The James K. Polk Project devotes itself to publishing the letters of the Tennessee native who served as the United States’ eleventh president from 1845 to 1849. History faculty from the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, comprise the project’s staff, and select, transcribe, edit, and annotate the letters. The most important or interesting letters, they publish in full; the rest they summarize in detailed briefs or shorter calendar entries. The resulting volumes serve as essential resources for scholars and students researching America before the Civil War.
The Correspondence of James K. Polk constitutes the only published volumes devoted to letters to and from one of Tennessee’s and America’s most important nineteenth-century politicians. Thirteen volumes in the series have already been published. The most recent installment, Volume 13, includes letters from August 1847–March 1848, the final months of the Mexican-American War. It was just published on March 30, 2017.
Initiated at Vanderbilt University in 1958, the Polk Project moved to the University of Tennessee in 1987. Vanderbilt University Press published Volumes 1–7; the University of Tennessee Press published the next six and remains the series’ publisher. The first twelve volumes are now available online in an open-access edition published by Newfound Press. Besides the correspondence, each volume includes a preface or introduction, chronology, and index, and informational, contextual, and textual notes. Volume 6 (January 1842–December 1843), published in 1983, also added a 262-page calendar that lists all letters—those published in full, summarized, or located but not mentioned—in the first six volumes. Each subsequent volume has included its own such calendar.
In selecting letters, the editors have chosen to publish most of the letters written by Polk. That decision attests to the unique window those letters open on Polk’s thoughts. It also owes to their scarcity compared with extant incoming letters. Beyond that resolve, the Project eschews rigid selection criteria. Simply put, it seeks to publish in full those letters adjudged to be the most important, illuminating, or interesting. For each volume, the editors survey about one thousand letters, of which they publish the full texts of 300 to 350. Interspersed chronologically among those full texts are detailed summaries of as many as fifty other letters. Each recent volume has reached about 550 pages in length.
Only one volume remains to complete the series. Organized chronologically, that series will span Polk’s entire public and private life: his student years at the University of North Carolina; his careers as a slave-owner, planter, and lawyer; his political life in Tennessee state politics and the U.S. House of Representatives; his ascent to the White House; the four years of his presidency; and the brief retirement that preceded his death in 1849. The recently published and forthcoming volumes, which cover the Polk’s presidency, are among the most important to historians and students.