When President George Washington left office in 1797, he took his presidential papers with him. Federal agents never searched his Mount Vernon home in Virginia. The papers belonged to the former president and not to the government.
As former president Donald Trump has discovered, a lot has changed since then. Today, presidential papers are considered public property and are overseen by the National Archives after a president leaves office. This month the FBI seized boxes of documents, including some top-secret papers, at Trump’s Mar-a-Lago estate in Florida — a search justified by the FBI in court filings unsealed Friday by 184 classified documents he failed to turn over when he first left the White House. Trump reportedly has told friends he considers the documents “mine.”
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Until the 1970s, former presidents could do pretty much whatever they wanted with their presidential papers. That often was a problem. Some papers “were purposely destroyed, while others fell victim to chance destruction,” concluded a 1978 congressional study. “Others have been scattered to the four winds.”
As the nation’s first president, Washington set the precedent. He planned to construct a building at Mount Vernon to store his papers, but he didn’t get it done. On the last day of his life in late 1799, according to Mount Vernon’s historians, Washington told his secretary Tobias Lear, “I find I am going, my breath cannot continue long … arrange & record all my late Military letters & papers — arrange my accounts & settle my books.”
Washington bequeathed his papers to a nephew, Supreme Court Justice Bushrod Washington. The justice loaned many of the documents to Chief Justice John Marshall, who was writing a biography of the first president. The nephew later lamented in a letter to James Madison that Marshall had stored some papers where they were “extensively mutilated by rats and otherwise injured by damp.”
Meanwhile, after her husband died, Martha Washington burned most of the letters the two had exchanged. “Only a few are known to remain, including two, both tender and fraught, that George Washington wrote just before he left for war,” The Washington Post reported in 2015.
John Adams, the second president, and his son President John Quincy Adams both kept detailed records, which heirs later donated to the state of Massachusetts. But after that, the fate of presidential papers was unpredictable.
When President John Tyler of Virginia left office in 1845, most of his papers were moved to a bank in Richmond. After the Civil War began, Tyler died in 1862 on his way to join the Confederate Congress. His papers in Richmond were destroyed in April 1865 when rebel forces set the city on fire to keep it out of Union hands. The rest of Tyler’s papers “were left in the Tyler home, Sherwood Forest, which was occupied and ransacked by both Union and Confederate forces several times,” the congressional study said.
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Most of the late President Zachary Taylor’s papers were destroyed when Union troops occupied his son’s Louisiana home in 1862. After Abraham Lincoln was assassinated in 1865, his son Robert Todd Lincoln “destroyed many of his father’s papers — those he considered useless — before placing the remainder in the Library of Congress,” the report said. The Lincoln papers weren’t made public until 1947.
President Ulysses S. Grant had a hard time keeping track of his papers. “The only place I ever found in my life to put a paper so as to find it again was either a side coat-pocket or the hands of a clerk more careful than myself,” he wrote. As a result, Grant simply lost many of his presidential papers.
President Chester A. Arthur hated the idea of journalists prying into his affairs. The day before his death in November of 1886, “he instructed his son to destroy” his presidential papers, the congressional researchers wrote. “Three large garbage cans were used to burn up the bulk of the Presidential papers.”
President Grover Cleveland didn’t care much about preserving papers in his two nonconsecutive terms. He regarded any papers addressed to him as his private property, he said, “and if I saw fit to destroy them, no one could complain.” Cleveland lost track of many of his papers after leaving office in 1897 and gave away some other documents to autograph seekers.
After President Warren G. Harding died of a heart attack in 1923, his wife, Florence, “destroyed many papers that might have been embarrassing to Harding’s memory,” the congressional report said.
It didn’t help. Nan Britton, Harding’s former secretary, claimed in a tell-all book he fathered her child. DNA confirmed his paternity in 2015.
President Calvin Coolidge kept diligent records, which were overseen by one of his assistants, Edward T. Clark. Later, Clark wrote that Coolidge wanted every paper in his so-called personal files destroyed.
“There would have been nothing preserved if I had not taken some things out on my own responsibility,” Clark said.
Some presidents went to great efforts to preserve their papers. In the early 1900s, Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft arranged presidential collections that were passed on to heirs and then provided to the Library of Congress. The Taft papers totaled more than 700,000 documents.
Finally, President Franklin D. Roosevelt set the precedent of donating his records to the National Archives and Records Administration. He also established a presidential library. Roosevelt modeled his library after the first presidential library, the Rutherford B. Hayes Presidential Library & Museums, which opened in Fremont, Ohio, in 1916 with papers held in trust after Hayes left office in 1881.
FDR opened his library in Hyde Park, N.Y., on June 30, 1941. “As President, I accept this newest house in which the people’s record is preserved,” he said. The first day 161 people paid 25 cents each (about $5 now) to visit the library, the Associated Press reported.
The government began designating secret documents as classified just before World War II. All presidents from FDR turned over their papers to the government until Richard M. Nixon tried to keep control of some Watergate material after he resigned in 1974.
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Nixon eventually relinquished 42 million pages of documents after Congress passed legislation culminating with the Presidential Records Act of 1978 making the papers of presidents and vice presidents government property.
Trump is the first former chief executive since Nixon to try to keep personal possession of presidential documents.
During House debate on the 1978 law, first-term Rep. Dan Quayle (R-Ind.) suggested the preservation requirements also “should apply to congressmen.” Rep. Allen Ertel (D-Pa.) replied, “I might say, Mr. Quayle, there is one thing you have to remember. … I cannot imagine a historian being interested in the papers of a freshman Congressman.”
Quayle, of course, later became vice president under President George H.W. Bush.