- The Papers of James Madison
James Madison, Louisiana Purchase, War of 1812, Missouri Crisis,
In the 1950s, six comprehensive projects were begun, to edit and publish the papers of six leading founders: Thomas Jefferson (edited by Julian P. Boyd); Benjamin Franklin (Leonard W. Labaree); John Adams (Lyman Butterfield); Alexander Hamilton (Harold C. Syrett); James Madison (William T. Hutchinson); and George Washington (W. W. [End Page 763] Abbot). All but the Hamilton project are still underway, altogether totaling more than 200 volumes to date. The only finished project is the Hamilton, twenty-three volumes; editor Syrett once remarked that he considered dedicating his project “to Aaron Burr who made its completion possible.”
The volumes of The Papers of James Madison here under review document some months of his busy, stressful, public-spirited years in executive office. They provide evidence that, after sixty years of extraordinarily skilled work, the high and exacting standards of the founding editors prevail yet. The full publication, careful evaluation, and provenance of the original documents, and the learned and concise editorial context of these volumes, make them a unique and central contribution to our understanding of the foundations of American government and public life. The study of the early republic has been immeasurably enriched.
In volumes 8 and 9 of the Secretary of State Series of Madison’s papers, we have for the first time easily accessible documents showing how Madison, in close consultation with President Jefferson, faced what seemed a propitious moment in American history: Louisiana had been acquired, republican government was flourishing, Jefferson had been reelected overwhelmingly (Madison at his right hand), the depredations of the Barbary powers were under control, and the renewed war between France and Britain seemed less threatening to the United States. Furthermore, it appeared possible to the president and secretary of state that continuing disputes with Spain over the boundaries of Louisiana might be settled amicably. Even the quarrel with Britain over impressment and the overbearing use of her huge naval power seemed amenable to active, carefully guided diplomacy.
Volume 8 begins, though, with Madison and Jefferson ending weeks of late summer visits to Monticello and Montpelier to face increasingly perplexing problems at home and abroad as they prepared Jefferson’s fourth annual message to Congress. Madison received hundreds of reports from American ministers, consuls, merchants, and ship captains across the world, and wrote long, carefully worded instructions in reply (often in code). He averaged one reply to every dozen or two dispatches received. He dealt with applications and recommendations from individuals for positions at home and abroad, and settled quarrels over the posting and finances of his subordinate officers. He tried, finally, to respond to the reports and requests of the first governor of Louisiana, William C. C. Claiborne, as he sought to bring stable government there [End Page 764] in the presence of continuing and recalcitrant French and Spanish influence in New Orleans and elsewhere. Of about 700 documents printed in volume 8, nearly 600 are to Madison and only 100 or so are by him. Many of these are formal, routine letters; perhaps 500 are abstracts of incoming letters provided by the editors to shorten and clarify what would otherwise be dozens of pages of trivia, formality, and repetition.
Madison’s most immediate concern was to complete the Louisiana Purchase by enforcing provisions for the departure of Spanish authorities from the newly acquired territory. But Spanish officials...