The SPA Center for Congressional and Presidential Studies (CCPS) has received funding to edit and publish the letters of Zachary Taylor and Millard Fillmore, the 12th and 13th U.S. presidents. The project will involve gathering and transcribing 14,000 pieces of correspondence and annotating 1,100 letters dated from 1844 to 1853.
Michael Cohen, who has a doctorate in history from Harvard University and has spent the last decade researching the letters of President James Polk at the University of Tennessee, is spearheading the new project. Cohen was a faculty fellow with CCPS in 2019 and will become a research professor at SPA beginning in February.
Recent grants for the project came from the National Archives, Delaplaine Foundation, Inc., the William G. Pomeroy Foundation, and the University of Virginia Digital Publishing Cooperative.
Beginning this year, Cohen, an expert in deciphering handwriting and unconventional spelling from the period, will travel the country to review the letters, which are scattered in various national and state archives, universities, and private collections. Most of the paper and microfilm documents have not been transcribed.
The letters are expected to illuminate issues of the time leading up to the Civil War, including slavery, the Mexican-American War, and the removal of Native Americans from the eastern United States to reservations. Their authors include politicians, army officers, and civilians. At the time, postage was typically paid by the receiver, so citizens could communicate their views to the president for free.
“Both scholars and the general public can better understand this historical period by reading the original documents,” Cohen said. “These letters add a lot more complexity to what we thought we knew.”
Once the letters are typed and digitized, they will be posted to a website developed for the project, alongside progress updates and related resources. The University of Virginia Press will publish the volumes of selected letters with annotations as part of its online American History Collection, and the University of Tennessee Press will publish the hard copy of the annotated edition. The project is expected to span 15 to 20 years, said Cohen.