Special Collections Research Center

William E. Barton Collection of Lincolniana



Rev. William Eleazar Barton (1861-1930)

The Rev. William Eleazar Barton (1861-1930) was one of the early twentieth century's most prominent writers and lecturers on the life of Abraham Lincoln. Born in Sublette, Illinois, in the same year Lincoln assumed the presidency, Barton grew up in an environment heavily influenced by reverence for Lincoln. After pursuing undergraduate studies at Berea College in Kentucky, Barton earned his divinity degree from the Oberlin Theological Seminary in 1890. He served parishes in Tennessee, Ohio, and Massachusetts before becoming the pastor of the First Congregational Church of Oak Park, Illinois, a position he held until his retirement in 1924. Four years later, Barton accepted an appointment as lecturer at Vanderbilt University, Nashville, Tennessee, where he also organized and served as pastor of the Collegeside Congregational Church.

Barton's work as a writer produced a number of denominational manuals for church organization and a series of books presenting the wisdom and parables of a character he named Safed the Sage. For the last ten years of his life, however, Barton was best known to the public as a prolific author and lecturer on Abraham Lincoln. His publications about Lincoln included The Soul of Abraham Lincoln (1920), The Paternity of Abraham Lincoln (1920), The Life of Abraham Lincoln (1925), The Great and Good Man (1927), The Women Lincoln Loved (1927), and The Lincoln of the Biographers (1930).

In the course of compling material for his writings and talks, Barton visited Lincoln sites in Kentucky, Indiana, and Illinois; interviewed surviving Lincoln relatives and acquaintances; and traveled as far as California and England to collect information and conduct genealogical research on the ancestry of the Lincoln family. While acquiring a large collection of books, periodicals, pamphlets, manuscripts, and ephemera related to Lincoln and the Civil War era, Barton also puchased privately or at auction historical materials amassed by other Lincoln collectors such as John E. Burton and Osborn H. Oldroyd.


Acquisition of the Barton Collection

In 1932, at the urging of Professor William E. Dodd and other faculty members in the Department of History, Barton's collection of books and manuscripts on Abraham Lincoln and the Civil War era was acquired by the University of Chicago Library. Among the 3,500 books in Barton's collection were most of the significant works on Lincoln published since his presidency, many of them copies signed by the authors; first editions of the printings of a number of Lincoln's pre-presidential speeches; seventy-five volumes from law library of Lincoln and his partner William Herndon; a dozen titles from the collection of Lincoln's secretary John Hay; and a broadside copy of the Emancipation Proclamation bearing the signatures of Lincoln, William Seward, and John G. Nicolay.

The manuscript portion of Barton's collection included a array of autograph Lincolniana: briefs, pardons, and commissions in Lincoln's hand; original letters of Mary Todd Lincoln; one of the few extant letters written by Lincoln to his wife; a letter written by eight-year-old Willie Lincoln while accompanying his father on a trip to Chicago; letters written by members of the Lincoln cabinet and other notable political and military figures of the time; Lincoln portraits, photographs, and paintings; and a large amount of ephemeral material related to Lincoln, his parentage, Lincoln homes and sites, and the Civil War.


Exhibition and Housing of the Barton Collection in the 1930s

During its early years in the University of Chicago Library, the Barton collection was treated as a historical collection of artifacts as much as a research resource. In the summer of 1934, at the request of the State of Illinois, portions of the Barton collection were exhibited at the Illinois Host House at the Century of Progress exposition in Chicago.

When the fair closed, the Barton collection was installed in a special museum and reading room in Harper Memorial Library in November 1934. One end of the Lincoln room displayed Lincoln busts, Lincoln portraits, a wooden kitchen cabinet built by Lincoln's father, and exhibition cases holding volumes and documents. Ranges of book shelves and study tables for the use of researchers occupied the other end of the room. The center of the room was devoted to an iconographic display composed of a portrait of an unbearded Lincoln painted from life by George Frederick Wright in 1860, a work purchased by the Library in 1932 for addition to the Barton collection; the well-known bronze bust, life mask, and cast of Lincoln's hands by Leonard W. Volk; and a plaster replica of a statue of Lincoln by Lorado Taft, the latter flanked on the wall by mounted inscriptions of Lincoln's Gettysburg Address and Second Inaugural Address.

During World War II, the Lincoln museum and library room was converted to other library purposes and the Barton collection was temporarily put into storage. With the creation of the Department of Special Collections in 1953, however, the Barton collection acquired a new administrative home within the Library and selections were once again put on periodic public display. When the Department of Special Collections moved into the Joseph Regenstein Library in 1970, the books and manuscripts in the Barton collection continued to be shelved as separate units of the rare book and manuscript holdings, a distinction that has been maintained following the 1999 physical reconfiguration of public and stack spaces in the department. In 2002, the department became the Special Collections Research Center.


Access to the Barton Collection

The book portion of the Barton Collection of Lincolniana, enlarged over the years by acquisitions made possible by an endowed fund, is accessible through the Library's online catalog.

Materials in the Barton Collection of Lincolniana that have been organized as part of the manuscript holdings are accessible through finding aids available in the Special Collections Research Center.   Processed collections with online finding aids are accessilbe through the Archives and Manuscripts Finding Aid database.

For further information on rare books or manuscripts in the William E. Barton Collection of Lincolniana, please contact:

Special Collections Research Center
University of Chicago Library
1100 E. 57th Street
Chicago, Illinois 60637