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Thursday, April 4, 2013 11:04 am

Feds want document back

State hangs on to a page of Lincoln history

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USS Malvern (1860)

The Illinois Historic Preservation Agency has balked at a demand from the National Archives to return a page torn from a ship’s log so that the damaged document can be restored to its original condition.

The page in question memorializes a trip by Abraham Lincoln on the U.S.S. Malvern shortly before he was assassinated. The president used the ship to travel to conferences with his generals, according to the Dictionary of American Naval Fighting Ships. A page recording the presence of Lincoln on the boat in March 1865 was torn from the log long ago and ended up at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library in Springfield. Now, the National Archives in Washington, D.C., wants it back.

The Illinois State Historical Society purchased the page in 1937 from someone named Thomas Madigan, purportedly for $25. Whether the state has a receipt doesn’t matter, according to the federal government. In the politest possible terms, Gary M. Stern, general counsel for the National Archives, informed library officials last summer that they are, essentially, in possession of stolen property.

“(W)e do not believe that there is any plausible basis under which this document could have been properly alienated from the United States government,” Stern wrote in a letter to the library manuscripts curator. “Please be aware that we do not attempt to intervene in the vast majority of cases where there is an arguable federal interest. Rather, only in the relatively few instances where we identify a federal record that we believe clearly belongs to our permanent holdings, such as is the case here, do we go forward in making a claim on behalf of the United States.”

The matter has been lingering since the spring of last year, according to Stern’s letter. Although Garth Madison, IHPA general counsel, has recommended that the agency remand the page to the federal government, the IHPA board during a February meeting tabled a motion to send the page to the National Archives after board member Daniel Arnold of Rockford, who owns the Road Ranger truck stop company, objected.

“This is a big deal,” Arnold said. “There’s like 10 questions I would get into real fast. I don’t want to acknowledge in any way that the state of Illinois has obtained something illegally. … This is loaded – this thing is loaded. You can send it back, but I don’t want to send it back without knowing what it is you’re sending back and why you’re sending it back. It’s loaded with questions and concerns that are well beyond asking for a page back.”

At least one lawyer, however, says it’s a no-brainer.

“What would Abraham Lincoln do?” asks Steven Beckett, a University of Illinois law professor who sits on the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library Advisory Board, a body created by the General Assembly that recommends programs, conferences and seminars that should be held at the institution. “It seems to me that Abraham Lincoln would return that page to the National Archives. I can’t speak on behalf of the (advisory) board, but that would be my official position. The page belongs in the book.”

David Rowland, a New York attorney who has battled museums on behalf of clients who say their artworks were stolen during the Holocaust, says that the federal government appears to have a strong position, although he cautioned that he had never heard of the U.S.S. Malvern until a reporter called.

“In general, if things are stolen, a thief cannot pass good title,” Rowland said. “Even though the museum could be a good-faith purchaser, it would seem to me that this is the property of the United States.”

On the other hand, Rowland said, the federal government’s position would be weakened if the log had somehow left the ownership of the navy when the page was removed or if the National Archives had delayed in asserting ownership rights for an unreasonable length of time.

“It would be a very interesting lawsuit, I’ll tell you that,” Rowland said.

The National Archives declined comment.

Contact Bruce Rushton at brushton@illinoistimes.com.

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