Academic journal article The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography

"A Constant Attention"

Academic journal article The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography

"A Constant Attention"

Article excerpt

Dolley Madison and the Publication of the Papers of James Madison, 1836-1837

On 6 April 1817, James and Dolley Madison left Washington, D. C, their home for the past sixteen years. They arrived at Montpelier, the Madison plantation in Orange County, Virginia, on 8 April and remained there for the rest of James's life. Three years into their retirement, Dolley described their new routine in a letter to one of her cousins. "Not a mile can I go from home," Dolley recounted. Days in the countryside seemed to have cast a spell that "withholds me from those I love best in the world." The Madisons partook in the many activities of their family and friends. They visited and read, attended family functions, and tended to the business of running a large plantation. They received visitors from around the world who wanted to talk with the fourth president of the United States, who was also the architect of the U.S. Constitution. And they edited James's papers. "This is the third winter in which he has been engaged in the arrangements of papers," Dolley explained in early 1820, "and the business appears to accumalate as he proceeds - so that I calculate its out-lasting my patience and yet I cannot press him to forsake a duty so important, or find it in my heart to leave him during its fulfilment." And so they worked. Dolley helped her husband and pressed her brother, John Coles Payne, into service.1

James knew that his papers were important. After the 1821 publication of Robert Yates's Secret Proceedings and Debates of the Convention Assembled in Phihdelphia, Madison's version of the Constitutional Convention became even more critical. As he explained to a friend, "Mr. Yates' notes as you observe, are very inaccurate; they are, also, in some respects, grossly erroneous."2 Madison wrote a brother-in-law that he had started editing "the mass of papers accumulated thro' a long course of public life" and that it "would require a tedious attention." As he explained, he had finally set about the task in earnest "becoming every day more & more aware of the danger of an ultimate failure from delay." But as to when such an opus should be published, Madison told the Richmond journalist Thomas Ritchie that "it might be best to let the work be a posthumous one, or at least that its publication should be delayed till the Constitution should be well settled by practice."3

By 1835 James was close to death. Dolley spent her days "devoted to nursing and comforting my patient, who walks only from the bed in which he breakfasts, to one in the little chamber."4 But he had nearly completed the tasks of compiling, editing, and transcribing his papers, enlarging the scope of the project in the process. He explained to Edward Everett, the former editor of the Boston-based North American Review now turned Massachusetts politician, that "my papers consist first, of the proceedings & debates of the Federal Convention of 1787, as taken down by me in an extent will fill several volumes." Madison noted that in addition he had "a like record of those of the Revoly Congress whilst I was a member, during very interesting periods, and which tho in a less extensive form, would fill another volume: secondly, of voluminous correspondences, on subjects constitutional, political and narrative."5

James Madison's observations on the Constitutional Convention remain key to our understanding of what happened in Philadelphia during the summer of 1787. Throughout the convention he sat near the front of the proceedings and took daily and copious notes. As he told Everett in 1823, "the best history of our country . . . must be the fruit of contributions bequeathed by co-temporary actors and witnesses."6 His grand project would, he stated in his will, "be particularly gratifying to the people of the United States, and to all who take an interest in the progress of political science and the cause of true liberty."7 His papers, however, were more than his intellectual legacy. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.