Page last updated at 09:56 GMT, Monday, 31 March 2008 10:56 UK

US presidential manuscripts on sale

By Matthew Price
BBC News, New York

The pages are mottled and a little yellow. Some look almost burnt around the edges.

A letter from Abraham Lincoln is said to be the auction's centrepiece

The ink is blotchy in places, but the signatures are unmistakable, and magical.

You need a good imagination, but stare for long enough and you can picture the writers.

Abraham Lincoln for instance, perhaps stroking his beard as he writes from the "Executive Mansion, Washington, April 5, 1864."

George Washington, sitting at his desk at Mount Vernon ("in Virginia" he usefully adds on the top right-hand corner) on 2 June 1784.

Or John Brown, who for most of his life fought to free America's slaves, writing from his prison cell after he was arrested for attempting to lead an armed slave insurrection.

"Your most kind and most welcome letter of the 8th inst reached me in due time," he wrote to Reverend Herman L Vaill.

Due time indeed. Two weeks after the ink had dried, he was executed by hanging.

Swollen mailbox

Presidential manuscripts are set to be auctioned at Sotheby's in New York on Thursday, the centrepiece of the sale being the letter from Lincoln.

It is said he received between 250 and 500 letters a day as president, most of which were dealt with by his staff.

According to Harold Holzer's book, Dear Mr Lincoln: Letters to the President, Lincoln's mailbag was swollen "to nearly unmanageable proportions".

Abraham Lincoln (archive)
Lincoln couldn't reply as he sometimes did as a bloodless lawyer and explain why the constitution didn't permit him to do this
Selby Kiffer

"[It contained] pleas for pardons, requests for autographs, requests for passes through the line, ideas on prosecuting the war, [and the] inevitable ravings of seers, soothsayers, and mystics, and threats both violent and profane."

Lincoln rarely saw the items, but no piece of mail - we are told - touched the president as much as a petition from a group of children in April 1864.

It was devastatingly simple. Some 195 boys and girls put their names to a document entitled "Children's petition to the president asking him to free all the little slave children in this country."

Lincoln's reply "is a simple, heartfelt, almost fatherly letter," says Sotheby's American Manuscript Expert Selby Kiffer, as he wanders around a press preview ahead of the auction of Presidential and Other American Manuscripts from the Dr Robert Small Trust this week.

"Please tell these little people," Lincoln wrote, "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 that they will remember that God has, and that, as it seems, He wills to do it."

"Lincoln couldn't reply as he sometimes did as a bloodless lawyer and explain why the constitution didn't permit him to do this," Mr Kiffer explains. "Here he essentially pledges to the children that through him, God will free the slave children."

It is estimated the short letter will fetch between $3m (1.5m) and $5m (2.5m).

Future souvenirs

Other highlights include a Lincoln autograph penned on the day of his famous Gettysburg Address on 19 November 1863.

There is also a document from the sixth president of the United States, John Quincy Adams, foretelling the Civil War and a rare document signed by both of the American explorers, Meriwether Lewis and William Clark.

John Brown wrote this letter two weeks before he was executed

"What's so intriguing about these letters is that they aren't souvenirs," Mr Kiffer says. "They were generated in the course of the lives and careers of these presidents and other people."

So what, we are left wondering, will the successors of Mr Kiffer and his colleagues be auctioning in 150 years' time?

Will e-mail exchanges between Barack Obama and his campaign staff about ways to beat Hillary Clinton fetch such interest? What about a Word document typed out by John McCain?

Mr Kiffer, you will not be surprised to learn, suspects it will not quite be the same.

"The trouble with e-mails is they can be reproduced," he says.

"There are some notes that are handwritten by presidents, but now they tend to be done consciously as souvenirs. You realise you're taking a very busy person and making them do something they wouldn't normally do."

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