James Madison's Papers Go Digital

July 23, 2010 — With the addition of the Papers of James Madison to "Rotunda," the electronic imprint of the University of Virginia Press, scholars and others now have online access to the writings of "the Father of the United States Constitution."

The digitized documents, which are part of Rotunda's "Founding Era Collection," include all of the volumes published in print so far: 17 covering Madison's congressional period and eight, so far, from his role as secretary of state. Among the documents are letters Madison wrote and received, his essays and notes, diaries, account books and various legal papers.

The Papers of James Madison project, housed at the University of Virginia, was established in 1956 to publish annotated volumes of the correspondence and writings of James Madison. Until recently, it had focused solely on print publication.

"The Madison Papers now joins the other Founding Fathers editions – Jefferson, Adams, Washington, etc. – to form a digital source, capable of being researched across all its collections and along a number of dimensions," said John C.A. Stagg, editor of the Madison Papers. "It is without parallel in its richness – not just for scholars of the American founding, but literally anyone, from interested readers to schoolchildren who have access to a computer and the Internet.

"To my knowledge, there is nothing else like it anywhere in the world yet, and it will be available throughout the world."

Stagg writes in the website's introduction, "This online resource contains all of the content of the print edition and adds to this a powerful XML-based search functionality, linked cross-references and the ability to navigate chronologically or by volume in the series."

Madison played a central role in the American founding and the growth of the early Republic. Along with being the chief author of the Constitution, he also was the primary writer of the Bill of Rights, served as secretary of state under President Thomas Jefferson during the Louisiana Purchase and became the fourth U.S. president.

"It is essential for all Americans to have as well-grounded an understanding of the founding as can be reasonably achieved," Stagg said. "This is particularly true today when, in troubled times, there is a tendency to reach for fundamentals in the search for answers – and contemporary debates reveal, unfortunately, that many people have very poorly informed understandings about what was accomplished in the founding era and why. The Rotunda Founding Fathers digital editions can play a significant role in addressing that situation."

In their papers, Madison and the other founders discuss such matters as federal mandates and how policy solutions might address the problems they faced.

"Even thoughts that come from the 18th century can resonate with contemporary concerns," Stagg said.

A projected 18 volumes remain to be edited and published  in print and digital formats. When completed, "The Papers of James Madison" will consist of four series, each devoted to the major segments of Madison's life: the Congressional Series (1751-1801); the Secretary of State Series (1801-1809); the Presidential Series (1809-1817), of which six volumes were published this? spring; and the Retirement Series (1817-1836).

The U.Va. community has direct, free access to Rotunda editions. Other organizations and individuals can search the collection for brief summaries, sign up for a free two-day trial or subscribe to the complete collection, according to Mark Saunders, manager of Rotunda.

In the future, Rotunda editions will include papers from Alexander Hamilton, which "will give the full flavor of the conversations in the 1780s about framing the Constitution," Saunders said.

Also on the Rotunda platform under the Founders Early Access portal are as-yet-unverified transcripts of more than 3,000 unpublished Madison documents, mostly covering the years between 1823 and 1836.

— By Anne Bromley