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Northwestern Libraries acquires papers of Chicago Tribune publisher Robert R. McCormick

Collection includes letters from Abraham Lincoln

Northwestern University Libraries has acquired the papers of legendary Chicago Tribune publisher Col. Robert R. McCormick (1880–1955). The trove of historic documents, which includes personal, family and Tribune business papers, was a gift of the Chicago Tribune Company, the Robert R. McCormick Foundation and Nexstar Media Group.

McCormick was a giant of the newspaper industry in the first half of the 20th century. His archive is a window into his colorful life as a Chicago alderman and later as the innovative, driven publisher who propelled the Tribune to national prominence. His papers include correspondence with the most influential people of his day, including statesmen, explorers, generals, entertainers, corporate titans and 12 U.S. presidents.

The papers include five letters written by Abraham Lincoln to the Chicago Tribune in its early days. 

Among the papers are five letters written by Abraham Lincoln to the Tribune in its early days.  

“How in God’s name do you let such letters into the Tribune,” he wrote to Tribune editor C.H. Ray in one letter. Lincoln’s complaint centered on an editorial he thought wasn’t sufficiently supportive of Republican causes and sounded instead as if it were written by the Tribune’s rival paper, a Democratic Party mouthpiece.

The business records primarily cover McCormick’s time running the newspaper, but also include editorial memos and directives by editors going back to Joseph Medill in the 19th century.

“We are so grateful to the donors and to the team at the First Division Museum at Cantigny Park for their stewardship of this collection,” said Sarah Pritchard, dean of libraries and the Charles Deering McCormick University Librarian. “The collection is in wonderful condition and comes to us well ordered so that we will be able to make it available to researchers much sooner than typically possible. To bring this archive formally into our holdings, we are exploring it in detail and are excited to see the ways it interconnects with our other collections.”

Substantial journalism archive

The massive archive will be available for study in the spring of 2020 at the Charles Deering McCormick Library of Special Collections and University Archives located in Deering Library on Northwestern’s Evanston campus. Occupying more than 2,000 linear feet of shelving, it will join a substantial collection of journalism-related archives in Northwestern Libraries, including the papers of Stanton Cook ’49, chief executive of the Chicago Tribune during the 1970s and ’80s; Georgie Anne Geyer ’56, pioneering foreign correspondent and columnist; Tribune editor Howard Tyner ’67; Crain Communications founder Rance Crain ’60; and many other impactful Medill alumni.

Martin Antonetti
Martin Antonetti, director of the Charles Deering McCormick Library of Special Collections and University Archives

McCormick’s archive also includes thousands of original printing plates of editorial cartoons by Pulitzer Prize winner John T. McCutcheon, a 40-year employee of the company. The plates will join more than 450 other McCutcheon cartoons already held by Northwestern Libraries. 

“This archive is a complementary addition to our strong journalism collections. Taken together, these materials make Northwestern an essential resource for researchers exploring the evolution of journalism in the United States,” said Martin Antonetti, director of the Charles Deering McCormick Library of Special Collections and University Archives. “The addition of the McCormick Archive goes beyond journalism by bolstering our holdings on the history of Chicago. It’s extraordinary.”

McCormick was larger than life

A larger-than-life figure at the Tribune, McCormick’s impact on Chicago is difficult to overstate. He entered Chicago politics briefly as a Near North Side alderman and later was the head of the Chicago Sanitary District. He joined the family business after the 1910 death of his uncle, Tribune editor Robert Patterson, after which he and his cousin, Joseph Medill Patterson, stepped in to forge the paper’s national reputation as “The World’s Greatest Newspaper.”

Referred to widely as “the Colonel” (the rank he achieved while serving in the U.S. Army’s First Infantry Division in World War I), McCormick made the Tribune a conservative bastion. He sparred relentlessly with his old prep-school classmate, Franklin D. Roosevelt, over New Deal policies. McCormick was also a staunch defender of the free press, including his funding the defense of the libel lawsuit leading to the landmark Near v. Minnesota Supreme Court decision.

McCormick founded the New York Daily News in 1919 with Patterson and purchased the Washington Times-Herald in 1948 after the death of its founder, Eleanor “Cissy” Patterson, another of his cousins. Business papers from both enterprises are included in the archive. McCormick also expanded Tribune Company media holdings to WGN Radio in 1924 and WGN-TV in 1948.

McCormick had a long relationship with Northwestern, enrolling in its law school in 1904. Without completing his law degree, he left Northwestern for a career in Chicago politics. As a champion of all things that benefited the Chicago region, he supported the University often during his lifetime. 

A role in the founding of Medill

The Tribune contributed heavily to the 1921 founding of Northwestern’s journalism school. Now known as the Medill School of Journalism, Media, Integrated Marketing Communications it was named for McCormick’s grandfather, Joseph Medill, who was himself a publisher of the Tribune. Later, McCormick supported the University — including the medical, engineering and journalism schools — through his personal philanthropy. Since the Colonel’s death, the McCormick Foundation has contributed more than $100 million to support programs at Northwestern, including at Medill, the Robert R. McCormick School of Engineering, the Kellogg School of Management and Northwestern Memorial Hospital. 

Northwestern University Libraries serve the Evanston, Chicago and Qatar campuses by providing access to more than seven million books; 3.5 linear miles of manuscripts, archives and unique materials; extensive digital media; and tens of thousands of journals, databases and periodicals. Their distinctive holdings include the Charles Deering McCormick Library of Special Collections and University Archives and the Melville J. Herskovits Library of African Studies.

For Journalists: view the news release for media contacts and assets