U.S. Congressional Serial Set


Electronic Resources that Help Illuminate Past Lives

Increasingly, a writer attempting to produce the definitive biography of a 19th or 20th-century American will find that essential tools include searchable databases of government documents and newspapers. T.J. Stiles, author of The First Tycoon: The Epic Life of Cornelius Vanderbilt (2009, Alfred A. Knopf), which recently won the National Book Award, was able to utilize the digital edition of the U.S. Congressional Serial Set to uncover vindicating facts about the patriotism of his often maligned subject. In his article “Commodore Vanderbilt: Patriot or War Profiteer?,” Stiles writes:

I was ready to indict and convict Vanderbilt of war profiteering, if that’s where the evidence led me. Instead, it convinced me that the Commodore deserved his gold medal. Vanderbilt has often been treated with cynicism by historians, who are ready to believe the worst of a staggeringly rich, secretive, and combative man. Certainly I did not set out to rehabilitate his reputation. But I couldn’t ignore the evidence—evidence provided in breathtaking abundance by Congress in its Serial Set, now more accessible than ever thanks to digitization.

Electronic Resources that Help Illuminate Past Lives

The Curious Case of Sherlock Gregory: Social Justice Advocate or Proto-Know Nothing?

It is almost conventional wisdom to assert that the many, many thousands of private citizens’ petitions and memorials submitted to Congress and printed in the U.S. Congressional Serial Set give us in almost each case a window into the mind of the common man. These men, and often also women, were exercising their right granted by the First Amendment “to petition the Government for a redress of grievances,” which often meant redress of damages, for claims of one kind or another—pensions in thousands of cases, and sometimes on behalf of a concern for more general issues beyond the needs of their particular cases, such as a plea for social justice. An example of that latter class is the brief memorial from a man named Sherlock Gregory, a citizen of Sand Lake in Rensselaer County, New York State, in 1838.

The Curious Case of Sherlock Gregory: Social Justice Advocate or Proto-Know Nothing?

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