Our Collection

At the Institute’s core is the Gilder Lehrman Collection, one of the great archives in American history. More than 70,000 items cover five hundred years of American history, from Columbus’s 1493 letter describing the New World to soldiers’ letters from World War II and Vietnam. Explore primary sources, visit exhibitions in person or online, or bring your class on a field trip.

National History Day Resources from the Gilder Lehrman Institute

World War II poster of the American flag being raised on Iwo Jima, February 23, 1945, based on painting by C. C. Beall, World War II poster, 1945 (The Gilder Lehrman Collection GLC09520.34)National History Day® engages more than half a million students around the world in conducting historical research on a topic of their choosing. Students submit those projects at local and state/affiliate contests, with top students advancing to the national contest at the University of Maryland at College Park.

The 2018–2019 theme is Triumph & Tragedy in History. Students are encouraged to push past mere facts and dates, and drill down into historical content to develop perspective and understanding.

The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History, having one of the most comprehensive collections of primary source documents in the country and offering a wide array of other resources for historical research, suggests the following as inspiration for students and teachers participating in National History Day and urges historical researchers of all ages to delve even more deeply into the Collection.

Start with a sampling of our Online Exhibitions; continue with a chronological guide to useful primary source documents in the Gilder Lehrman Collection and inspiring video features and essays about American history’s triumphs and tragedies that might spark exciting History Day ideas:

Online Exhibitions

The Hamilton-Burr Duel

The steps leading to a great American tragedy are traced through interactive images of documents and locations crucial to the development of the duel.

The Lewis and Clark Expedition

Photograph of Bald-Eagle, 1885 (The Gilder Lehrman Collection GLC04490)An interactive map of the famous explorers’ 1804 expedition tracks their important stops from St. Louis, Missouri, to the Pacific Ocean. The triumph of finding a trade route to the ocean was aided indispensably by the American Indian tribes the expedition met along the way.

Slave Resistance

The history of resistance to slavery by enslaved people is tracked starting in 1807 through a multi-media exhibition, featuring songs from the era and primary source accounts.

World War I and America

In an exhibition marking the centennial of US involvement in World War I, the “road to war” is traversed through primary source documents, including newsreel footage.

The Attack on Pearl Harbor

The attack on Pearl Harbor, which drew the United States directly into World War II, is charted as it unfolded via a map and the events that ensued, described in historical accounts, culminating in the declaration of war and “remembering Pearl Harbor.”

Spotlights on Primary Sources by Time Period

Portrait included in a circular letter about payment of duties, signed by Secretary of the Treasury Hamilton. (The Gilder Lehrman Collection GLC01639)

The Revolutionary and Founding Era

Paul Revere’s engraving of the Boston Massacre, 1770

Before he warned Lexington that the British were coming, Paul Revere inspired revolutionary sentiment and ultimately triumph with his exaggerated visual account of the Boston Massacre. Dig deeper with this detailed view that dissects the image.

A family torn apart by war, 1777

Letters between Henry and Lucy Knox reveal the tensions of a young couple divided by war. Lucy, from a family of loyalists, married Henry Knox, a patriot who joined Washington’s army. In this letter, the twenty-one-year-old Lucy writes to her sister about her pain at being separated from her family. Lucy wanted to follow Henry to war, as some wives did, but Henry urged her not to join him, as this letter written in 1776 reveals.

George Washington on the abolition of slavery, 1786

George Washington, who never publicly condemned slavery, privately expressed his growing view that slavery was antithetical to the ideals he fought for in the American Revolution. In this letter he confides that he does not intend to purchase any more slaves and advocates the abolition of slavery through legislation.

Angelica Schuyler Church writes to her brother from Hamilton’s deathbed, 1804

Alexander Hamilton’s life and death embody both triumph and tragedy. Here his sister-in-law Angelica writes after Hamilton’s fateful duel with Aaron Burr, still hoping that Hamilton could survive.

