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Abstract

In my dissertation, I study the fate of loose manuscripts in an age we more often associate with print. Starting in the early nineteenth century, families began to give the wills and letters that they’d always stored in dresser drawers to new libraries and historical societies. Historians consulted these papers and other old documents and started to think of manuscripts as primary sources for their work. Authors and politicians wondered who might someday read their drafts and private notes. Studies of early American print and manuscript cultures tend to focus on the production, publication, and circulation of texts. But men and women in the early United States also lived with, and held onto, manuscripts – written by themselves, by their loved ones, and by people who were strangers to them. A list dashed off in an instant was a manuscript; a list kept for decades, bundled together with other lists and messages, was also part of someone’s papers. I argue that this new name points to something larger: manuscripts became public texts through their preservation. Michael Warner made “publication” a crucial term for understanding the political and cultural impact of print in his exploration of the eighteenth-century American public sphere. The papers of famous politicians and writers were sometimes published, in bits and pieces, during the first half of the nineteenth century. But these papers, like the papers of far less prominent men and women, were already public, in ways that didn’t begin or end with publication. My four chapters and coda move across the domains of history, literature, politics, and law, traveling from attics and studies to the halls of Congress, before winding up in local courtrooms. In my first chapter, I offer a group portrait of four American antiquaries: Christopher Columbus Baldwin, William Lincoln, Thomas Wallcut, and Thomas Jefferson. Obsessive antiquaries have a place in the nineteenth-century literary imagination, too. In my second chapter, I propose that some of the found manuscripts that turn up in antebellum novels and tales are connected to another phenomenon: the emergence of an audience for authors’ papers. In my third chapter, I examine some of the earliest versions of what we now call classified and declassified documents, to show that classification and declassification are always political acts, often inspired by other agendas. The first clause of the Fourth Amendment, written in 1789, protected papers, along with persons, houses, and effects, from unwarranted searches. Around the same time, a new set of local laws emerged requiring some people to carry papers with them everywhere they went. In my fourth chapter, I provide a history of freedom papers – the documents that former slaves and free black men and women in North and South could be asked to show at any moment. That history leads to my larger claim in this chapter: that these papers made freedom unfinished, and something that could be lost.

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