March 30, 2017
New Correspondence of James K. Polk Volume Sheds Light on Origin of U.S.-Mexico Border
We are pleased to announce the publication today of Volume 13 of the Correspondence of James K. Polk. This penultimate volume in the series, covering August 1847 to March 1848, sheds new light on the end of the Mexican-American War and the origin of the current U.S.-Mexico border. Letters discuss the war’s final battles and the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, which ceded California and the Southwest from Mexico to the United States.
Michael David Cohen, a research associate professor of history at the University of Tennessee, edited the volume. Bradley J. Nichols, now a lecturer in history at UT, was the editorial assistant. The University of Tennessee Press published it.
Polk, a former Tennessee governor and congressman, served as the eleventh U.S. president, 1845 to 1849. During his term the United States, by winning the Mexican-American War and by setting the northwestern boundary with Canada, increased in geographical size by one-third. Mexico lost half its territory.
The new volume also features letters on persecuted Mormons’ journey from Illinois to Utah, U.S. interest in annexing Cuba, and Americans’ reactions to the revolutions that shook Europe in 1848.
The twelve previous volumes are available in print from the University of Tennessee Press and online, at no charge, from Newfound Press.
The Correspondence of James K. Polk publishes the thousands of letters that Polk wrote and received. The most important and interesting letters are printed in full, with footnotes identifying all people and events. The rest are summarized.
“The volumes are crucial resources for scholars and students researching America before the Civil War,” Cohen said. “They offer a glimpse into war, politics, diplomacy, economics, society, and culture in antebellum America.”
Volume 13 includes 224 full-text letters, 450 letter summaries, and more than 1,500 footnotes. Writers of the full-text letters include Polk, Abraham Lincoln, Jefferson Davis, and Nathaniel Hawthorne.
The volume also highlights other notable moments during that era. Lawyer Aaron Palmer advocates enhanced trade with Russia and China. Medical student William Gamble expounds on the evils of slavery. Federal worker Barbara Hume, writing when few women worked for pay, stresses the need of employment to support her children. Dakota Indians warn of the suffering and starvation caused by the government’s withholding food and money promised in a treaty.
The Polk letters, gathered from the Library of Congress and other repositories, illuminate the personal life and business affairs of one of the most private men ever to occupy the presidency. Some deal with Polk’s purchases and sales of slaves and the attempt by one enslaved man to escape from the president’s cotton plantation.
One volume remains to complete the series. The project is supported by grants from the National Historical Publications and Records Commission, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the Tennessee Historical Commission.
August 10, 2016
Polk Project Wins National Endowment for the Humanities Grant
We are delighted to announce that the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) has awarded the James K. Polk Project a grant of $204,785 to finish publishing Polk’s letters. With twelve volumes of the Correspondence of James K. Polk already available in print and online, this grant will enable editor Michael David Cohen to complete the series’ final two volumes between now and 2019.
Volume 13, due out next winter, will bring the series through the end of the Mexican-American War and the U.S. acquisition of California and the Southwest. Volume 14 will cover the last year of Polk’s presidency and his brief retirement before his death in June 1849. These volumes also will include letters on the heated debate over slavery; diplomatic relations with the Kingdom of Hawaii; Polk’s refusal to seek a second term; the installation of Washington, DC’s first gas lighting system; and the California gold rush. Like preceding volumes, they will feature annotations identifying all people and topics discussed in the letters.
The award is part of the NEH’s highly competitive Scholarly Editions and Translations grant program. “This NEH grant will enable us at UT to complete a major resource for Tennessee and U.S. history,” Cohen said. “The letters, written by men and women from all walks of life, will allow people to explore the many issues on Americans’ minds in the years before the Civil War. These historical documents will be accessible in colleges, schools, and libraries and on any device connected to the Internet.”
The NEH, an independent federal agency, funds humanities projects in fields such as history, literature, and archaeology. It uses panels of expert reviewers to select top proposals. “NEH grants help bring humanities experiences to Americans across the country,” said chairman William D. Adams. “Our grants strengthen the nation’s cultural fabric and identity.”
You can read the NEH’s press release at http://www.neh.gov/news/press-release/2016-08-09 and the University of Tennessee’s press release at http://tntoday.utk.edu/2016/08/10/polk-project-wins-grant-national-endowment-humanities.
July 8, 2016
Presidential Lecture on Polk Viewable Online
On March 1, 2016, editor Michael David Cohen gave the Annual Presidential Lecture at Northwestern Oklahoma State University, Alva. You can view the lecture, which has now been posted on YouTube, through our Video page.
May 26, 2016
Major Grant Awarded to Polk Project
The National Historical Publications and Records Commission (NHPRC), the grant-making division of the National Archives and Records Administration, has awarded the James K. Polk Project a grant of $52,184 for 2016–17. The NHPRC has for decades generously contributed to the project. This grant will support work on Volume 14 of the Correspondence of James K. Polk, which will cover April 1848–June 1849, the final months of Polk’s presidency and of his life, and will complete the series. You can read the NHPRC’s press release here and see a list of all projects receiving grants (including the University of Tennessee’s own Papers of Andrew Jackson) here.
