Online Primary Sources for American History: The Personal Writings of the Presidents

A previous entry has detailed access to the papers of the presidents generated in the official fulfillment of their office. But what about personal letters, diaries, books, architectural plans, speeches, correspondence to and from individuals, or writings that pre-date or post-date their presidential terms? There is no one repository for these documents; many efforts were undertaken by governmental or organizational entities for individual presidents while some were personal projects. The Miller Center (a wonderful resource on the American presidency) lists both digital and print sources of presidential writings. Using this as a starting point, we will present linked versions of the indicated paper sources where available, add the digital sources the Center recommends, and find other worthy electronic sources as well. Why use older print resources? Because in many instances, the new letterpress collections of private papers are not completed, therefore the older print versions will contain material not yet edited in later editions, either in print or online. It is surprising to say the least that some of these presidential paper projects are decades old, the first work starting in 1943, and they are still not done!

George Washington

The full scholarly letterpress edition of Washington’s papers, believe it or not, is still not complete; the ongoing project is at Founders Online. An earlier collection is The Writings of George Washington from the Original Manuscript Sources, 1745-1799, edited by John C. Fitzpatrick, published under the auspices of the George Washington Bicentennial Commission as authorized by Congress between 1931-1944. Volume 38 contains an index to the series.

John Adams

Many of his papers can be found courtesy of Massachusetts Historical Society’s  The Adams Papers; it is still ongoing. Many of these documents have found their way to Founders Online. A previous collection edited by his grandson is the ten-volume The Works of John Adams,  Second President of the United States published 1850-56.

Thomas Jefferson

Princeton University Press has been issuing his papers since 1950, and the project is still not done! And that does not include his papers authored after his retirement; those are being handled by the Thomas Jefferson Foundation. Both series of papers are available at Founders Online where almost 40,000 transcribed documents can be found.  The Thomas Jefferson Papers collection at the Library of Congress (not transcribed) offers over 80,000 document images. Print titles include the 12-volume The Works of Thomas Jefferson edited by Paul Ford and published in 1904; and the 20-volume edition entitled The Writings of Thomas Jefferson issued under the auspices of the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Association in 1904-05.

James Madison

The Papers of James Madison project has a long history. The first volumes were originally produced by the University of Chicago Press; in 1977 publishing duties were assumed by the University of Virginia Press. His writings are divided into four series: Congressional; Secretary of State; Presidential; and Retirement. Only the Congressional series is complete. The vast majority of these published papers can be freely accessed at Founders Online. The James Madison Papers at the Library of Congress contain over 12,000 documents, but they are not transcribed. An older 9-volume collection – The Writings of James Madison, edited by G. Hunt, 1900-1910, is still a valuable resource.

James Monroe

Monroe’s papers are now just being edited for scholarly presentation – The Papers of James Monroe. However, these volumes are not freely accessible so an older 7-volume work, The Writings of James Monroe, as edited by Stanislaus Hamilton and published 1898-1903, can be used.

John Quincy Adams

Some of his papers are in The Adams Papers project. His 51-volume diary is available courtesy of the Massachusetts Historical Society; it is not transcribed. To remedy that situation try the 12-volume Memoirs of John Quincy Adams, comprising portions of his diary, 1795-1848 edited by his son Charles Francis Adams and published in 1874-1877. Another title still important is the 7-volume Writings of John Quincy Adams, edited by Worthington Ford and published in 1913-17.

Andrew Jackson

The Papers of Andrew Jackson will contain his selected writings; so far, this series is only available in print. A few of his writings can be accessed online: Some letters of Andrew Jackson [from 1824-25] published in 1922; Correspondence between Gen. Andrew Jackson and John C.Calhoun president and vice-president of the U. States, on the subject of the course of the latter, in the deliberations of the cabinet of Mr. Monroe, on the occurrences in the Seminole War (1831); there is now (4-25-17) a collection of some of his writings, including his last will and testament, online.

Martin van Buren

Very little is available that fits our criteria. However, there is a Calendar of Papers of Martin Van Buren (1910).

William Henry Harrison

We have his writings as governor of Indiana: Messages and letters of William Henry Harrison, vol.1, vol. 2, part 1; vol.2, part 2.

John Tyler

His son compiled the three-volume  The Letters and Times of the Tylers (1884-1896) that mainly concentrates on John Tyler.

James K Polk

We have access to his four-volume Diary of James K Polk during His Presidency, 1845-1849 as edited by Milo Quaife and published in 1910. A modern version of his correspondence – called the Polk Project – is being undertaken by the University of Tennessee at Knoxville; as of this writing, twelve volumes have been published, but none are freely available.

