Top of page

Collection James Madison Papers, 1723 to 1859

Provenance of the James Madison Papers

In this essay Dorothy S. Eaton, formerly the specialist in early American history in the Library of Congress Manuscript Division, describes how the Library came to own James Madison's papers.

Dorothy S. Eaton, Specialist (retired), Early American History, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress. Essay originally published in the Index to the James Madison Papers (Washington, D.C.: Library of Congress, 1965). Available online at

Bequests and Dispersal

The tangled story of the dispersal of the papers of James Madison is told in some detail in the introduction to the first volume of the edition of Madison's papers now [1965] being published by the University of Chicago Press. That account refers to Madison's giving manuscripts as mementos to his kin and sending clipped signatures to autograph collectors. It continues by tracing the segmentation of the papers after Madison's death in 1836: the sale to the federal government by Mrs. Dolley Payne Madison, to whom the papers had been bequeathed, of a fraction of the whole in 1837 and, in 1848, of what she considered to be "all the unpublished papers" of her husband then in her possession; the long-time loan of many of these papers by the Department of State to William Cabell Rives, Madison's first biographer, and the eventual return of only a part of the borrowed material; the withdrawal by Mrs. Madison's son, John Payne Todd, prior to 1848 and probably without his mother's knowledge, of a large number of the papers, which he later turned over to James C. McGuire of Washington, D.C.; and the wide dispersal of these manuscripts after Mr. McGuire's death, when much of his collection was sold in a series of public auctions.1

Over the years the Library of Congress has fortunately been able to reassemble a good many, but not nearly all, of the papers that were in James Madison's possession at the time of his death. This account will tell how various segments that now compose the Library's James Madison Papers have been brought together and will include a few additional details of the early history of these segments in the hope that they will be helpful to those using the papers.

Early Accessions

In 1881, when the Library was still housed in cramped quarters in the United States Capitol and its manuscript holdings were few in number, it received from James Madison Cutts II, great-nephew of James Madison, a copybook filled with the latter's youthful writing, notes on "A Brief System of Logick" which he is believed to have recorded in his junior or senior year at the College of New Jersey.2 Some 20 years later, after the Library had moved to a building of its own, and a section devoted exclusively to manuscripts had been created, the recipient's copy of a letter of May 13, 1805, from Madison to F. J. Wichelhausen was purchased from a dealer in Germany. The first substantial Madison accession, however, was received in March 1905, when most of the papers the government had purchased from Mrs. Madison in 1837 and 1848 were transferred from the Department of State to the Library in accordance with an Executive Order of March 9, 1903.3 A few important manuscripts—Madison's autograph notes of debates in the Federal Convention of 1787 and certain related papers—were retained by the Department at that time. These came to the Library in 1922.4

The transferred material comprised many significant manuscripts. It included, for example, some papers of the elder James Madison, which helped to supply information about his son's early years. A long and important series of letters James Madison and Thomas Jefferson exchanged over a period of almost 50 years was well represented, and there were other valuable manuscripts. Nevertheless, many papers that should have been in the group were missing. A draft of only one letter from Madison to his Secretary of War, John Armstrong, was included, and there were no letters at all from four Virginia colleagues and friends with whom Madison had corresponded regularly—George Washington, Joseph Jones, Edmund Randolph, and Edmund Pendleton.

The McGuire Problem

The government was well aware, at least as early as 1855, that it had not received all of the papers that Mrs. Madison had received by bequest from her husband. In that year, Secretary of State William L. Marcy referred for consideration to the Attorney General, Caleb Cushing, certain documents that related to the portion taken by John Payne Todd and sold or bequeathed by him to James C. McGuire; and he asked Cushing's opinion as to the expediency of instituting legal proceedings in the name of the United States to recover possession. The attorney general decided that Mrs. Madison had put a "construction" on the act of Congress for the purchase of the Madison papers in 1848 and that James Buchanan, then secretary of state, had not objected to that construction and had accepted delivery of what he deemed essential to the execution of the act. He concluded that it was "not expedient to institute legal proceedings for the purpose of recovering the manuscripts supposed to be in the possession of Mr. McGuire."5

