Monday, April 7, 2014

Early Legislators’ Biographical Data: Manuscripts 138 & 151

Memorandum filled out by Senator Moody Merrill of the
1st Norfolk District in 1874.
The State Library is home to a collection of documents that provides important insight into the personal and political lives of mid-to-late 19th century Massachusetts legislators.  From 1868 through 1892 the editors of the Boston Journal compiled what they called “memoranda” as part of an effort to collect data about contemporary state legislators. Also known as Manuscript 138, the collection consists of sheets of questions that were originally mailed out to the House and Senate members annually in order to gather information about their lives, occupations, political views, past offices they held, and military service—among others.  What makes this collection so interesting and unique is that each of the memoranda is filled out by the legislators themselves during their terms in office. They were subsequently returned to the Journal editors, and then at some point were bound together by year.  In the letters that were distributed by the Journal in Nov. of 1868 it states:

Our object is to obtain statistical tables for present use, assuring you that no publicity will be given to the information, offensive in the slightest degree to you personally. 
Such information, when properly presented, is of great value to the officers of the two branches, and facilitates public business, by making members acquainted with the antecedents of their legislative associates.
Memorandum filled out by Representative
Henry Cabot Lodge of the 10th Essex
District in 1880.
The responses (or lack thereof), and how legislators chose to respond, are fascinating to look at.  Some answers are short and concise; others required additional pages to fit everything they wanted to say.  Some political platform-based questions were answered confidently and with long explanations; other legislators refrained from answering them altogether. It’s also not uncommon to find additional materials inserted with the memoranda, such as legislators’ business cards or newspaper clippings, which may have been included by either the legislators themselves or the Journal employees.

Although the Journal’s collection does not extend past 1892 (with 1874 being incomplete), it’s important to note that this was not the only effort undertaken to gather information about members of the Massachusetts General Court.

State Librarian Caleb Benjamin Tillinghast was driven to collect as much biographical information about as many past and contemporary Massachusetts state legislators as possible.  From 1884 to 1909, he mailed letters out to anyone he felt might be able to give him the information he was seeking:  town clerks, librarians, legislators and their relatives, etc.  In fact, he estimated that he had sent out more than 75,000 letters and questionnaires total.  This 35-box collection of correspondence, also known as Manuscript 151, is the prime source for our “Legislators’ Biographical File”—a index file that continues to be updated today.

For more information about our collection of legislative memoranda and correspondence, please contact our Special Collections Department at 617-727-2595.  The library is open 9am-5pm Monday through Friday.

Kaitlin Connolly
Reference Librarian