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.
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 eleventh 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 nineteenth century.”
The three published electronic volumes cover topics including the Mexican-American War, the US 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 nineteenth-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.