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Francis Lieber papers

Identifier: MS-0071

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Scope and Contents

The Lieber Papers span the years from 1829 to 1873 and include correspondence (chiefly from 1829-1835 and 1860-1865); interleaved copies of Lieber's books with various annotations and clippings; a small number of original manuscripts; printed speeches, lectures, articles and poems; administrative materials, printed briefs and manuscript decisions for the United States and Mexican Claims Commission (1868-1872). The collection contains information about American political philosophy and intellectual history for the mid-nineteenth century and Lieber's role in the transfer of European ideas to America.

The Lieber correspondence consists of letters in French from Joseph Bonaparte (1829-1832) and letters of praise for his various books that have been removed from the interleaved books. The Bonaparte correspondence is, in general, a defense of the Bonaparte family from alleged lies and calumnies by various historians as well as an attempt to influence Lieber's treatment of the family in his Encyclopedia.

The Lieber manuscripts include his "Anglican and Gallican Liberty" (1848-51), "Aids and Hints for the Pursuit of Knowledge" (1851), "Droit Oblige" (186?), "Twenty-Seven Definitions and Elementary Positions Concerning the Law and Usages of War" (1861), "the Law and Usages of War" (1861-1862), "A Code for the Government of Armies in the Field" (1863) and "[Papal] Infallibility" (1870).

Lieber's interleaved books contain manuscript notes, clippings, and other reference material, presumably for later revision. Of particular interest is a complete revision for a never published third edition of Political Hermeneutics. The books thus serve as a sort of subject filling system. One can follow changes in Lieber's thought over time as he sometimes dates his emendations.

The United States and Mexican Claims Commission files are largely printed materials on commission administrative matters and printed legal briefs on claims. Some correspondence demonstrates Lieber's handling of attempts to influence his decisions.


  • Creation: 1829-1873


Conditions Governing Access

This collection is housed off-site and requires 48-hours' notice for retrieval. Please contact Special Collections for more information.

Collection is open for use.

Conditions Governing Use

Single copies may be made for research purposes. Researchers are responsible for determining any copyright questions. It is not necessary to seek our permission as the owner of the physical work to publish or otherwise use public domain materials that we have made available for use, unless Johns Hopkins University holds the copyright.

Biographical Note

Francis Lieber was a publicist, educator, and political philosopher. Born in Berlin on March 18, 1800, Lieber fought with Bluecher at Waterloo [1815], participated in Frederick Jahn's Turner movement, joined an ill-fated expedition to fight in the Greek Revolution [1822], and served as a tutor for the children of historian Barthold G. Niebuhr in Rome [1822-23]. Between these events Lieber studied for brief periods at Berlin, Jena (where he received a Ph.D.), Halle and Dresden, during which time Prussian authorities frequently questioned and twice imprisoned him. He finally escaped Prussian persecution, traveling first to London [1825], where he met Matilda Oppenheimer whom he married in 1829, and then to Boston [1827], where he managed a gymnasium and swimming school. Lieber wrote for German newspapers; edited, translated, and wrote much of the 13-volume "Encyclopedia Americana" [1829-1833]; prepared numerous articles and lectures; promoted prison reform along the lines of the Pennsylvania system; translated and annotated Beaumont and deToqueville's "On the Penitentiary System" [1833]; prepared a "Plan of Education for Girard College" [1834] and authored a travel journal, "Letters to a Gentleman in Germany" [1834].

Despite his success as an author, election to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences [1830] and appeals to correspondents, Lieber was unable to obtain a fixed position until the fall of 1835 when he accepted a professorship at South Carolina College. While living in South Carolina, Lieber enslaved people, including a woman named Betsy and her daughter (Keil, 13). Lieber wrote the following works during this time: "Political Ethics" [1838-39]; "Legal and Political Hermeneutics" [1837-38]; "Essays on Property and Labour" [1843]; and "Civil Liberty and Self-Government" [1853]. All of these works reflected Lieber's support for the central tenets of nineteenth- century liberalism: freedom of the will; individualism; rights and obligations (in Lieber's terms "droit oblige") growing out of natural law; a limited state except when the public interest is involved; the importance of property; free trade; monogamy and the family; opposition to organized labor.

In 1856 Lieber resigned his South Carolina position when he again was passed over for president and moved to New York. Shortly friends secured a chair in history and political science at Columbia [1858-1865] and later in the Columbia Law School [1865-1872]. He became involved in Republic politics, organized the Loyal Publication Society during the Civil War and drafted legal briefs for Charles Sumner (who frequently shared Lieber's ideas with Lincoln), Edward Stanton, Edward Bates, Henry Halleck and Hamilton Fish. In particular he wrote General Orders No.100, "Instructions for the Government of Armies of the United States in the Field" [1863]. Following the war he served as archivist for the captured Confederate documents [1865-67], as umpire for the United States and Mexican Claims Commission [1869-72] and as organizer of conferences on international law. He died in New York City on October 2, 1872.

Works Cited: Keil, Hartmut. "Francis Lieber's Attitudes on Race, Slavery, and Abolition." Journal of American Ethnic History 24, no. 1 (Fall 2008), 13-33.


3.29 Cubic Feet (7 legal size document boxes)

Language of Materials



Francis Lieber was a publicist, educator, and political philosopher born in Berlin on March 18, 1800. The Lieber Papers span the years from 1829 to 1873 and include correspondence; interleaved copies of Lieber's books; a small number of original manuscripts; printed speeches, lectures, articles and poems; administrative materials, printed briefs and manuscript decisions for the United States and Mexican Claims Commission (1868-1872).

Immediate Source of Acquisition

The papers were largely the gift of Matilda Lieber, Francis Lieber's widow, in 1884. In addition the library received or purchased a dozen letters between 1942 and 1961. The papers were filed in the Lieber case in the Lanier Room, Gilman Hall until the opening of the Milton S. Eisenhower Library.

Related Materials

See the letters of Francis Lieber, Matilda Lieber (wife), Henrietta Lieber (daughter-in-law) and G. Norman Lieber (son) in the Daniel C. Gilman papers (MS.0001).

The principle collection of Lieber papers is in the Henry C. Huntington Library Bulletin, (February 1933), pp. 135-55. Other major collections of Lieber material are at the University of South Carolina, Columbia University, the Military Archives Division of the National Archives, the Library of Congress and the Longfellow House.


The standard biography is Frank Freidel, Francis Lieber: Nineteenth-Century Liberal (Baton Rouge, 1947) which superceded the compilation of excerpts prepared, under the close scrutiny of Matilda Lieber, by Thomas Sergeant Perry, The Life and Letters of Francis Lieber (Boston, 1882). For the more critical view of Lieber see Joseph Dorfman and Rexford Guy Tugwell, "Francis Lieber; German Scholar in America," Columbia University Quarterly, 30 (1938), 159-90, 267-93. See also the biographical/bibliographical information in Box 1.

Processing Information

Finding aid prepared by Ben Primer.

Liz Beckman revised the Scope and Content and Biographical notes, as well as folder titles, in this finding aid in September 2023 to bring them into compliance with Johns Hopkins guidelines for inclusive and conscientious description (2023). The previous version of the finding aid is available upon request.

Francis Lieber papers
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Repository Details

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