Joe Baldwin's experience with U.S. presidents started early. On a cold and rainy March 4, 1933, his parents brought him to Franklin Roosevelt's first inaugural parade.
Baldwin turned a casual interest in American presidents into a passion years later in Palo Alto, in 1980. He began collecting presidential autographs and correspondence, starting with an original George Washington letter he bid on at Sotheby's, the New York auction house.
Though he said his active collecting days are over, the fruits of his decades of accumulation will be on display this President's Day weekend at All Saints Episcopal Church in Palo Alto. The signatures of all 44 U.S. presidents, along with letters, notes and other assorted manuscripts, will be available for public perusal.
"It's a labor of love," he said of the free exhibition, which will have the presidential artifacts arranged in reverse chronological order so that visitors can "step back in time" from Barack Obama all the way back to George Washington.
"I hope people get an appreciation for history -- and some of the same awe and wonderment I get that it is possible to see this stuff," he said.
The "crown jewel" of Baldwin's presidential collection is a 1799 letter from George Washington -- sent via John Adams from Washington's home in Mount Vernon, Va. -- to a European military officer who asked him for an appointment in the United States. The multi-page letter, in Washington's neat, flowing handwriting, contains crossed-out lines and a few writing errors.
Such errors, unique to each hand-written document, are part of what make original manuscripts so fascinating and valuable, Baldwin said.
"The cross-outs, the little flaws, it humanizes it; you know it's handmade," he said.
The differing personalities of the presidents or the cultures of their times can be seen by comparing manuscripts in the collection. The lengthy Washington letter, for example, full of politeness and tact, is "very different in tone" from a 20th-century John F. Kennedy letter in Baldwin's collection that essentially brushes off the constituent inquiring about a position, he said.
The values of the items in Baldwin's collection vary from $175 to $6,500, which he paid for a letter James Madison wrote toward the end of his life, in which the arthritis-suffering fourth president characterized himself as "old and sick."
Baldwin, a Palo Alto resident since 1973, was born in the nation's capital, grew up partially in Virginia, graduated from George Washington High School and returned to the commonwealth for law school. He admitted he is partial to "all the Virginians"; standout Virginia-born presidents include Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Monroe and James Madison.
Madison also holds a special appeal for Stanford University professor Jack Rakove, who is currently working on a book about him. He said historical artifacts such as those in Baldwin's collection "connect us directly to the past; knowing they physically hand-signed those documents is a great stimulus to the historical imagination," he said.
"We historians get used to it after a while, but we still have some fun."
Madison is particularly intriguing to Rakove because, although he is often maligned as a poor statesman, he was quite popular upon leaving office, he said.
"Americans understood that Madison tried to wage the war (of 1812) constitutionally," rather than try to gain greater executive power. The conflict between the Constitution and presidential power remains an issue today, Rakove said.
The modern presidents, too, are present in Baldwin's personal collection in various ways. A note from Ronald Reagan to a friend is signed, simply, "Ron," while a 1969 Gerald Ford letter, dating from his time as House Minority Leader, assures a Grand Rapids, Mich., constituent that then-President Richard Nixon is an "honorable man." That same "honorable" man would resign due to the Watergate scandal just a few years later.
"Lists are periodically compiled of who are great and who are the bums, and sometimes opinions change," Rakove said of why some presidents continue to fascinate while others remain lesser known.
"Eisenhower is much more respected now. Jefferson, we'll always be interested in; the two Roosevelts; Wilson ... Lincoln will be a constant," he said.
Though the exhibit includes memorabilia from every president, Baldwin had to borrow one item from a friend in order to make it complete: an autograph from President Barack Obama. Baldwin wrote to the president in November explaining his project but has yet to hear back, he said. An Obama item is the only thing lacking in the collection.
Baldwin's interest is not limited to the memorabilia. He also enjoys reading books and watching films about presidents and U.S. history. But first-hand artifacts -- flaws, smudges and all -- are something special.
"Seeing the handwritten documents makes it more real. You can see the humanity of these people. They're not just those big pieces of stone on Mount Rushmore or that statue sitting in the Lincoln Memorial. He was a real guy, doing the toughest job in the world," he said.
What: Presidential Autograph Exhibition: an exhibit of original autographs and documents from all 44 U.S. presidents
When: Sunday, Feb. 20, and Monday, Feb. 21, from noon to 4 p.m.
Where: All Saints Episcopal Church Parish Hall, 555 Waverley St., Palo Alto
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