May 16, 2016
Volume 13 Publication Announced
The University of Tennessee Press has just announced the publication, in January 2017, of Volume 13 of the Correspondence of James K. Polk, covering August 1847–March 1848 and the conclusion of the Mexican-American War. Here is (appropriately) page 13 of the press’s new catalog:
January 14, 2016
Online Access Available to Complete Collection of James K. Polk’s Letters
The letters of James K. Polk provide insight into the politics, diplomacy, science, and culture of the early nineteenth century. They also offer a glimpse into the proceedings of one of the most significant yet least-known US presidents, during whose term the country increased in geographical size by one-third.
The public can now access thirty years of Polk’s writings due to the online publication of all twelve volumes of the Correspondence of James K. Polk series by Newfound Press, the digital imprint of the University of Tennessee Libraries.
The online volumes report on July 1817 to July 1847, detailing Polk’s years as a University of North Carolina student; a lawyer and plantation owner; a member of the Tennessee Legislature; a member of, and speaker of, the US House of Representatives; Tennessee’s governor; and the US president.
The series is currently edited by Michael David Cohen, research assistant professor of history at UT. The volumes available online also were edited by Tom Chaffin and Wayne Cutler, both formerly of the UT Department of History, and the late Herbert Weaver, of Vanderbilt University. The hardcover volumes are published by UT Press.
The Correspondence of James K. Polk project devotes itself to publishing the eleventh president’s letters, which are gathered from the Library of Congress and other repositories. Polk served as president from 1845 to 1849. The project is supported by the National Historical Publications and Records Commission and the Tennessee Historical Commission.
The volumes are accessible free of charge as searchable, downloadable PDF editions. They are available online.
July 31, 2015
Three Volumes of UT’s Polk Letters Now Available Online
The letters of James K. Polk give insight into the politics, diplomacy, science and culture of the 1840s, as well as a peek into the affairs of one of the most private men ever to occupy the presidency.
Scholars, students and history enthusiasts can now explore two keys years in Polk’s presidency, thanks to the online publication of three volumes of the “Correspondence of James K. Polk” series by Newfound Press, the digital imprint of the University of Tennessee Libraries.
These first online volumes—10, 11 and 12, which cover July 1845 to July 1847—are accessible free of charge as searchable, downloadable PDF editions. They are available at http://trace.tennessee.edu/utk_polk/.
The works are part of a series currently edited by Michael David Cohen, research assistant professor of history at UT. The volumes now available online were also edited by Tom Chaffin and Wayne Cutler, both formerly of the UT Department of History. The hardcover volumes are published by UT Press.
The “Correspondence of James K. Polk” project devotes itself to publishing the 11th president’s letters, which are gathered from the Library of Congress and other repositories. Polk served from 1845 to 1849. The project is supported by the National Historical Publications and Records Commission and the Tennessee Historical Commission.
“These original documents allow our readers to go day by day through both Polk’s life and a fascinating period in American history,” Cohen said. “Transcribing and annotating them are great fun, and make these documents available to people studying a wide variety of topics in the 19th century.”
The three published electronic volumes cover topics including the Mexican-American War, the U.S. annexation of Texas, the setting of the boundary between the Oregon Country and Canada, the adjustment of the tariffs on imports, the invention by Charles Goodyear of vulcanized rubber, treaty negotiations with the Kingdom of Hawaii, and the growing sectional conflict over slavery and Polk’s purchases of slaves for his own Mississippi plantation.
The electronic works allow users easier access to the original documents than combing through archives and microfiche, Cohen said. Like the printed volumes, they include annotations that help modern readers understand the 19th-century letters. Unlike the printed volumes, which are navigable only through tables of contents and indexes, the online versions are also searchable by keywords.
The printed version of volume 13 is due out next year. All volumes will eventually be published online.
October 23, 2013
New Correspondence of James K. Polk volume from University of Tennessee Press casts fresh light on Mexican War era
We are pleased to announce publication of the long-awaited Volume 12 (January–July 1847) in the Correspondence of James K. Polk series. This latest installment in the Polk series, published by the University of Tennessee Press, documents a critical seven months in one of America’s most transformational presidencies.
Polk, a former governor of and congressman from Tennessee, was the eleventh U.S. president (1845–49). Many of the new volume’s letters chronicle his prosecution of the Mexican War, a conflict that, along with his 1846 acquisition of what is today’s Pacific Northwest, increased by one-third the size of the United States. The letters—gathered from the Library of Congress and other repositories, most of them until now unpublished—also lift the veil on the personal life and business affairs of one of the most private men ever to occupy the presidency.
Volume 12 of the Polk letters was edited by Dr. Tom Chaffin and Dr. Michael David Cohen of the History Department of the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. Chaffin is author of Giant’s Causeway: Frederick Douglass’s Irish Odyssey and the Making of an American Visionary, forthcoming, October 2014, from the University of Virginia Press. Cohen is author of Reconstructing the Campus: Higher Education and the American Civil War, University of Virginia Press, 2012.
