Enormous James Madison Collection Now Available Online
"Father of the Constitution" James Madison.Photo courtesy of Library of Congress.
By Michael Stillman
"At his inauguration, James Madison, a small, wizened man, appeared old and worn...but whatever his deficiencies in charm, Madison's buxom wife Dolley compensated for them with her warmth and gaiety." That's a heck of a sendoff for one of our founding fathers, but that is his introduction on the official White House website. Oh, and by the way, he was also the "Father of the Constitution."
It is true that Madison was a sickly looking man, and certainly did not cut the impressive figure his wife did. Still, he managed to stay alive long enough to put together a 40-year political career, and then live another 20 years in retirement. We should all be so sickly. During his career, he served in the Virginia Assembly, where he helped draft that state's constitution, was a major figure in writing the U.S. Constitution, co-wrote the Federalist Papers which helped sell that constitution to the nation, served in the House of Representatives, was Jefferson's Secretary of State, and capped off his career as President of the United States. He was drawn into war with Great Britain during his administration, and while something of a military toss-up, it was perceived in America as a great victory. The result is that when he left office, his Democratic-Republican political party was the only viable party in existence, the anti-war Federalists disgraced and irrelevant. The "Era of Good Feeling" was underway, one of the happiest times in this nation's history. Still, despite these later achievements, it was Madison's role in creating the Constitution and its Bill of Rights that are probably his greatest and most lasting contributions to his country.
The Library of Congress has recently opened its enormous collection of James Madison material to online research. It is exhaustive and exhausting. It is called, "The James Madison Papers." Madison created a lot of papers during his lifetime. Most notable were records he kept of deliberations at the Constitutional Convention. They probably provide greater insight to the thoughts of those who created this amazing document than anything else we have. But those are just a portion of what is now available. The collection runs from documents of his father long before Madison was born, to those from his wife and stepson, John Payne, long after he died.
Unlike some Library of Congress exhibits, this is not geared toward people looking to learn a little about James Madison, or gather a summary of his career. There is a little of that, but not much. There are many better places to go on the internet for that type of information. What you will find here are images of documents, approximately 12,000, written by or to James Madison or family members and associates. There is no way to sit down and read all of this. No, this is a site meant for research. Obviously, it is an absolute treasure of material for anyone conducting serious research about the life of Madison. However, it is also a wonderful resource for those interested in specific events, or studying the lives of the people with whom Madison corresponded, and over the course of his life, that was a great many people.
Enormous James Madison Collection Now Available Online
Madison thanks future President John Tyler for honoring Thomas Jefferson.
As an example, I scanned though the list of people with whom there is correspondence for later presidents, hoping that maybe Madison had corresponded with a young Abraham Lincoln. That would have been an amazing conjunction of eras, but no such luck. However, he did correspond with Levi Lincoln, a distant relative of Abe's who served with Madison in Jefferson's cabinet. The last president to whom Madison wrote was John Tyler. The year was 1826, and Tyler was then Governor of Virginia. He gave a eulogy in honor of Thomas Jefferson on the latter's death, and Madison dropped Tyler a note of gratitude. There are also letters from Tyler to Madison, but as they go back as far as 1791, when the President-to-be was just one year old, I'm going to assume that this was a different John Tyler. However, when names start getting recycled, it's an indication of just how many people Madison corresponded with.
There is a later president who does show up in this collection. From 1848, there is a receipt from James Buchanan, at the time Secretary of State, accepting the collection of Madison papers left by his wife Dolley, who had just died. Those papers form a part of this collection.
For those of you in the book business, rather than researchers or collectors, you may wonder what value this resource is to you. It could be a lot. If you have material pertaining to Madison or his contemporaries, particularly interactions between Madison and others, there may be some important information. You may even find Madison corresponded with some of those people who have become obscure. One thing that distinguishes the top booksellers, or those who sell their books for top dollar, is their ability to explain what they are offering, to put it in a context that maximizes its importance. Having access to such a thorough collection of Madison's records can't help but establish context for other material, perhaps some you are holding right now.
However, we will conclude with a caution. This material isn't always easy to read. In fact, it rarely is. Madison's handwriting is not that easy to decipher. He desperately needed a word processor. I have included no new quotes from Madison because I would not want to repeat a whole sentence verbatim. You can usually make out enough to get the meaning, but there are some words that will remain a mystery to me. Perhaps someday the Library of Congress will provide printed copies to read. I hope so. Until then, you're on your own.
The Library of Congress' James Madison Papers may be found online at http://memory.loc.gov/ammem/collections/Madison_papers/index.html.