The 1986 Immigration Act and My Lifetime Relationship with the Lincoln Cottage

Today’s post comes from Jim Zeender, Registrar on the National Archives Exhibits Staff. 

The 1986 Immigration Act, November 6, 1986. (General Records of the United States Government, National Archives)

On June 1, my colleagues Alexis Hill, Warren Halsey, and I culminated about nine months of work with a visit to the Lincoln Cottage on the grounds of the Old Soldiers Home. Terry Boone and Bill Nenichka had participated in previous trips. A host of other NARA staff helped prepare us for this day with their contributions back at the fort on Pennsylvania Avenue.

In the morning, we brought four pages from the original 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act to be featured as the latest in the museum’s originALs series.

You might be asking what is the connection between this immigration law signed by President Ronald Reagan in 1986 and the Lincoln Cottage. Well, it’s kind of an interesting story. In September of last year, I received an email from Deputy Director Callie Hawkins:

Mr. Zeender—it’s nice to meet you, even if virtually. . . . [W]e would be interested in borrowing Public Law 38-205-1 An Act to Encourage Immigration, Record Group 11, General Records of the U.S. Government for a loan as part of our originALs initiative. originALs  highlights a single object that has its origins at the Cottage or represents an idea Lincoln was thinking through while living here. Given that he moved out to the Cottage for the last time on July 4, 1864, and that we’re opening an exhibit on Lincoln and immigration, we’d be delighted to exhibit this in our permanent galleries for a brief period of time.

Although best known for leading the United States through the Civil War and helping end legal slavery, President Lincoln made a tremendous impact on America’s immigration policy. On July 4, 1864, Lincoln moved to the Cottage for his final summer in residence. That same day, he signed into law An Act to Encourage Immigration, the first comprehensive immigration law in American history.  (Excerpted from the Lincoln Cottage Website).

Outdoor Public Event
An outdoor public event at the cottage. (Photo Courtesy of President Lincoln’s Cottage)

Unfortunately, there was a complication with lending the 1864 Act, the same that we face with lending public laws dating from 1824 to 1956. With all but a few exceptions, all are bound tightly into volumes, and since 1976, NARA policy has prohibited the disbinding volumes for exhibition purposes.  (For the National Archives bicentennial exhibition “The Written Word Endures,” public law volumes had been unbound to allow the removal of the Homestead Act, the Morrill Act, the 19th Amendment, the Immigration Act of 1824, the GI Bill, and the Marshall Plan.)

Tour Group in Drawing Room
A tour group in the drawing room. (Photo Courtesy of President Lincoln’s Cottage)

Since the 1864 Immigration Act was bound with scores of other laws passed by the 38th Congress and signed by Lincoln, we would not agree to lend the entire volume.

We discussed various alternatives, so I was a little surprised when Callie asked if we would consider lending the 1986 act. They had struck on the idea of the recurring theme of immigration in American history dating back to the founding and still with us today. 

Beginning in 1957, Congress ended its practice of binding the laws and kept them in loose sheet form instead, a much more suitable format for exhibition and loan.

David Ferriero, Archivist of the United States, provided the following quote for the Lincoln Cottage press release: The National Archives is pleased to have this opportunity to partner with President Lincoln’s Cottage on this first-time exhibition of the 1986 Immigration Act. Its connection to national immigration laws dating back over 200 years of American history, including the 1864 Act signed by President Lincoln, is a welcome addition to our national conversation during this election year.

Life-size Lincoln statue. (Photo Courtesy of President Lincoln’s Cottage)

Since its opening in 2008, the Lincoln Cottage has shown Lincoln’s slippers, his briefcase, and Tad Lincoln’s photo album, among other treasures. On the 150th anniversary of the Preliminary Emancipation (September 22, 2012), a rare signed copy on loan from philanthropist David Rubenstein was put on exhibit. The exhibits are shown in the nearby Visitor Center, a short walk from the Cottage.

The 34-room “Cottage” in northeast Washington was built by banker George Washington Riggs in 1842. Riggs raised cattle on the grounds. The design is Gothic Revival and sits on top of a hill overlooking downtown Washington, DC.

Even today, visitors can see the Capitol and the Washington Monument from its grounds.

In 1851, Riggs sold the property and surrounding lands to the United States Government for what became the Old Soldiers Home. It was the Camp David of its day for Presidents James Buchanan through Chester Arthur. The Lincolns stayed there during the summers of 1862, 1863, and 1864, but the President rode on horseback each day to the White House to conduct the nation’s business. The President’s Guard, Company K of the 150th Pennsylvania Volunteers, accompanied him for security purposes.

In later years, the Cottage  had various lives as “a dormitory, quarters for the Soldiers’ Home band, a bar and lounge for  residents, and the public affairs office, through the late 1990s.”
For decades, I have had a relationship with the Lincoln Cottage, but it was always at a distance. Last September, when I first began talking to Callie about a possible loan, I was beset with a torrent of memories.
My father, John K. Zeender, and his brother Al were students at nearby Catholic University in the 1930s. My dad graduated with a master’s degree in American history. This was made possible by a large cash settlement that my grandfather Alfred James Zeender received after suffering a work-related accident on the New Haven Railroad, resulting in the loss of his legs.
My dad served in the Central Intelligence Corps (U.S. Army) during World War II and was awarded a Bronze Star before obtaining a doctorate in European history from Yale.