The collector apparently made no secret of the fact that he had a number of Madison's papers. In 1856 he published "Jonathan Bull & Mary Bull," Madison's allegory on the Missouri question, from the original manuscript in his collection and, from 1857 on, he assisted William C. Rives in his work on Madison's biography by allowing him on several occasions to examine and even to borrow some of the manuscripts.6 He evidently allowed others to see the material also, because in 1859 he wrote Rives: "I have been called upon several times recently by Gentleman whom I wished to oblige to see some original papers of mine, now in your possession. As the time is long past at which you proposed to return them, and presuming you are done with them, I would be much obliged if you would return them…by the Meeting of Congress." During the Civil War, McGuire had copies of certain Madison manuscripts made at Rives's request and directed them to the latter's Virginia estate of Castle Hill through the adjutant general's office. The copies were returned to the sender, however, and only after the war was he able to ask Rives whether they would still be of use to him.7 McGuire also cooperated with Philip R. Fendall, joint editor with Rives of the "Congressional edition" of Madison's Letters, by allowing copies of a substantial number of his Madison papers to be made and added to the fourth volume.8

After McGuire's death, the executors of his estate authorized the sale of just over 2,900 of his holdings of Madison papers at an auction held at Thomas Birch's Sons, in Philadelphia, on December 6-7, 1892.9 New York dealer Walter R. Benjamin was the successful bidder for many, but not all, of the McGuire materials in this sale, and two months later, in February 1893, a $10,000 gift from Marshall Field enabled the Chicago Historical Society to buy many, but again not all, of the manuscripts Mr. Benjamin had acquired at the auction. Finally, in 1910, the Library of Congress was able to buy the entire group owned by the Society for the price it had paid.10

An even 1,100 of the manuscripts thus added to the main body of Madison papers were drafts or recipients' copies of letters Madison wrote between 1780, when he first became a delegate from Virginia to the Continental Congress, and 1836, the year of his death. There were in addition a large volume containing 85 letters written to Madison by John Armstrong while he was minister to France and Madison's secretary of war (1804-14); a volume containing 122 letters from Joseph Jones, longtime judge of the general court of Virginia and colleague and close friend of Madison and of Washington (1780-1804); and a volume containing 132 letters from Edmund Randolph, attorney general and later secretary of state under Washington (1782-1812). All of this material has now been interfiled in Series 1, with the papers purchased from Mrs. Madison, but the symbol "Ac. 1081" on each of the manuscripts received from the Chicago Historical Society serves to identify them.

The Surprise of the Rives Legacy

A third large segment came to the Library in an unexpected way in March 1940, when Mrs. Philip M. Rhinelander, the widow of Bishop Rhinelander, deposited the papers of William C. Rives and other members of the Rives family which her husband had received shortly before his death from the estate of the diplomat's grandson, Dr. William C. Rives. This extensive body of papers was in no discernible arrangement when it was received in the Library, and it required piece-by-piece examination and sorting. Gradually, one after another, a manuscript in Madison's writing or a letter addressed to him emerged. One whole wooden box marked with the cryptic label "1931 Important" proved to be filled almost entirely with Madison papers. When the arrangement of the whole collection was completed, there was a group of almost nine hundred manuscripts composed of papers of the fourth president. There were letters Madison had received from Thomas Jefferson and James Monroe, from Judge Spencer Roane and other prominent men. Madison's own writings in the group included, as one of a number, his lengthy "Detatched Memoranda."11

What had happened was obvious. Many of Madison's papers had become mixed with William C. Rives's own papers while he was working on them at his estate of Castle Hill, near Charlottesville, Virginia. In 1875 he had been permitted to borrow from the Department of State all of the Madison papers purchased from Mrs. Madison; it was 1865—after the papers had fortunately come through the Civil War years without damage—that he returned two trunks of them to Washington. Perhaps a few in the group retained by Rives were manuscripts he referred to as having been "placed at his disposal by private courtesy," but surely most of them had been part of the Department of State loan.

In April 1946 Mrs. Rhinelander generously converted the Rives collection from a revocable deposit to a gift. Except for three fragments that were removed in order to complete manuscripts in the main body of Madison papers, the Madison material received in this gift has been kept as a unit. Now bound in eight volumes, this segment forms Series 2 of the Library's Madison Papers.

Strengthening the Collection

In addition to the three large segments mentioned above, the Library has from time to time acquired single manuscripts or small groups to strengthen its Madison holdings. Many of these became available with the sale or resale of Madison papers once in James C. McGuire's possession, or when material owned by Madison kin came on the market.12 A group of 43 manuscripts, composed almost entirely of letters addressed to Madison between 1817 and 1836, was acquired at the American Art Association sale of February 26, 1917; these manuscripts, which had been part of the collection of Frederick B. McGuire, a son of James C. McGuire, bear the identifying mark "Ac. 1817" and are filed in Series 1 of the Madison Papers. Similarly, John C. Payne's biographical sketch of James Madison and 17 other manuscripts dated between 1795 and 1842 were purchased in 1922 from Walter R. Benjamin of New York and are marked "Ac. 2696." A group of 46 miscellaneous manuscripts which had been part of a sale held by Stan. V. Henkels, Jr., on October 13, 1933, was acquired the following year; this material, containing Madison's autograph account with the Commonwealth of Virginia for his salary and expenses as a public official, copies of Madison's own will and of the wills of his parents and his wife, and other family material, are bound with his manuscript autobiography in a separate series (series 4).

Of single manuscripts that may be noticed are three autograph letters from George Washington to Madison, which formed lots 37, 59, and 60 at the McGuire sale in 1892 but which were acquired by the Library from a dealer in 1921 and a collector in 1924; two letters from Thomas Jefferson to Madison, dated May 26, 1811, and October 11, 1824, and a 1787 memorandum on state representation in the federal legislature which George Mason submitted to Madison, all of which were in Mr. McGuire's possession at one time; and James Madison's autobiography, mentioned above, and his notes on Wirt's life of Patrick Henry.

Three manuscripts were received separately, from 1924 to 1926, from James C. McGuire II, grandson and namesake of the man to whom John Payne Todd originally turned over so many of Madison's papers, and also the great-grandson of William Madison, brother of the President.13 These were letters to Madison from Thomas Jefferson Randolph (July 8, 1826) and from his brother, William Madison (December 3, 1791), and a family tree Madison is believed to have drawn between 1813 and 1819.14 Further evidence of the wide dispersal of Madison's papers is to be found in a letter this donor wrote to the acting chief of the Manuscript Division soon after he had sent his first gift to the Library (December 17, 1924): "I received the official acknowledgement of the Randolph letter. I have given away a quantity of letters similar to these as I never supposed the Government would want them. I gave away a letter recently from Thomas Jefferson outlining his ideas in connection with the University of Virginia which I sent to the University. In going through my papers I will be glad to remember this and if I come across any letters on national matters written by American Statesmen, I will be glad to send them to you."15

The Letters Madison Sent

In addition to enlarging the Madison Papers with material that would once have been retained by him, the Library has also added, whenever possible, recipients' copies of his letters.16 In this it has followed a practice Madison himself started. He had not been careful to keep copies of the letters he wrote, as had his friend Thomas Jefferson, and after he retired to Montpelier in 1817 and started to put his papers in order for posthumous publication, he attempted to remedy this and "fill up the chasms" in his papers by seeking the return of letters he had sent to a number of correspondents. He was so successful that the hundreds of recipients' copies one would not normally expect to find in his papers is one of their distinguishing characteristics. Most of the original letters that were returned to him were those he had written to five Virginians—Joseph Jones, James Monroe, Edmund Pendleton, Edmund Randolph, and Thomas Jefferson.17 In only a few cases has it been possible to find evidence of exactly when and from whom he received the letters.

The recipient's copies of 10 letters from Madison to Joseph Jones, all written in 1780, were apparently returned to the writer by James Monroe, Judge Jones's nephew and executor, in 1819 or 1820. Madison hoped to get more of these, however, and wrote Monroe:

"In looking over the bundle of my letters to Mr. Jones I find one dated in Decr. 1780, containing a statement of what passed in the old congress relative to the proposed cession of the Missippi [sic] to Spain, corresponding precisely with my recollection of it as explained to you. I was disappointed in finding that my letters to him are limited to that year. My correspondence ran through a much longer period, of which I have proofs on hand, and from the tenor of the above letters, and my intimacy with him, I have no doubt that my communications were often of an interesting character. Perhaps the remaining letters or a part of them may have escaped your search. Will you be so good as to renew it whenever & wherever the convenient opportunity may admit."18

President Monroe, writing from Washington the following month, replied that all of his "interesting" papers, "including those of our late friend Judge Jones," were in Albemarle County, Virginia. He promised that "when I return there I will make another search for your letters to him not included among those already delivered to you."19 The search, if it took place, seems to have been unsuccessful, because only the 1780 letters are now among Madison's papers. At an undetermined time, however, Madison managed to retrieve more than 100 letters he had written to Monroe.

According to Madison's later references, it was Thomas Jefferson himself who returned a number of the letters he had received from Madison, although the exact time he did this has not been discovered. After checking the other side of the correspondence, however, Madison decided that he still lacked about 70 letters he had written to Jefferson between 1799 and 1818, and, after the latter's death, he turned for information and assistance on these, and on the subjects of any letters between 1783 and 1799 as well, to Nicholas P. Trist, who had married one of Jefferson's granddaughters and was living at Monticello. Trist seems to have labored under difficulties, because more than six months later Madison wrote him: "I am sorry you thought an apology necessary for the delay in sending me the residue of my letters to Mr. Jefferson, and rather surprized that you should be scrupulous of reading them. I took for granted that you would regard them, as on his files, equally open tho less entitled to inspection than his to me." He suggested that Trist wait for a "private & direct conveyance" if such were in prospect, and late in January 1828 "Mr. Randolph"—presumably Thomas Jefferson Randolph—delivered the bundle to Madison.20 That Trist was efficient in carrying out the assignment is shown by the few Madison letters that remain in the Thomas Jefferson Papers.21

It has been possible in this note only to suggest the material that will, and will not, be found in Madison's papers in the Library of Congress. The complete story of the scattering of his papers will unfold only as succeeding volumes of The Papers of James Madison are published.


Since the James Madison Papers were microfilmed and indexed in 1965, additional material has been added to the collection. These items are classified as Series 7, Addenda. For a detailed description of the contents of Series 7, see the Scope and Contents section of the finding aid to the collection.

Series 7 was not microfilmed or indexed, but selected original items are being digitized and will be added to this website.


  1. The Papers of James Madison, edited by William T. Hutchinson and William M. E. Rachal, vol. 1 (Chicago, 1962), xv-xxv. This is cited hereafter as Papers. [Return to Text]
  2. Ibid., 33. Extracts from this copybook (now item 1 of Series 6 of the Madison Papers) are printed on pages 34-41. [Return to Text]
  3. Statutes at Large, 5: 271; and 9: 235. [Return to Text]
  4. Somewhat more than 8,600 manuscripts were transferred in 1905: Madison's correspondence, bound in 11 volumes of "Writings of Madison" and 63 volumes of "Writings to Madison"; his autograph notes of proceedings of the Continental Congress in 1782, 1783, and 1787, in 16 small gatherings; 4 memorandum books containing his autograph notes on exports and navigation, on the Articles of Confederation, on government, and on natural history (now Series 6, items 2, 3, 4, and 9, respectively); Thomas Jefferson's copy of his notes on the proceedings of the Continental Congress, June 7-August 1, 1776, which he sent to Madison with a letter of June 1, 1783 (Series 5, item 1); 5 volumes of printed material and Madison's copy of Philip Freneau's National Gazette (transferred to the Library's Rare Book Division in 1940); a portfolio of newspaper clippings; and John C. Payne's 2-volume copy of Madison's notes of debates and related papers. A calendar of the correspondence, which reflected the above arrangement, was published as Bulletin of the Bureau of Rolls and Library of the Department of State, No. 4 (Washington, 1894). [Return to Text]
  5. Official Opinions of the Attorneys General of the United States, Advising the President and Heads of Departments in Relation to Their Official Duties, edited by Christopher C. Andrews, vol, 7 (1861), 104-08. The original opinion, partly autographic and with autograph initials, April 4, 1855, is in the records of the Attorney General's Office in the National Archives (Caleb Cushing Papers, Legal File, Box 237). [Return to Text]
  6. When Edward Coles, who had served as Madison's secretary for a time, heard that William C. Rives was going to examine the McGuire collection, he was reminded that Madison had been apprehensive about the dispersal of his papers after his death, and feared that some of them might be stolen and altered. Coles asked Rives to check the accuracy of the texts in James C. McGuire's edition of Selections from the Private Correspondence of James Madison from 1813 to 1836 (Washington, 1853) by comparing them with manuscripts; apparently he had forgotten or was not aware that this edition was based on manuscripts that Mrs. Madison had sold to the government. Coles to Rives, February 3 and June 19, 1857. William C. Rives Papers, Library of Congress. [Return to Text]
  7. James C. McGuire to William C. Rives, November 17, 1859, and February 3, 1866. William C. Rives Papers, Library of Congress. [Return to Text]
  8. Letters and Other Writings of James Madison Fourth President of the United States (Philadelphia, 1865. 4 vols.) [Return to Text]
  9. Stan. V. Henkels Catalogue No. 694 (December 6-7, 1892): Washington--Madison Papers Collected and Preserved by James Madison…(Philadelphia, 1892). The material belonging to the McGuire estate formed the first 139 lots in this sale, and items 1-75 were for the most part single autograph letters from George Washington to James Madison, which were sold to a number of purchasers. The important series of letters from Edmund Pendleton to Madison (lot 77) has dropped from sight, and historians are dependent, for a partial substitute, on transcripts of 46 of the 135 letters that were made for Peter Force while the letters were owned by Mr. McGuire. These, and transcripts of 24 additional Pendleton letters, not apparently included in the sale, are in Force Transcripts, Miscellaneous Letters (J-P), Library of Congress. Also available are Force transcripts of lot 83, composed of keys and ciphers used by Madison in his correspondence with Thomas Jefferson, Edmund Randolph, Edmund Pendleton, and others. [Return to Text]
  10. Announcement of the gift and a brief description of the material appears in Chicago Historical Society Proceedings, vol. 1 (1888-1902), 89-94. The material Mr. Benjamin sold to the Society, and which is now in the Library of Congress, composed lots 76, 78, 79, 80, 81, 86, and 89 in the Birch sale and totaled 1,439 manuscripts. This was less than half of the Madison materials sold at that time. [Return to Text]
  11. The text is printed in "Madison's 'Detatched Memoranda'," edited by Elizabeth Fleet, in The William and Mary Quarterly, 3 Ser., 3, no. 4 (October 1946), [534]-68. [Return to Text]
  12. Several of the more important of these sales, including that by the American Art Association, are noted in Papers, 1, xxii. [Return to Text]
  13. Letter, James C. McGuire II to the Library of Congress, September 28, 1926. James Madison Papers case file, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress. [Return to Text]
  14. A facsimile of this manuscript forms one of the illustrations in Papers, 1, between pages 212 and 213. [Return to Text]
  15. Letter in James Madison Papers case file, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress. [Return to Text]
  16. One group of 14 letters written by Madison to Tench Coxe between 1787 and 1821 was acquired in 1922, and as many more have been added singly or in smaller groups over the years. The recipient's copy of a brief letter James Madison wrote to the Reverend Doctor John Mitchell Mason of New York City on January 12, 1810, and the copy it enclosed of a speech delivered by Alexander Hamilton in the Federal Convention on June 18, 1787, are bound together in a small volume that now is designated as Series 6, item 5, of the Madison Papers. Although received with the papers of another President, Martin Van Buren, in 1912, these manuscripts are now with the Madison Papers. [Return to Text]
  17. Madison only borrowed and had copies made of letters he had written to George Washington. For some of the correspondence with Judge Bushrod Washington and Jared Sparks in regard to the loan and return of these letters, see the Library of Congress, Index to the George Washington Papers (Washington, 1964), ix-x. In response to a request from Madison, Noah Webster made and sent a copy of a letter Madison had written him on October 12, 1804. In doing this he experienced a difficulty that is common to those who use manuscripts: he admitted in a letter of March 1, 1820, which accompanied the copy, that "one word only being illegible—is left blank." Rives Collection, Madison Papers, Library of Congress. [Return to Text]
  18. Letter, James Madison to James Monroe, November 19, 1820. James Monroe Papers, Library of Congress. [Return to Text]
  19. James Monroe to James Madison, December 23, 1820. Rives Collection, Madison Papers, Library of Congress. [Return to Text]
  20. James Madison to Nicholas P. Trist, June 12, 1827, January 26, 1828, and February 4, 1828. Trist Papers, Library of Congress. [Return to Text]
  21. During a visit Trist made to Montpelier, in May 1827, Madison gave him a letter he had written to Jefferson on February 4, 1790, relating to the latter's views "with regard to the right to bind future generations." This was among the letters Jefferson himself had returned and Madison found that he already had a copy. By a strange alchemy this letter, bearing Trist's endorsement referring to the gift by Madison, is now in the Library's Thomas Jefferson Papers. [Return to Text]