Rare Book Monthly

Articles - April - 2005 Issue

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.

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