Yael A. Sternhell—
Early in his presidency, commentators began calling Donald Trump “the first Confederate president.”1 There were obvious reasons why the sobriquet seemed to take—Trump spoke in a language of white supremacy that seemed more appropriate for the nineteenth century than for the twenty first and openly sympathized with the Charlottesville rioters who killed and wounded demonstrators supporting the removal of a Confederate monument. Yet only after he left office it turned out that Trump shares another similarity with the actual Confederate president, Jefferson Davis: both were terrible record keepers during their respective tenures and both wreaked additional havoc on their archives as they departed the executive mansions in Richmond and Washington. Ultimately, though, Trump and Davis suffered very different consequences for their mishandling of the papers they were supposed to keep for posterity.
As The New York Times tells it, long before he became President, Trump had developed an emotional bond with papers, holding “onto news clippings, documents and other mementos.”2 His office in Trump Tower was piled high with papers, some of which were decades old. Shortly after entering the White House he began collecting papers in cardboard boxes, which he used to take to the residence. When aides warned him that these were presidential records that need to be tracked, he ignored them. These were “his papers,” White House sources told journalists, and he needed them close by.
Aides for Jefferson Davis described a similar picture. Years after the war, when Davis was looking for missing records, Burton N. Harrison, who had served as his private secretary, reminded him that important papers “often remained, for months, on your own table, in the office occupied by you. And were then generally carried by you to your house,” where they were placed on “piles of other letters which had accumulated on the table in the room near your bedroom.”3 Davis and his staff also failed to prepare for the possibility of an emergency evacuation from Richmond, even as other government bureaus, aware of the Confederacy’s dwindling prospects, had packed and sent their records out of town days earlier.
Once they received word that the U.S. army was about to enter the Confederate capital on April 2, 1865, Davis’s staff hastily swept everything they found on his desks into a hodgepodge of boxes and trunks, throwing together letters from different periods in the war and mixing them up with calling cards and personal items. They then loaded the containers on the presidential train leaving Richmond, as Davis and his cabinet tried to avoid capture. Once on the road, the presidential archive began disintegrating. Trying to lighten the load they were carrying around, aides systematically destroyed records they found unimportant and divided the rest between storage spaces from North Carolina to Florida. Many surviving records would eventually be found, yet their dispersal at the end of the war has prevented the possibility of assembling a coherent archive documenting the man who led the rebellion against the United States.
While Donald Trump’s exit from the White House did not take place during wartime and he did not have to flee, the final hours of his presidency were inordinately frenzied because of his refusal to accept the results of the 2020 elections. Four days before he was due to transfer power, described The New York Times, few preparations for departure had been made.4 In the Oval Office, documents were still strewn about and the boxes they were supposed to be packed in stood empty. Upstairs in the residence, aides mentioned two dozen boxes, which were supposed to have been sent to the National Archives in compliance with the Presidential Records Act. These boxes would eventually end up in Mar-a-Lago, his Florida home, where they were stored pell-mell in different rooms, including a shower. Though some records were highly confidential and included sensitive information about the national security of the United States and its allies, Trump and his staff made no effort to protect them and avoided handing them over to the National Archives even when explicitly instructed to do so. Instead, Trump wanted to take them along when he left Florida for his summer home in New Jersey. When it came to records, the post-presidential conduct of Donald Trump and Jefferson Davis shared uncanny similarities. Both were moving around the country with boxes of papers hurriedly packed by loyal aides and both were attempting to prevent records from falling into the hands of Federal agents. Both, albeit in different ways, had also come to see the United States government as the enemy.
This, however, is where their stories diverge. After the National Archives flagged the missing records and demanded that they be returned, Trump’s obsessive yet careless relationship to documentation became the center of a Justice Department investigation which in turn has led to a 38-count criminal indictment. His trial is set to begin in May 2024. Jefferson Davis, however, was subject to no such indignities. While he spent a year and a half under arrest, he was never charged by the Federal government and was allowed to walk out of his temporary imprisonment a free man. Moreover, less than a decade after the end of the war, the War Department began returning to Davis some of his private papers, which had come under United States custody when Davis was captured in May 1865. This move launched a new era in the relationship between Davis and the Federal government, which would revolve around his wartime records. Starting in 1874, the War Department was engaged in a monumental project of publishing the official records generated during the Civil War. As the process got under way, it was determined that the edited volumes would include both Union and Confederate records, side by side. As War Department bureaucrats embarked on the project, they quickly realized that the government was missing a great many crucial records of the Confederacy. Davis, who despite the disintegration of his archive was still in possession of many valuable letters, telegrams, and orders, became an important partner of War Department staff members. He furnished what they called “missing links”—specific documents required to complete a chain of correspondence—and provided other services like deciphering his own telegrams and proofreading records being prepared for publication. The compilation staff gave Davis explicit permission to send in only those records he wanted to see published and offered to send back those records he preferred to withhold. After Davis’s death, the War Department remained in touch with his widow, Varina Davis, who continued to provide documents from her husband’s collection. When the final volume of the compilation came out in 1901, both Davises were singled out for special thanks in the celebratory introduction signed by the Secretary of War.
Perhaps the reason Donald Trump is now facing criminal charges for the mismanagement of official records is because he failed to understand that he was not, in fact, the Confederate president. Unlike Jefferson Davis, Trump was forbidden from holding on to his records and treating them as if they were his own. Yet the irony runs even deeper. For Davis, the records he kept at home were the means through which he regained his legitimacy in the eyes of the Federal government. For Trump, they were the cause for his first indictment in Federal court.
1. Rebecca Solnit, “The American Civil War didn’t end. And Trump is a Confederate President,” The Guardian, November 4, 2018
2. “At the Heart of the Documents Case: Trump’s Attachment to His Boxes,” The New York Times, June 15, 2023, https://www.nytimes.com/2023/06/15/us/politics/trump-documents-boxes.html.
3. Yael A. Sternhell, War on Record: The Archive and the Afterlife of the Civil War, (New Haven & London: Yale University Press, 2023).
4. “The Final Days of the Trump White House: Chaos and Scattered Papers,” The New York Times, August 20, 2022, https://www.nytimes.com/2022/08/20/us/politics/trump-fbi-search.html#:~:text=The%20Final%20Days%20of%20the,some%20ended%20up%20in%20Florida.
Yael Sternhell is a professor of history and American studies at Tel Aviv University. She is the author of Routes of War: The World of Movement in the Confederate South and War on Record: The Archive and the Afterlife of the Civil War.