A President’s Degree and a Long-Lost Letter

As Columbia gets ready to host Commencement in person once again (May 18 for the Class of 2022 and May 19 for the Classes of 2020 and 2021) and in honor of Presidents’ Day, we look back to Commencement 1861. During the Commencement exercises in June 1861, Columbia President Charles King announced that the College (not a University yet) was conferring an honorary degree on U.S. President Abraham Lincoln. According to the newspapers of the day, those in attendance were caught by surprise, received the news enthusiastically, and the band interrupted the ceremony by bursting into spontaneous song.

On May 20, 1861, the Trustees of Columbia College voted to honor President Lincoln with an honorary Doctorate in Letters (LL.D.). Back then, the honorees were not invited to the Commencement exercises but were sent their diplomas via the post. In 1861, Professor of Political Philosophy Francis Lieber was already working part-time in Washington, D.C. for the War Department. Lieber was sent as an official College representative to the Executive Mansion to deliver the diploma to President Lincoln. On June 26, 1861, according to the memo from Secretary of State William H. Seward, Lincoln met with Lieber at 11:30 a.m. and, at 12:00 noon, with Lord Lyons who was bringing a letter from Queen Victoria announcing the death of her mother. There was no announcement of the conferring of the degree from the White House. The story was held for a surprise reveal at Columbia’s annual Commencement scheduled for the following day.

Manuscript letter in John Hay’s hand, signed by Abraham Lincoln, to Columbia University President Charles King. Washington, D.C., June 26, 1861. Columbia College Papers, University Archives.

For years, there was no record of Lincoln’s acknowledgement of this degree in the Columbia archives. In the 1950s, Columbiana Curator Milton Halsey Thomas speculated that “Lincoln unquestionably wrote officially to Columbia, or personally to President King, to acknowledge the honor which had been given to him.” The best evidence of such a letter appeared when a draft by John Hay, Lincoln’s assistant private secretary, was found at the archives in Brown University. This draft was the letter that Lincoln either sent or intended to send to Columbia. Thomas offered two possible theories about the suspected but missing letter: “either an autograph fiend might have made off with it or that the letter was retained by President [Charles] King or his family.”

It wasn’t until April 1983, 122 years later, that Lincoln’s letter from June 26, 1861 was discovered in a closet of a home in Perthshire, Scotland. The letter from the same day Lieber delivered the diploma was found among the papers of the late Scottish social historian and lawyer A.R.B. Haldane. Haldane’s grandfather Thomas Nelson, who was a publisher, was in the United States during the Civil War years and may have acquired the letter at that time. We are grateful to Janet Haldane and her family, who then donated this letter to our archives. On this Presidents’ Day, we share the letter, which, much like the draft, is written in the hand of John Hay but the signature (“Your Obt. Servt., A. Lincoln”) is in Lincoln’s handwriting.