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Where Have All the Papers Gone?

]How hard can it be to figure out how the Madisons ran the Montpelier plantation? Thomas Jefferson kept a farm book. Wouldn’t the Madisons have done something similar? Shouldn’t there be records of annual crop yields, the births and deaths of enslaved workers, maybe even some calculations of profits and losses?

Where have all the papers gone?

I’d like to say “Gone to archives, everyone!” (with musical accompaniment by Peter, Paul, and Mary, of course). But even though the Library of Congress has 12,000 documents in the James Madison Papers and another 1,700 items in the Dolley Madison Papers (not to mention the many smaller collections that are in other archives), there are still gaps in the historical record. We don’t always have the kinds of documents that would easily answer our questions about day-to-day plantation operations.

To understand why there are gaps, we first need to consider that James Madison may not have kept plantation records to the same level of detail that Jefferson did. We also need to realize that the Madisons themselves threw away many papers during their lifetimes. Particularly as the retired President and his wife prepared his papers for publication, they often discarded material that seemed too insignificant or too private for publication. Dolley later wrote to a friend, “Some short notes were burnt by me according to the desire of my Husband – in his sight, near his bed.”[1] The Madisons probably burned other unimportant letters in a similar way.

Burning The Scrawl

Dolley frequently asked her correspondents to “burn this scrawl” (although the number of surviving letters with this request makes it clear that her instructions were not always followed). Other letters were burned accidentally. When Dolley could not find a letter written by niece Mary Cutts in 1831, she assumed that enslaved maid Becky had taken papers from Dolley’s desk to kindle a fire.[2]

Following her husband’s death, Dolley sold his Constitutional Convention notes to Congress in 1837, and sold a second collection of his papers to Congress in 1848. With regard to her own papers, Dolley intended that after her death, her niece and companion Annie Payne would sort them and destroy items at her own discretion. In an 1841 version of her will, Dolley gave Annie “my private papers to burn.”[3] Dolley’s final will, drawn up shortly before her death, made no mention of personal papers. Annie nonetheless considered it her duty to go through the papers as her aunt had previously instructed. In August 1849, a month after Dolley’s death, Annie removed a carpetbag full of papers from Dolley’s house (which was then occupied by Dolley’s son John Payne Todd). Although the sequence of events is unclear, it is likely that Annie Payne or Mary Cutts did burn some personal papers, since Mary’s transcribed excerpts are the only surviving versions of certain letters.

John Payne Todd held other Madison papers. Many found their way into the hands of Washington bookseller and auctioneer James McGuire. McGuire purchased select autographs and other documents from Todd, or accepted them as collateral for loans that Todd never repaid. When Todd died in 1852, McGuire served as his executor and may have acquired additional items from the estate. McGuire’s collection of Madison papers was auctioned in 1892, dispersing them further into private hands. Judging from descriptions in the sale catalog, many of these letters had political or historical significance and may have been removed by Todd from the Madison’s files before Congress purchased James Madison’s remaining papers in 1848.[4] Many of these documents are currently unlocated, surfacing occasionally on manuscript dealers’ websites, then disappearing again into the hands of unknown buyers.

Discarded and Destroyed

If McGuire was responsible for pulling significant Madison papers from Todd’s estate, there were others who culled family papers and disposed of what they considered insignificant. The Orange county sheriff and a county justice discarded a number of papers at Todd’s Orange county home, Toddsberth, before the estate inventory was taken. Annie Payne’s husband James Causten salvaged some of the letters they left scattered on the lawn. When the contents of Toddsberth were sold, members of the extended Madison family purportedly discovered two rooms filled with personal letters, and after picking out a few items of interest, they “determined to consign the tell tale, motley papers to the flames” according to a second-hand account.[5]

Rodents were responsible for the destruction of several caches of Madison papers. Mice allegedly shredded the original letter in which Dolley described her ordering the removal of George Washington’s portrait before British soldiers burned the President’s House. (Dolley gave her biographer Margaret Bayard Smith only a copied-out excerpt for publication). In later years, rats nested in a drawer of papers in a bureau stored over James McGuire’s stable, and rats ate the right half of a stack of letters that had been closed up in a section of attic at Woodley, the home of James Madison’s niece Nelly Willis.

While Thomas Jefferson had a tribe of adoring grandchildren to curate his memory, James and Dolley Madison had no one to play a similar role. John Payne Todd’s debts and alcoholism led him to use any papers in his control for his own short-term financial needs. Todd outlived Dolley Madison by only two and a half years, and had no children to inherit Madison materials. Niece Annie Payne Causten, her husband James Causten Jr., and niece Mary Cutts showed interest in carrying out Dolley’s wishes and preserving a Madison legacy, but all three of them died within a few years of Dolley (Annie in 1852, and James and Mary in 1856.) The Caustens’ daughter Mary, orphaned at age five, inherited a number of Madison papers and other possessions, but was too young to have absorbed the family stories that went with them. Mary Causten Kunkel sold some of her Madison materials at auction in 1899. Other Madison items passed to her son John Baker Kunkel III, who sold some pieces to museums in the 1930s. The remainder passed to John’s widow Neva. By the end of her life, the reclusive Neva Kunkel lived in hoarder-like conditions, yet a stash of Madison papers and clothing survived in the eaves of her home. These materials were salvaged and are now in the collections of the Greensboro History Museum in North Carolina.

Individual Madison papers have made somewhat random journeys to the archive, the auction house, or the incinerator. Maybe instead of asking how so many Madison papers could have been lost, we should marvel that any survived at all! Despite their wanderings, the Madison papers now have a virtual home in the Montpelier Research Database. The MRD brings together scans of documents from hundreds of archives and private collections to support research by Montpelier staff and independent scholars.

So where have all the papers gone? Into the MRD, every [surviving] one![vc_separator][1] Dolley Payne Todd Madison to Edward Everett, May 30, 1848, Papers of Dolley Madison, Library of Congress, Washington, DC, MRD-S 29339.

[2] Dolley Payne Todd Madison to Mary Estelle Elizabeth Cutts, September 16, 1831, Cutts Family Collection of Papers of James and Dolley Madison, Library of Congress, Washington, DC, MRD-S 25894.

[3] Dolley Payne Todd Madison, will extract dated February 1, 1841, box Madison/Causten/Kunkel: Estate Related Papers, folder Madison—1841, Feb. 1—Dolley Madison Will extract (copy), Dolley Madison Collection, MS 47, Greensboro History Museum, Greensboro, North Carolina, MRD-S 22870.

[4] Catherine Allgor, A Perfect Union: Dolley Madison and the Creation of the American Nation (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 2006).

[5] Culpepper County, Nov. 9, 1855; Mr. Editor & President Madison’s Notes on Dr. Franklin, Fredericksburg News (Fredericksburg, VA), November 22, 1855, MRD-S 24580