The Polk Project is sponsored by the College of Arts and Sciences, the Howard H. Baker Center for Public Policy, the Office of the Chancellor, and the Department of History at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville; the National Historical Publications and Records Commission; and the Tennessee Historical Commission.
Between January and July 1847, the Democratic president and his supporters celebrated American military triumphs at Buena Vista, Veracruz, and elsewhere. In July, the war’s final engagements lay months away. The lines of authority between Polk and his generals and diplomats in Mexico were almost as muddled as those among officials of the rivalry-ridden Mexican state. Yet the administration, as the letters attest, already was pondering the size of the war’s territorial spoils for the United States.
Other correspondence amid the 344 letters published in full in Volume 12 reveals other, often-overlooked foreign-policy interests under Polk, including Hawaii and Cuba, as well as the administration’s concern with European affairs. Polk took a personal interest in the famine ravaging Ireland and in March 1847 placed two naval ships into civilian hands to transport to Ireland foodstuffs donated by private charities.
The correspondence also documents Polk’s concerns with domestic politics. He came to the White House already having forsworn a second presidential term. Even so, he and his Democratic supporters kept a wary eye on the party’s fortunes—from the 1848 presidential race to elections for state houses and Congress. Political-patronage appointments also won his attention. The letters reveal a party leader determined to use the spoils of office to reward allies and deny political opponents berths in the federal bureaucracy.
Correspondence concerning business affairs of his Mississippi plantation documents Polk the businessman, intimately involved in the trading of slaves. Still other letters, to family members and old schoolmates, reveal the publicly hard-nosed president as a doting husband, son, uncle, and friend. Correspondents include politicians (among them James Buchanan, Thomas Hart Benton, and John Tyler), military officers (including Zachary Taylor, Jefferson Davis, and Gideon Pillow), relatives, and public-office seekers; they also include such unexpected interlocutors as inventor Charles Goodyear, activist Jessie Benton Frémont, and abolitionist Francis Jackson.
Volume 12 introduces several editorial changes to the series—including the inclusion of birth and death dates for all individuals identified in this volume’s notes. Another change concerns additional information on slaves referred to in the volume’s letters.
As Chaffin writes in his introduction to Volume 12, much of the correspondence in the Polk series—letters published in earlier volumes, those in the new volume, and those to appear in future volumes—deals with Polk’s purchases and sales of slaves. “Unto themselves these letters tend to yield few details regarding the identities of the slaves. Moreover, the extant Polk historiography, most of it focused on policy issues, also tends to shed scant light on the identities of these individuals.”
To bring more light to such matters, he and Cohen located and acquired photocopies of many primary-source documents—sales contracts, probate-court records, and the like, in addition to Polk’s letters themselves—related to Polk’s business affairs. “Those documents,” Chaffin writes, “allow us in this and future volumes, to a much greater extent than in earlier ones, to present in endnotes essential biographical information for many of the slaves—including, in many instances, birth and death years. Through such notes, we hope to enhance the value of this series to social historians and to historians of the African American experience.”
Chaffin’s introduction to the volume, drawing extensively on the papers of historian George Bancroft, successively Polk’s navy secretary and minister to the United Kingdom, questions longstanding depictions by historians of Polk as a champion of Manifest Destiny and as a president of firmly enunciated, and eventually attained, goals. Specifically, he presents evidence that raises questions concerning the provenance of a widely repeated anecdote, long enshrined in U.S. history textbooks, in which Polk, early in his presidency, enumerates what, he predicts, will be “four great measures” of his administration: the acquisition of all of part of the Oregon Country, the acquisition of California, a reduction in tariffs, and the establishment of an Independent Treasury, vaults designated by the federal government to receive government funds.
Volume 12 contains complete transcriptions of 344 letters; summarized versions of another ten letters appear as “briefs” within the main body; and 638 more letters are succinctly noted in the “Calendar” section at the book’s end. Of the letters published in full, one hundred are written by President Polk and 244 are incoming letters. Consistent with the Polk series’ practice, most of the extant letters composed by Polk during this volume’s coverage period, January–July 1847, appear in full—if only because of their relative scarcity compared to extant incoming letters. “Beyond that resolve,” Chaffin writes, “we eschew rigid selection criteria. Simply put, as in the past, we seek to publish in full those letters adjudged to be the most important, illuminating, or interesting—or, better yet, those that meet all three of those benchmarks.”
To highlight but one example of the fruits of that resolve, Chaffin notes, a previous volume in the series contained brief calendar summaries of letters from an individual who wrote to the president under the pseudonym “Amor Patriæ,” Latin for “love of one’s country.” Likewise, Chaffin continues, a letter appears from Amor Patriæ in Volume 12, and others will appear in future volumes. “But, thanks to dogged sleuthing by my colleague Michael Cohen, Amor Patriæ’s letter appears now—and the rest will appear in the future—under his real name, Andrew Lane.
“Thanks to Michael, we also now possess essential biographical facts concerning Lane: we know his birth and death dates and that he was a New England–born pamphleteer and lawyer who, over the years, resided on both sides of the Mason-Dixon line and helped to found a theological seminary in Ohio.”