The act that gave us a National Archives

Today’s post comes from Kaitlin Errickson of the National Archives History Office. 

H.R. 6559, To provide for the construction of certain public bui

Public Buildings Act, engrossed version, May 18, 1926. (Records of the U.S. House of Representatives, National Archives)

May 25, 2016, marks the 90th anniversary of the Public Buildings Act of 1926, without which the National Archives Building would not exist as it does today.

The road to 1926 was a rough one—many papers and archives were destroyed throughout the 19th and early 20th century due to neglect, theft, and fire.

It was an uphill battle to convince Congress the important and vital role a National Archives would serve.

The Treasury Building, which long held historical records of the Treasury Department, had endured multiple fires.

The first Treasury fire occurred on January 20, 1801. It started in a room on the first floor and scorched the second floor, leaving the structural skeleton intact but the documents in ashes. After the fire, officials added a fireproof extension, known as the Latrobe Wing, to store the surviving documents.

Landscape

British forces burning Washington during the War of 1812, engraving. (National Archives Identifier 532909)

The building was set afire again in 1814 by the British during the War of 1812. They destroyed most of the building, and only the Latrobe Wing survived. Fortunately, most of the documents survived this fire due to the solid construction of the Latrobe Wing.

But once again, a newly built Treasury Building was burned in an act of arson in 1833 when Richard H. White set fire to the building to destroy incriminating pension records. Employees scrambled to save what they could, but many documents were burned to ashes in the fire.

The War Department building, which kept its department’s historical records, went up in flames in 1800, destroying almost all of their archives. This scenario was repeated over and over again in various Federal buildings. Despite the constant threat of fire, government departments continued to store their documents in unsafe buildings.

During and immediately following the Civil War, the government began to expand tremendously. Along with a growing government came an increase in important paperwork, and a need to safely store these papers.

One of the first steps to a National Archives building occurred on September 26, 1877, when yet another fire broke out, this time in the Patent Office Building (which had previously burned in 1836). The fire started on the top floor and destroyed over 80,000 models and 600,000 copy drawings. The entire east and north wings of the building were scorched.

The only bright side of the fire was that it led Montgomery Meigs, a general who served the Union Army and also took interest in the humanities, proposed a fireproof Hall of Records. He imagined the Hall of Records as simply a fireproof building to store paper, not the complex agency that the National Archives is today.

Nothing happened to Meigs’s proposal, but the idea of a Hall of Records gained traction.

hall of records

An 1883 plan for a Hall of Records from the Supervisory Architect of the Treasury Department. (U.S. Serial Set)

In 1884 the American Historical Association (AHA—and formerly the American Social Science Association) was established by teachers, professors, specialists, and others interested in the advancement of the history of the country. The AHA, led by J. Franklin Jameson, played a vital role in getting the Public Buildings Act of 1926 passed.

Jameson conducted a study on European archives, which he submitted to the AHA for publication. He quickly became the chairman of the newly created Historical Manuscripts Commission and founding editor of the American Historical Review.

64-NA-1472 (2)

J. Franklin Jameson. (National Archives Identifier 12169072)

Jameson and other members of the AHA were very committed the idea of a Hall of Records, and in 1898 they submitted a plan to Congress.

Congress passed a bill in 1903 authorizing a Hall of Records and providing purchase of a building site, but nothing materialized.

Jameson continued to push for a Hall of Records, now developing it into a call for a National Archives. In 1907 he spoke with President William Taft about the importance of an archives building to protect documents from fire while also serving as a place for research.

He encouraged President Taft to issue an Executive Order to perform a survey on the amount of records space left at each agency.

To Jameson’s surprise, the President issued the order, and each agency’s record space and keeping were surveyed.

Nine eminent historians, including Jameson, were named to a Committee on Documentary Historical Publications to plan a guide for the government for future publications. The committee recommended that an archives be built and that the committee become permanent. In 1910 the AHA publicly supported a plan for an archives.

3730459-Folder1-016

J. Franklin Jameson papers showing various sites for a National Archives Building, originally submitted March 4, 1913, revised April 30, 1918. (National Archives Identifier 12078357)

After yet another fire in 1911, this time at the New York State Archives, destroyed most of its collection, Jameson turned again to President Taft. Jameson was able to convince the President to support an archives.

On December 3, 1912, during his fourth annual address to Congress, President Taft made a forceful recommendation to Congress to pass a bill authorizing an archives: “A hall of archives is also badly needed, but nothing has been done toward its construction, although the land for it has long been bought and paid for.”

In 1914 Congress appropriated $5,000 to sketch plans for an archives building. Jameson did just that, but still nothing came of it.

The bittersweet tipping point for the National Archives Building came on January 21, 1921, when the Department of Commerce building caught fire. Nearly the entire 1890 population census was destroyed—about 25 percent was consumed by fire and 50 percent of the remainder was damaged by water, smoke, and fire.

64-NAD-125

Records of General Accounting Office, damaged and destroyed by a previous fire, stored in the New Post Office Department, December 13, 1935. (National Archives Identifier 18519700)

The fire, coupled with Jameson’s campaign for a National Archives, finally led Congress to pass the Public Buildings Act of 1926. The act was a part of the initiative to beautify the center of Washington, DC, and provide space for the growing bureaucracy.

But more important, the act finally appropriated funds for the National Archives Building to be constructed.

Jameson lived just long enough to see the National Archives Building open before his death in 1937.

A plaque honoring Jameson hangs on the wall at the Pennsylvania Avenue entrance of the National Archives Building to remember his efforts. It is inscribed: “Whose persistent and wise guidance led to the establishment of the National Archives.”

64-NA-1633

Dr. Waldo G. Leland, Director Emeritus, American Council of Learned Societies; Dr. Boyd C. Shafer, Executive Secretary, American Historical Association; and Dr. Wayne C. Grover, Archivist of the United States, with the Jameson plaque, 1954. (National Archives Identifier 12169395)

Read more about the 1920 Commerce Department fire and the 1890 Census in the Spring 1996 issue of Prologue.

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One Response to The act that gave us a National Archives

  1. Pingback: J. Franklin Jameson: the Father of the National Archives | Pieces of History

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