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Papers of Martin Van Buren
Eighth President Van Buren in c. 1857
The Papers of Martin Van Buren is an ongoing project that aims to make available to the public all the surviving letters, papers, and other documents from eighth PresidentMartin Van Buren's lifetime. The project was originally founded in 1969 at Pennsylvania State University, where a microfilm edition of over 13,000 documents was published in 1987. In 2014, Cumberland University relaunched the Papers of Martin Van Buren project with the goal of digitizing the documents and releasing them online for free access.
Description of Van Buren Papers
Like many of his contemporaries, Martin Van Buren understood the importance of his papers and viewed them as historical records. He took care to preserve a large amount of his own correspondence as well as other documents he believed would document his career. He was especially careful to preserve the letters between himself and Andrew Jackson, and during his lifetime, he recovered as much of their correspondence as he could with the aim of publication. These letters then passed to his sons, who preserved the collection intact.
Van Buren did not view his mundane or social letters with equal importance and as such, he destroyed many of these letters. His surviving letters show that Van Buren kept up a steady correspondence with several women; however, hardly any of their responses still exist. Van Buren was also careful to destroy confidential letters at the request of their authors. Because of this, the majority of the collection is limited to his political career.
History of the Project
The Papers of Martin Van Buren project was officially launched at Pennsylvania State University (PSU) in 1969, headed by Dr. Walter L. Ferree. Previously, Van Buren's papers were scattered among several different depositories, including the Library of Congress, and many were held in private hands. Dr. Ferree's team worked to gather these documents into a single, comprehensive collection. A total of 260 repositories eventually contributed to the 13,000 documents published in the microfilm edition.
The original goal of the project was to release a letterpress edition, which would be published in two series, totaling fifteen to twenty volumes. The team worked for three years, transcribing handwritten documents and beginning the editing process, before deciding in 1972 to shelve the publication and instead focus on producing a microfilm edition. At the time, the benefits of a microfilm edition made it appear as the only viable route: the publication cost would be far lower; the collection would be available in a period of four or five years rather than the twenty it would take to release a letterpress edition; and the technology of the time was headed in a direction that anticipated microfilm as the best way to access resource material.
In 1976, Ferree retired, and Dr. George Franz of PSU took over leadership. He worked on the project part time until a full-time editor was finally appointed to the project. Lucy Fisher West of Bryn Mawr College took this full-time position in 1986, and the project was completed in 1987. The microfilm edition was published by Chadwyck-Healey, Inc., and it included a comprehensive index compiled by West.
The Papers of Martin Van Buren project was revived in 2014 when Mark Cheathem and James Bradley embarked on a mission to digitize the Papers of Martin Van Buren at Cumberland University in Lebanon, Tennessee. The project was officially launched in February 2016 and has partnered with the University of Virginia's Center for Digital Editing.
Dr. C. William McKee, Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs, Cumberland University
Ms. Ruth Piwonka, Historian, Columbia County, New York
Dr. Harry L. Watson, Atlanta Alumni Distinguished Professor of Southern Culture, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
A Martin Van Buren document is defined as "one written in his hand, at his instruction, and/or with his signature; a printed speech or public remarks verifiable as his own; and correspondence addressed directly to him." Once a document is identified as an MVB document, the editors and project staff workers begin the transcription and editing process.
In transcription, the microfilm document is consulted, and a typed version is produced. The resultant transcribed document matches the original as close as possible, retaining errors such as misspelled words and unconventional capitalization. Very few minor editorial changes are made to make the documents more readable, such as deleting repeated words and changing end dashes to conventional punctuation. An exhaustive list of these changes is available on the project website.
In many cases, Martin Van Buren's and his contemporaries' handwriting is difficult to read. The Papers of Martin Van Buren project aims to release completed transcriptions, but the editorial staff share the opinion of the editors at the Jane AddamsPapers, who believe it is better to publish 99% of a document instead of waiting to get that last 1%. Documents published on the Van Buren Papers website are all verified first-pass transcriptions: they have been reviewed by an editor once but may still have errors and missing words. Utilizing this approach allows the editors to make documents accessible quickly, and the digital format allows for later revision.
The digital edition is organized into fifteen series.
Retirement (Jan. 1849-24 July 1862): Farming, family life, political correspondence, support for Abraham Lincoln in Civil War, death.
Kinderhook Years (Dec. 1782-Dec. 1812): Childhood and time as lawyer and local politician.
Miscellaneous: Documents outside the chronological scope of the previous series; documents not defined as a Van Buren document but included in the microfilm edition; and any Van Buren documents not included in the microfilm edition that were previously discovered or new Van Buren documents that come to the editors' attention.
After the project's relaunch, the NHPRC again provided funding by awarding the papers project an initial grant in 2017 and a second grant in 2018.
In 2018, the project received another grant from the Watson-Brown Foundation that provided funding to hire an assistant editor and associate editor. It also allowed Cumberland University to provide scholarships for students interested in working on the project.
The Future of the Project
The Papers of Martin Van Buren website will be updated as each series is completed. All of these documents will be free to access. Once the project is completed, annotated versions of the papers will be available through a subscription with the University of Virginia's Rotunda platform, and the project will publish an annotated four-volume print edition of Van Buren's most important letters and speeches.