The New Nation Pre-Civil War

A Founding Father on the Missouri Compromise, 1819

1829 Indian Peace medal, distributed to Indian tribes by the U.S. government as part of diplomatic relations. (The Gilder Lehrman Collection GLC02772.02)The battle to prevent the spread of slavery was led by a forgotten Founding Father: the Federalist US senator from New York Rufus King, here arguing to no avail against the acceptance of Missouri into the Union as a slave state.

The Monroe Doctrine, 1823

President James Monroe declared the United States free from European intervention in the Americas in a unilateral doctrine that also allowed for American expansion.

Andrew Jackson to the Cherokee Tribe, 1835

President Jackson’s treatment of American Indians led to tragic consequences. Davy Crockett, before dying as a hero of the Alamo, threatened to run off to the “wildes of Texas” if Vice President Martin Van Buren became president and continued Jackson’s treatment of the Cherokee.

Pioneers on the Emigrant Trail, 1862

Samuel Russell, his mother, and his sisters emigrated to the Mormon settlement at Salt Lake City, Utah, in 1861. Samuel then turned around to go “down and back,” helping new pioneers to their settlement. He wrote about the hazards he faced along the way.

Slavery and the Civil War Era

Nat Turner’s Rebellion, 1831

The momentary triumph of a slave revolt turned to tragedy for everyone and led to even harsher treatment of enslaved people. This letter describes how.

John Brown’s final speech, 1859

Abolitionist John Brown seized the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry and sought to liberate enslaved people nearby until his triumph was crushed by Robert E. Lee.

The Gettysburg Address, 1863

Amidst the tragic loss of life during the Civil War, Lincoln delivered his best remembered speech, here shown in one of its first printings. In the same year, the Western Sanitary Commission wrote a plea to President Lincoln to help the enslaved people who had been freed but now suffered under horrible conditions.

“The war ruined me”: The aftermath of the Civil War in the South, 1867

"For myself, I ask nothing I would not freely grant to all men." Signed and dated 1868. On lined paper with reproduced photograph of Douglass. Original image of Douglass owned by the Maryland Historical Society. (The Gilder Lehrman Collection GLC09002)One southern landowner’s perspective on the tragedy of his life after the Civil War, resulting from the triumph of the North, which indicates how Jim Crow laws emerged from embittered white southerners.

Frederick Douglass on the disenfranchisement of black voters, 1888

After escaping from slavery, Douglass went on to become the most eminent early civil rights advocate for African Americans and women. Here he protests the disenfranchisement of black southern voters following Reconstruction. He writes as a man whose very freedom still had to be purchased after he published his first autobiography in 1845.

The Progressive Era and The Great Depression

San Francisco’s Chinatown, 1880

Discrimination against Chinese immigrants, particularly in the form of the Chinese Exclusion Act, signed in 1882 by President Chester A. Arthur, did not stop Chinese immigration, but did center the immigrant population in a vibrant area.

The struggle for married women’s rights, circa 1880s

Annie Brown Adams (abolitionist John Brown’s daughter) writes passionately to a friend about the way history has taught men to behave like “monarchs” and women to “keep silent as the grave” in their married lives.

Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, 1911

A booklet of songs, including one dedicated to the victims of the tragic fire, written and printed in Yiddish, pointing to the largely immigrant Jewish heritage of the victims.

Eyewitness account of the sinking of the Titanic, 1912

Writing on stationery from the rescue ship Carpathia, a doctor does his best to record what he remembers of the traumatic event he lived through.

Herbert Hoover writes about doubting Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal

President during the tragic financial crash of 1929, Hoover records his doubts about the effects of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal. On Memorial Day 1934, at Gettysburg, Roosevelt invoked the memory of George Washington by saying Washington would have supported the New Deal.

World War II

A soldier writes to his sweetheart before and during the war 

Sailors in airfield watch the clouds of smoke and fire from attack on Pearl Harbor. Taken during attack in 1941 and printed and released in 1942 for the one-year anniversary. (The Gilder Lehrman Collection GLC09547.09)In April 1942, Sidney Diamond, a chemical engineering student at City College in New York, enlisted in the United States Army against the wishes of his friends and family. After his death in the war, his fiancee, Estelle, kept all his letters.

