Sam Houston, Andrew Jackson, and Thomas Jefferson

One of the most enjoyable things about conservation is the unpredictability and variety of the work.  Today, I’d like to paint a brief portrait of one especially interesting piece of correspondence I recently treated.

Houston Introduction Letter Before Treatment

Sam Houston Introduction Letter - address information visible in upper left.

This 1823 letter is Andrew Jackson’s introduction of Sam Houston to Thomas Jefferson.  My work on the letter coincided with reading H.W. Brands’ Lone Star Nation, an engaging refresher on Texas history even for those who had it drilled into us as schoolchildren.  The timing couldn’t have been better, because Brands’ book puts a very human face on the friendship and mentorship between Jackson and Houston.

Young Houston first met General Jackson while serving under his command in the War of 1812.  Houston followed Jackson into Tennessee politics, becoming a congressman from 1823 – 1827, and governor from 1827 – 1829.  After resigning his governorship when his marriage crumbled in 1829, Houston eventually began his life anew in Texas.  Jackson continued to support him, especially regarding possible US annexation of the region.

Thus this 1823 letter coincides with the 30-year-old Houston’s election to the House of Representatives, a time in which a newly-minted congressman would have eagerly sought new introductions to influential people.  It’s no wonder that Jackson, himself bound for the presidency from 1829 – 1837, would have helped his protégé enter Washington life.  The introduction was timely; Jefferson, already an 80-year-old man in 1823, died in 1826.

The Houston Introduction Letter had some unusual condition issues when it appeared in the lab.  At some point in the past, the letter had been cut into 15 separate pieces, primarily along pre-existing fold lines.  These sections had then been adhered to thin pieces of silk, as was a past preservation practice.  Strangely, small gaps had been left inbetween the cut sections, leaving a grid-like appearance.  Investigation revealed the lining had been adhered with a combination of water-soluble paste and non-archival white glue, much like commercially marketed Elmer’s (see previous entry, “Problem Solving in Paper Conservation.”)

Sam Houston Introduction Letter Before Treatment

Transmitted light shows gaps between cut sections.

It’s impossible to say where, when, or why these previous steps were taken.  They might have happened even before our institution acquired the document.  However, they highlight the importance of reversibility, a central tenet of modern conservation practice.  Because of items like the Houston Introduction Letter, we know that current practice may not remain best practice forever, and we strive to learn from these past mistakes.  Accordingly, ethical conservation treatments comprise changes that can be undone in order to minimize their permanent impact on historical items.
Sam Houston Introduction Letter During Treatment

Mending cut pieces together after removing silk lining.

During treatment, I removed the silk lining, de-acidified the paper, and mended the pieces back together, closing the distracting gaps.  Age and wear have rendered those gaps still partially visible, but overall the treatment improved legibility and reduced visual disturbance.  And, if a future custodian finds that those cuts were historically important (for example, if Jackson had made the cuts himself,) my mends can be reversed and the letter returned to pieces.

Sam Houston Introduction Letter After Treatment

After treatment, the gaps have been closed as possible.

Here’s to a long life for this document of a fascinating confluence of people.

3 thoughts on “Sam Houston, Andrew Jackson, and Thomas Jefferson

  1. I particularly enjoyed your ability to put this letter into historical context while performing the conservation treatment. So often, items come to me as a simple artifact, and I find I lack the background knowledge (or time for research) that could give me a deeper appreciation for what I’m working on. It’s always such a thrill when historical knowledge and conservation training come together in a moment like the one you experienced with this letter!

  2. Thanks for a great article. I’m using it in my Rare Book Librarianship course to talk about preservation and conservation issues in special collections.

  3. We photographed this letter for the documentary film “Sam Houston” and included it in the film, but we were never able to prove that the letter was actually used. No records have been found at Monticello in any of Jefferson’s papers mentioning this meeting and there are no notations on the letter of any kind indicating that it was used. Neither have we been able to find anything that Sam Houston said about meeting Jefferson at Monticello.

    It’s easy to believe that Jefferson never said anything about it since he was old and secure in his place in history and this meeting wouldn’t have been a big deal to him. But it would have been a huge deal to Sam Houston and it’s hard to believe that HE never said anything about it.

    Jefferson was at Monticello during the fall of 1823 and Sam would have had to have traveled right by there on his way to Washington. As much as he revered anything associated with the American Revolution and its founders it’s just hard to imagine him passing up the opportunity to meet Jefferson.

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