettysburg.

ADLER: Although there are drafts of the Gettysburg Address written prior to the speech and souvenir copies Lincoln penned later, the actual text, says Kiffer, is lost. But at the heart of this collection are two letters that reveal some of Lincoln's thinking about slavery.

In 1862, he chastises a major who he has heard has called the Civil War a game that will end with a compromise to preserve slavery. Lincoln demands in the letter that the major prove that he did not say that; in the end, the major is dismissed. The second, perhaps the most important and valuable letter, is written to Mrs. Horace Mann, wife of the renowned educator. She had presented the president with a petition from 195 schoolchildren in Concord, Mass., asking that he free all slave children. Kiffer reads Lincoln's response written in the spring of 1864.

Mr. KIFFER: (Reading) Please tell these little people, I am very glad their young hearts are so full of just and generous sympathy. And that while I have not the power to grant all they ask, I trust they will remember that God has and that as it seems, he wills to do it.

So, Lincoln essentially has seen himself as the instrument of God to end slavery, that God does want to end slavery and that it's going to happen.

ADLER: Kiffer regards this letter among the most significant statements Lincoln made about slavery. And he says these Lincoln documents are the most important to come up for auction in 30 years.

Margot Adler, NPR News, New York.

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