The World War II experience of Robert L. Stone, 1942–1945

One airman’s story through letters about his experience in World War II, including the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the battle of Iwo Jima and Franklin Roosevelt’s death.

Japanese announcement of the attack at Pearl Harbor, 1941

The Japanese announced their triumph (and America’s tragedy) at Pearl Harbor. The American declaration of war followed, and, soon after, President Roosevelt signed an order that allowed the forced relocation and confinement of more than 110,000 Japanese nationals and Japanese Americans living in the West.

World War II letters about the war in Europe, its atrocities, and its future

In letters conveying how Jewish Americans processed the ongoing war atrocities in Europe, Sylvia and her husband, Moe Weiner, wrote to each other not only about the war but about how the war was being portrayed in contemporary films, particularly in a creative exploration of the war called None Shall Escape, which imagines Nazis being prosecuted after the war is done.

Post–World War II

“Duck and Cover” - The Cold War in the classroom, 1952

Voter Registration Poster featuring the images of killed civil rights workers Andrew Goodman, James Chaney, and Michael Schwerner. (The Gilder Lehrman Collection GLC09623)A scientifically inaccurate educational film, produced by the Federal Civil Defense Administration and Archer Productions Inc., showed children how to react in case of a nuclear attack.

Albert Einstein on the McCarthy hearings and the Fifth Amendment, 1953

Einstein advises a concerned teacher about invoking her Fifth Amendment rights in the face of McCarthy’s Communist “witch hunt.”

Robert Kennedy on civil rights, 1963

Attorney General Robert Kennedy reports to his brother President John F. Kennedy on the progress of and challenges to civil rights.

A wire account of November 22, 1963

Dow Jones News Service ticker tape tells the story of the entire day of the assassination, starting with Kennedy’s morning speech in Fort Worth, Texas.

The United Nations and the international community, 1967

Dr. Israel Goldstein, a prominent American rabbi and Zionist, comments on the United Nations as a peacekeeping organization.

Video Resources

Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation

Author of popular historical books about the American Revolution and the founding era, Joseph Ellis, speaks about one of his most widely read books, highlighting the way crisis brings out the inherent talents of individuals in the position to rise to the occasion.

The Bondwoman’s Narrative

Influential critic and historian Henry Louis Gates Jr. speaks to a Gilder Lehrman audience about his work on finding and editing a rare novel written by a formerly enslaved woman, based on her own experiences.

Jim Crow and the Fight for American Citizenship

Professor Jonathan Holloway, former Yale College dean and now provost of Northwestern University, lectures at Yale in his field of specialty: post-emancipation American history.

Dinner with the nuclear family, 1950

The threat of invasion and subversion in the Cold War era led Americans to seek consensus and conformity, in politics and in culture, perhaps to an extreme.

World War I broadside. (The Gilder Lehrman Collection GLC09550)


Jamestown and the Founding of English America

The foundation of the United States was laid with the landing of English ships near Jamestown, Virginia. What followed was starvation, war, and subjugation, but also the genesis of a conflicted yet glorious country.

The Influenza Pandemic of 1918–1919

The Influenza Pandemic proved just as devastating as the combat in World War I when soldiers and civilians took ill in the millions, with 675,000 Americans killed by the time the pandemic ended.

Women’s Long Journey for the Vote

An overview of the struggle for women’s suffrage, a movement that spanned approximately seven decades in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, from the Seneca Falls Conference of 1848 to August 18, 1920, when the Nineteenth Amendment to the Constitution granted American women the vote.

The Great Depression: An Overview

This essay tracks the Great Depression from what Herbert Hoover saw as its roots in the end of World War I through the careless Jazz Age that plummeted directly toward the 1929 crash, from Franklin Roosevelt’s struggle to raise employment with his New Deal to the Depression’s lifting, finally, thanks to the industry of World War II.

The First Saddest Day of My Life: A Vietnam War Story

An essay by the daughter of an African American soldier in the Vietnam War, who kept a comprehensive diary of his experiences in battle and after.