Written by Justine Rothbart
“Won’t you please destroy? You are not always careful with letters, and if you destroy, you won’t need to be careful.” (Harding to Phillips, Jan. 26, 1915, from San Francisco’s Palace Hotel, where Harding died in 1923, regarding their correspondence)
Warren Harding requested Carrie Fulton-Phillips to destroy the letters. These letters, written from 1910 to 1920, express details about an affair between the future president and his mistress. Even after Harding’s request, the letters were never destroyed. They were hidden in a box and then later kept in the Library of Congress’ “vault.” One hundred years later, the letters are now available to the public.
With just the click of your mouse, you can now dive into the personal relationship of Harding and Phillips. You can read their secrets. Their hopes. Their fears. You might feel as if you’ve stumbled upon a treasure-trove. It might seem as if you found these letters in a shoe box under someone’s bed. As you discover the shoe box and curl up with a flashlight in hand, you might think to yourself, “Should I be reading this?”
Last month I wrote a blog post about recently discovered personal letters written by Jackie Kennedy (What would Jackie Do?). Eventually, after strong opposition to publicly revealing her personal and private thoughts, the letters were removed from auction. The Kennedy family are now involved in “how to preserve and curate” the letters.
How are Jackie Kennedy’s letters different from President Harding’s? One major difference is time. The Harding letters were written over forty years earlier. They were written during the time of the Titanic sinking and during the time of World War I. Or to put it into further context, they were written between series 1 and 3 of Downton Abbey.
This brings up the question: “How soon is ‘too soon’?” People often find it respectable to read private information with the passing of a certain amount of time. But the amount of time is debatable. Even if the associated people have passed away, their legacy needs to be taken into consideration. Their privacy needs to be respected. But do we expect all archival institutions to be one giant vault where we lock the door and throw away the key?
Privacy needs to be respected, yes. But as time passes, so does information. As archivists, one of our main ethical pillars is to provide everyone access to information. As news broke about the revealing of these letters, the number of hits on Warren G. Harding’s Wikipedia page must have skyrocketed. People need to refresh their memories (or learn for the first time) who Warren G. Harding was. I’m sure many people say, “Who is Harding?” or “Is that Carson from Downton Abbey?” (Ok, that’s my last Downton Abbey reference).
The time the letters spent sitting on a shelf, the memory of President Harding was slipping away. Maybe that’s when we know enough time has passed. Or maybe that’s when we realize it’s too late.
The past few weeks in our Special Collections class, we have had behind-the-scenes tours of several special collections in Washington, D.C. We were lucky enough to have a tour of the Library of Congress’ Manuscript Division where the Harding letters were housed since 1972. (We did not see the letters because they were not available to be seen by the public until today – July 29, 2014). Through our tours, we have learned there’s always a balancing act between privacy and access.
Maybe there’s never a right answer only the best answer. Either way, I hope this starts (or continues) the discussion.
And whether you feel it’s appropriate or not, you can start reading President Harding’s love letters here: http://www.loc.gov/collection/warren-harding-carrie-fulton-phillips-correspondence/about-this-collection/
For more information on President Warren Harding’s love letters, here’s today’s news release from the Library of Congress: http://www.loc.gov/today/pr/2014/14-129.html