Presidential papers have long been turning up in unexpected places

REUTERS/Library of Congress/Handout (UNITED STATES).
A portrait of U.S. President James K. Polk, who served from 1845-1849.
PRESIDENTIAL-PAPERS 1243 words Presidential papers have long been turning up in unexpected places

Finding missing presidential documents all over the place is nothing new.

In 1970, historians discovered papers of President James K. Polk, who was in office from 1845 to 1849, in a desk drawer at his ancestral home in Tennessee. It was nothing secret – mainly notes from Dolley Madison and John Quincy Adams. But other recovered presidential documents have held greater significance, including the original copies of the Monroe Doctrine and the Treaty of Versailles.

After recent discoveries of classified documents at the private homes of President Biden – from when he was vice president – and former vice president Mike Pence, the National Archives and Records Administration last week wrote to the offices of U.S. presidents and vice presidents back to Ronald Reagan, asking them to check for such material.

Biden and Pence both said they were unaware of the documents’ presence in their homes and voluntarily turned them over. Former president Donald Trump has been under criminal investigation since last August, when FBI agents raided his Florida estate and found boxes of presidential papers, including classified documents, after Trump failed to comply with a subpoena to return papers. The law requires former presidents and vice presidents to relinquish all official documents, not just classified ones.

In the past, presidents could legally do whatever they wanted with their papers, with the result that some important documents were lost for years. In 1923, Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis asked the Senate’s assistant secretary to find the records creating the federal courts. His search made news when it also uncovered something else. “The famous Monroe Doctrine has been unearthed from a dark room under the terrace of the capitol, yellow with age and about to crumble,” United News reported.

The discovery coincided with the centennial anniversary of the handwritten Monroe Doctrine that President James Monroe sent to Congress on Dec. 2, 1823. The doctrine warned European nations not to interfere in affairs in the Western Hemisphere. The original copy was found “packed away in a wooden file, partly rotted and covered with cobwebs,” United News reported. It is now in the National Archives.

Polk didn’t have time to organize his papers after he left office in March 1849, because he died five months later. Historians searching Polk’s home in Columbia, Tenn., in 1970 discovered “a large collection of his papers and correspondence,” the Associated Press reported. Included was an 1845 note from President James Madison’s widow, Dolley, that she “regrets she cannot accept the President’s and Mrs. Polk’s invitation for Friday next,” the AP reported. In another note, Rep. John Quincy Adams (Mass.), a former president, accepted a dinner invitation.

Some presidents had a hard time hanging on to their papers. Ulysses S. Grant, who left office in 1877, said, “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.” In 1904, a Library of Congress official determined that the late president had left some folders of letters in the White House, but they couldn’t be found. Finally, in 1921, Grant’s grandson, Ulysses S. Grant III, got permission from new President Warren G. Harding to make another search. Four Grant “letterbooks” were found and placed in the Library of Congress, according to the library’s researchers.

Harding had his own missing-papers problem. In July 1921, he signed a peace treaty passed by Congress to formally end World War I after the Senate had rejected the Treaty of Versailles negotiated under President Woodrow Wilson. Around the time of the signing, the official U.S. copy of the 240-page Versailles treaty was “lost, strayed or stolen” and “no one knows where it is,” The Washington Post reported. Harding said at a news conference that there was “no mystery as to the whereabouts” of the document, the New York Times reported, but the president “will not come out flatly and tell just where the treaty is deposited.” The treaty “might be in the president’s desk, it was said, at the White House,” the Times wrote. “Then again it might not.”

It wasn’t. A letter about the treaty soon arrived at the White House from Wilson, who had been disabled by a stroke in his last two years in office. “This was at the time I was very ill, and the copy was put in my private fireproof files for safekeeping,” Wilson wrote; then it was moved to his Washington home when he left office. Wilson said he would deposit the official copy with the State Department.

A missing document also was a headache for President Lyndon B. Johnson in the lead-up to the 1967 Six Day War between Israel and Arab states led by Egypt. Israel’s foreign minister showed Johnson a copy of a 1957 memorandum by former president Dwight D. Eisenhower’s secretary of state, John Foster Dulles, with handwritten notes promising U.S. support for Israel if that country were attacked. “Chaos ensued,” LBJ presidential aide John Roche wrote in 1976. “Where was our copy?” Johnson had never heard of the document, and it couldn’t be found. “President Johnson scorched the wallpaper in the Oval Office on what kind of way this was to run a country,” Roche wrote.

Israel quickly won the war without calling for U.S. military support. The original memorandum was found at Princeton University in Dulles’s papers. When Johnson left the White House after President Richard M. Nixon took office, Roche wrote, “about 40 truckloads of ‘his’ papers went to Texas with him.”

LBJ probably should have left certain papers behind. “The Nixon administration discovered upon entering office in 1969 that files of the National Security Council regarding the initiation of Strategic Arms Limitation Talks (SALT) with the Soviet Union had been removed with the Johnson administration papers,” a federal records commission said in a 1977 report. Rather than trying to find the files, the report said, Nixon officials relied on NSC staffers to reconstruct the principles Johnson had presented to Soviet leaders.

The next big find during the Watergate scandal was the existence of secret White House tapes, which Nixon at first refused to release, saying they belonged to him. In 1974, Congress passed a law requiring him to turn over all presidential materials. In 1978, Congress enacted the Presidential Records Act, requiring future presidents and vice presidents to relinquish all presidential material when leaving office.

The AP recently reported that Jimmy Carter, the last president not covered by the law, also had “found classified materials at his home” in Plains, Ga., in 1981 and promptly returned them.

Reagan, the first president covered by the law, is not known to have lost any secret documents, but the man who investigated him over the Iran-contra scandal did. In 1992, independent counsel Lawrence Walsh flew to California to interview the former president. On the way back, a Walsh aide put some “highly classified” documents in his suitcase, which he curb-checked at the Los Angeles airport. When the aide went to retrieve the bag at Washington’s Dulles Airport, “it couldn’t be found,” the AP reported, and was assumed “stolen.”

There was never any public report of the suitcase’s being found. Some travel wags speculate that it might still be revolving on a remote Dulles Airport luggage carousel.