Understandably, his experiences in Europe during the war had a great impact on the future direction of his academic interests. Today, the History Department awards the Zeender Prize for the best senior thesis.

My dad’s legacy at CU was all around us. My older brother John went to CU in the early seventies, I attended in the late 1970s, and my younger brother Tom in the early 1980s.

Our family of seven lived on Seventh Street for a year (1959–1960) after moving from Amherst, Massachusetts, in late summer of 1959. Dad left behind a tenured position at UMass to take an offer from CU to become a professor of European history. He and my mother moved five young children, ranging from my then-nine-year-old sister MaryAnn to the youngest, Tom, who was just over a month old.

Twenty years later, my mom was working in the library at the University of Maryland at College Park and saw a posting for a position at the National Archives and called me. The rest, as they say, is history!

Having spent his college days at CU, Dad was very familiar with the neighborhood and would point out the Lincoln Cottage whenever we drove past it on our way across town. He would tell the story about Lincoln returning to the Cottage on horseback when a shot rang out. Later, his hat was recovered with a bullet hole.

The story stayed with me all these years, but it always had a vague quality to it. My recent visits to the Cottage made it more real. Callie pointed out that the shooting took place within shouting distance of the house, with soldiers racing to catch up. I saw where the President tied up his horse. I could almost picture the scene as if it were happening that day.

I made a total of three visits culminating in the June 1 installation. I had different NARA staff members with me each time, and Callie generously offered to give all a tour of the home.

We walked the same route, through the back door and out to the front porch where Mrs. Lincoln and the President spent their summer evenings. When the Lincolns were there, the President’s Guard camped out on the lawn, and he engaged them in conversation and perhaps a game of checkers.

We moved back inside to the parlor where President Lincoln received his guests, on at least one occasion in his slippers. From there, we headed into the library, or some might say “man cave,” beautifully restored to the original wood paneling throughout.

Then, we headed up the stairs holding the same wood railing there in the Lincoln years. Callie described this as our “handshake with Lincoln.” Upstairs, we entered the room where it is thought he drafted the Emancipation Proclamation in the late summer of 1862. The rooms are sparsely decorated with only a few original pieces, the rationale being that the visitor’s experience is mostly about Lincoln’s ideas and not so much his belongings.

After I graduated from CU and went to work at the National Archives, my dad asked me what records we had on the Cottage and the Soldier’s Home. I looked in the Guide to the National Archives and found Record Group 231, Records of the Armed Forces Retirement Home. From then on he was after me to work with him on writing a book about the history of the Cottage.  Sadly, I never got around to it, and my dad passed away in 2002.

Lincoln telegram to Grant, July 11, 1864. (Records of the Office of the Secretary of War, National Archives)

If I had looked further, I would have come across Lincoln’s telegrams to Union General Ulysses S. Grant of July 10-12, 1864, when Washington was under threat from the Confederate Army of General Jubal Early. On the morning of July 11, the President wrote to Grant:   

“Yours of 10:30 P.M. yesterday received, and very satisfactory. The enemy will learn of [General Horatio] Wright’s arrival, and then the difficulty will be to unite Wright and Hunter, South of the enemy before he will recross the Potomac. Some firing between Rockville and here now. A. LINCOLN”

In the years before his death, there was growing talk about restoring the Cottage and turning it into a museum. The National Trust, under the leadership of Richard Moe, soon took this on, and the Cottage opened to visitors in 2008. 

In recent years, I kept track of developments at the Cottage with the intention of visiting someday. Once again, years past until I was contacted by Callie and my opportunity for a deeper relationship with the Cottage would begin.

Returning to the story of June 1, we took care of business, unwrapped the documents in their pristine acrylic “sandwiches,” reviewed the condition reports, and placed the documents carefully into the case. The light levels were appropriately low, and security protocols in place. (Before we had arrived, the staff had installed a film that filtered out any natural light reaching the room from the doorway.)

We added the exhibit label, secured the case top, and we were done. It was time for lunch.  After leaving the grounds, we drove by my old dorm on Michigan Avenue, which also happened to house the History Department offices where my dad’s office was located at the same time. We stopped for lunch in Brookland, just a couple of blocks from our old house on Seventh Street. 

It was the perfect day.

If only my dad were there to join me for a walk around the Cottage grounds and through President Lincoln’s rooms.

Visit their website to arrange a tour of the Lincoln Cottage.To learn more, read Lincoln’s Sanctuary, Matthew Pinsker (Oxford University Press, 2005).

2 thoughts on “The 1986 Immigration Act and My Lifetime Relationship with the Lincoln Cottage

  1. Fascinating and compelling story … thank you for sharing your personal recollections, Jim! Your father must have been very proud of where life had taken you!

  2. Jim-what a moving and meaningful story! Fascinating how your life has intersected with the historical home, and glad you finally made it there.

    Perfect timing -we’re meeting Rod Ross on Sunday to tour the Lincoln Cottage for the first time! Just read excerpts from your blog to my boys.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *