The James K. Polk Project: A Presidents Letters in Print and Online

Saturday, January 7, 2017
Grand Concourse (Colorado Convention Center)
Michael D. Cohen, University of Tennessee at Knoxville
This poster will present the work of the James K. Polk Project, a major undertaking in documentary editing. The project produces a selected and annotated edition of letters by and to Polk (1795–1849), who served from 1845 to 1849 as the eleventh president of the United States. Since its founding in 1958, the project has published twelve hardcover volumes of the Correspondence of James K. Polk, featuring letters from July 1817 to July 1847. In 2015 and 2016, it released open-access online editions of all twelve volumes. Volume 13, covering August 1847 to March 1848, is due out in hardcover in fall 2016 and online in 2018. Also in fall 2016, the project will release its most complex digital product to date, a TEI-encoded edition of Polk’s final letters (April 1848–June 1849), which later will appear with annotations in volume 14.

These letterpress and digital volumes for the first time make important documents—many held by the Library of Congress but others scattered among numerous archives and private collections—easily accessible to scholars, students, and others interested in U.S. history. The letters cover political and diplomatic topics ranging from Andrew Jackson’s war on the Bank of the United States to the Mexican-American War and from the growing debate over slavery to relations with the Kingdom of Hawaii. Furthermore, because Americans of all stripes—men and women, whites and blacks, businessmen and laborers, authors and artists—wrote to the president about a huge variety of topics, the letters illuminate not only the politics and diplomacy but also the culture, society, economy, and science of the first half of the nineteenth century.

The poster will teach American Historical Association members about both the work of the Polk Project and the historical field of documentary editing. Images of manuscript letters will highlight the rich primary-source material the project makes accessible. Bullet points will introduce some of the diverse historical topics documented by the letters. Transcriptions, annotations, and a proofreading markup will show the work process of an editor. The presenter will bring copies of published volumes and a laptop to demonstrate the project’s online products. In conversations with the audience, the presenter will explain not only the project’s work and accomplishments over the past six decades but also the ongoing work to prepare the fourteenth and final volume. The poster format thus will best facilitate the presentation of a letterpress and digital project dedicated to making often-hidden nineteenth-century sources accessible and legible to a twenty-first-century audience.

See more of: Poster Session #1
See more of: AHA Sessions