Abilene A document written by a federal judge in 1794 has caused a stir among historians, not for what it says, but for where it was discovered: in President Dwight Eisenhower’s archives in the middle of Kansas.
The document, signed by Judge Richard Peters, was found by archivist Valoise Armstrong at the Eisenhower Presidential Library and Museum in Abilene in July.
She was going through boxes of letters to Eisenhower that are being opened to the public. The yellowed half-sheet of parchment paper with browned ink stood out among the other bright, crisp letters sent to the White House.
“It was something that didn’t belong where it was,” Armstrong said.
The document is among some 28 million pages materials collected as part of Eisenhower’s life, including central files from his White House years from 1953 to 1961. Thousands of boxes are stacked inside the library, containing papers on Eisenhower’s military career, time spent as commander of NATO and his years in retirement until the his death in 1969.
There are also some 75,000 artifacts in the archives and adjacent museum ranging from gifts and awards to Eisenhower to obscure items such as a piece of driftwood stained and painted to look like a Republican elephant with red, white and blue lights coming out of its head.
Peters signed the slip, listing court costs of $17.44 in a case involving Edmund Randolph, who was attorney general and later secretary of state under President George Washington. The case involved allegations of misappropriating funds and was dismissed.
Randolph proposed the Virginia Plan during the Constitutional Convention, which became the framework for the new federal government. He resigned as secretary of state in 1795 over allegations he accepted a bribe from the French to influence U.S. relations with the British.
Peters lived from 1744 to 1828, having served as secretary of the Board of War during the Revolution. He later served in the Pennsylvania Legislature before Washington appointed him to the federal bench in Philadelphia. He served on the court until his death, playing a role in interpreting admiralty laws for the new nation, as well as defining the power of the government over the states.
Leslie Simon, director of archival operations for the National Archives in Philadelphia, said the fact both Randolph and Peters’ names appear on the document make it more interesting.
“At some point it became alienated from the court file. It could be that it was thrown out,” Simon said.
The document was sent to the Philadelphia archives where federal court documents are housed.
Eisenhower’s administration obtained the record when it was included in an October 1955 letter to Eisenhower from David Battan of Fresno, Calif. Battan wrote that he thought the president might “derive much enjoyment” from the paper. He also asked the president to sign a copy of his remarks made in Geneva to add to Battan’s own collection of letters and papers.
A small scrap of paper loosely attached to Battan’s letter and the document has a typed note saying that Battan is a “prolific writer” to Eisenhower and that it wasn’t necessary to acknowledge it was received. Eisenhower’s staff kept the document and it was shipped to Kansas to be part of the president’s permanent records.
What isn’t known from this document, Simon said, is the back story of the case, the individuals involved and how this particular piece of history survived 200 years.
“This is cool. You want to find the story behind it,” Simon said. “We get to find them each day and it leads you to places that you never thought you would go.”