Zachary Taylor

In 1908 his Letters of Zachary Taylor from the Battlefields of the Mexican War was published.

Millard Fillmore

We have a two-volume Millard Fillmore Papers courtesy of the Buffalo Historical Society and published in 1907.

Franklin Pierce

As strange as it may seem, there are no collections of his writings or papers generally available.

James Buchanan

You can consult The Works of James Buchanan…, a twelve-volume undertaking edited by John Bassett Moore and published between 1908 and 1911.

Abraham Lincoln

The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, an eight-volume scholarly edition published between 1953 and 1955 and edited by Roy Basler; a separate index is also available. The Abraham Lincoln Papers at the Library of Congress contain over 20,000 documents with transcriptions.

Andrew Johnson

Although this does not fit the above criteria, the official 3-volume account of his impeachment trial is online. An index to the Andrew Johnson Papers at the Library of Congress can be consulted. The life and public services of Andrew Johnson. Including his state papers, speeches and addresses (1866) contains an appendix with some pre-presidential speeches.

Ulysses S Grant

Starting in 1962 under the direction of John Y Simon , a 32-volume series – The Papers of Ulysses S Grant – has been produced and has been made available online. Grant’s Personal Memoirs of U.S. Grant (1885) is considered one of the finest examples of this genre.

Rutherford B Hayes

There is a 5-volume Diary and letters of Rutherford Birchard Hayes published between 1922 and 1926 and edited by Charles Williams.

James Garfield

Excerpts from speeches and letters are found in Garfield’s Words (1881). Scattered speeches, orations and other relevant writings are here

Chester A Arthur

There is an index to his papers; in this document it is stated that most of his papers were burned on his orders shortly before his death.

Grover Cleveland

Letters and addresses of Grover Cleveland (1909); Public papers of Grover Cleveland (1884, when he was NY Governor); other of his writings are also online here.

Benjamin Harrison

Views of an ex-president, by Benjamin Harrison; being his addresses and writings on subjects of public interest since the close of his administration as President of the United States.(1901); This country of ours (1897); and there is an index to his papers held at the Library of Congress.

William McKinley

Speeches and addresses of William McKinley, from his election to Congress to the present time (1893); and McKinley’s masterpieces; selections from the public addresses in and out of Congress, of William McKinley (1896).

Theodore Roosevelt

He was a prolific author; many of his writings are here including his diaries and the 24-volume “memorial” edition of his work.  A 20-volume Collected Works (1910) can be used (this is called the “national” edition) as well. Many letters to and from him are here.

William Taft

There is a 6-volume index to his papers at the Library of Congress. Among other items, he authored The Anti-trust act and the Supreme Court (1914); The United States and peace (1914) Our chief magistrate and his powers (1916; repr. 1925);  and Liberty under law, an interpretation of the principles of our constitutional government (1922). He is the only person to serve both as President and then later as the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court (1921-1930); the cases heard under his tenure can be found here.

Woodrow Wilson

Another prolific author; among other works:  Congressional government : A study in American Politics (1885; 8th ed., 1891); Division and reunion: 1829-1889 (1894);  The state; elements of historical and practical politics (Rev. ed., 1897); A History of the American People. 5 vols (1902); Constitutional government in the United States 1908). His papers have been published by Princeton in a 69-volume series, but they are not freely accessible.

Warren Harding

Letters to his paramour: Warren G. Harding-Carrie Fulton Phillips CorrespondenceRededicating America; life and recent speeches of Warren G. Harding (1920); Our common country; mutual good will in America (1921).

Calvin Coolidge

An index to his papers at the Library of Congress; Have faith in Massachusetts; a collection of speeches and messages (When he was Governor of Massachusetts; 2d ed., enl., 1919).

The Presidential Libraries Act of 1955 allowed for the creation of privately-built, but publicly-maintained libraries where presidential materials would be housed, preserving the vast bulk of writings in a central location. Starting with Herbert Hoover, these repositories have become the starting point for research on individual presidents, their administrations, and their lives. (More here) Because many of these institutions have an active digital presence, mountains of documentation are constantly being released. And while much of this information justifiably concerns the presidential terms, other material can also be found. For example, the FDR Library has significant documents from the entire lifespan of Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt; the Dwight D Eisenhower Library has major documents before his presidency; and the JFK Library features some of his personal papers among a vast array of digital resources.

The state of non-presidential writings is certainly one fraught with difficulties: some projects not finished are decades-old; some presidents have little or nothing accessible for public perusal; one president as he lay dying directed his papers to be burned; another lost his papers in a fire; and the umbrella of secrecy descends upon all recent presidencies. But diligent research can at least turn up some past resonances of occupants of the White House; you just have to be patient and sedulous.

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