Abraham Lincoln negotiates payment for legal services rendered. George Washington accepts some plants from Mrs. Carroll. Andrew Jackson regrets that he cannot attend Independence Day celebrations in Philadelphia. John Adams weighs the merits of appointing a relative to high office.
Of all the moments recorded in presidential correspondence, these are far from the most pivotal. But that didn't matter to President John F. Kennedy, who snapped up the letters like any other collector scanning eBay or watching "Antiques Roadshow."
Even while he was leader of the free world, managing the Cold War abroad and confronting the civil-rights movement at home, he managed to keep an eye out for curios that caught his fancy. And if it happened to have the signature of a famous president, all the better.
"More so than most other presidents, he had an abiding interest in history, and I think he believed he could learn lessons from history," said Frank Riggs, a former curator at the John F. Kennedy Library and Museum in Dorchester, which is putting reproductions of the letters on display today.
Museum officials, who typically showcase Kennedy memorabilia, are trotting out the letters to celebrate the Presidents Day holiday on Monday.
Kennedy learned history at home. His mother, Rose Kennedy, clipped articles from the newspaper and quizzed him on the events of the day. His grandfather John "Honey Fitz" Fitzgerald, who was mayor of Boston took him on walks along the Freedom Trail. When he fell ill as a boy, he read Churchill in his hospital bed at the Mayo Clinic. And at Harvard, he wrote his senior thesis, "Why England Slept," on England before World War II.
In the White House, the past greeted him at every turn.
He decorated the Cabinet Room with a bust of Lincoln, which presided stoically over negotiations during the Cuban Missile Crisis.
A sculpture of the Greek historian, Herodotus, glowered at him from his desk.
His wife, Jacqueline, gave him a sculpture of a Roman soldier.
When a lot of historical documents came up for sale at Sotheby's, Kennedy scribbled a note to an aide in the margins of the auction booklet: "I'd be interested to know what some of these go for," he wrote, according to museum director Thomas J. Putnam.
Officials are not sure how Kennedy acquired the letters from Washington, Jackson and Lincoln, which date from 1789, 1836, and 1854, respectively. The Adams letter from 1813 was given to him by a prominent businessman. Putnam said the museum archives contain several dozen letters from Kennedy's collection, many from governors of Massachusetts.
If any of the letters resonate with Kennedy's own term in office, it is probably the one from Adams, which the second president wrote to President Madison, counseling him on the risks and rewards of appointing a relative to office. Putnam pointed out that when Kennedy acquired the letter in 1961, he had been criticized for appointing his brother, Robert, as attorney general.
Adams argued that presidents should not fear appointing relatives to office.
"A president ought not to appoint a man to office because he is a relation; nor ought he to refuse or neglect him for the reason," Adams wrote on March 23, 1813. "There would be no justice to the individual, to the president himself, nor to the nation in such a rule."