ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.
MICHELE NORRIS, host:
And I'm Michele Norris.
Imagine this scenario: the U.S. is at war, the public is divided, the president is under constant criticism from newspaper editorial boards that question his role as commander in chief. So he writes a confidential letter, by hand, to the publisher of one of the most prominent American papers, seeking its support. The year: 1861. And the president: Abraham Lincoln. That letter is now going on sale. Valued at $55,000.
Steven Raab is the owner of the Raab Collection, which handles historical documents and antiquities and he's conducting that sale.
He joins us now from Philadelphia. Welcome to the program.
Mr. STEVEN RAAB (Founder, Raab Collection): Well, thank you very much for having me on.
NORRIS: So what did President Lincoln say in that letter?
Mr. RAAB: Well, President Lincoln was very anxious to let the editor of the New York Herald, the most prominent newspaper of its era, know that he was sensitive to press concerns, that he would work with the press, and that he appreciated the support that the press was giving to the Union cause.
NORRIS: He writes, and I just want to quote part of the letter, "I write this to assure you that the administration will not discriminate against the Herald, especially when it sustains us so generously and the cause of the country so ably as it has been doing."
It sounds a little quid pro quo there.
Mr. RAAB: Well, there is a subtext to this letter. The Herald had been a rather bitter enemy of Lincoln as a candidate. When the war broke out, they weren't so sure any longer and they began to lean toward the Union cause. But their support was, by no means, assured and they were wavering. And President Lincoln is saying here that we will do everything we can for you, but we surely would like your support for our cause.
NORRIS: Support. What was he specifically looking for?
Mr. RAAB: He was looking to avoid criticism. The war did not go well in the beginning. Losses at Bull Run and other places in the beginning of the war opened the administration to accusations of incompetence. There were many people in the North who didn't really like secession, but they didn't approve of carrying on the war to free the slaves. Lincoln was attacked viciously by newspapers all over the North, just viciously. And here, the Herald, with this enormous circulation, if he can only keep them from attacking him even if they struck a somewhat neutral posture with perhaps just a shade in favor. This would take tremendous pressure off of him and many smaller newspapers, of course, followed the Herald's lead.
NORRIS: To put this in context for us, was it unusual at all for the president to send this kind of letter to an editorial board?
Mr. RAAB: It was extremely unusual for a president, for President Lincoln, to put in print, to put his hand to the paper and express these sentiments, which were partly a plea and perhaps partly an offer, was not merely unusual, but in 1861, I think you can say it was unique in American history.
NORRIS: So did it work?
Mr. RAAB: Yes. In the end, the Herald's position became more and more the view of the administration and I think Lincoln would have to have considered that his outreach was successful.
NORRIS: Now, you've handled the sale of other rare manuscripts from Ben Franklin and John Hancock and all kinds of historical figures.
Mr. RAAB: Yes.
NORRIS: I don't mean to wag my finger at you, but why sell it? Why not just donate it to a museum? I mean, shouldn't something like this be in the Lincoln Library?
Mr. RAAB: Well, you know, perhaps it may end up in the Lincoln Library. We are custodians of important documents for a little while. But then, we do find other homes for them and some of those homes are in private hands and some of them are in public institutions. We spend our lives ferreting out this great material so that we can make it available to others. That's our business.
NORRIS: Steven Raab, it's been a pleasure to talk to you. All the best to you. Thanks so much.
Mr. RAAB: Well, thank you, Michele.
NORRIS: Steven Raab is the owner of the Raab Collection in Philadelphia, which is selling Lincoln's confidential 1861 letter to the New York Herald. The letter is valued at $55,000.