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The House Purchased James Madison’s Personal Papers

May 20, 1848
The House Purchased James Madison’s Personal Papers Image courtesy of Library of Congress Representative Alexander Stephens of Georgia served eight terms in the House before declining to run in 1858. Stephens later served as Vice President of the Confederacy before returning to the House in 1873.
On this date, the House of Representatives passed a resolution to purchase the personal papers of President James Madison from his widow, Dolley Madison, for the sum of $25,000. About a decade earlier, Congress had acquired Madison's papers on the Constitutional Convention, but the large collection of correspondence and journals available in 1848 provided invaluable insight into the thoughts of one of the most prominent founders. Due to her son’s mismanagement of her estate, the elderly, former First Lady was nearly destitute, and she needed to sell the rare papers to secure her finances. Aware of her plight, Members introduced legislation to obtain the important papers. Tennessee Representatives George Washington Jones and Andrew Johnson objected to the original legislation on the grounds that it created a pension and that a trusteeship for the money was not necessary. Representative Alexander Stephens of Georgia defended the bill by citing the recent House passage of an expensive Patent Office report with no historical value. Stephens counseled his colleagues, “Gentleman, it would be a peculiarly graceful thing for us to do to honor the birthday of the venerable widow of our ex-President by passing today the bill for her relief.” After a little maneuvering, the bill cleared the House, 80 to 59. Representative Stephens immediately departed the House to visit Mrs. Madison at her residence in the capital city. Mrs. Madison had already heard the good news and when Stephens arrived, she quickly reminded him, “Oh Mr. Stephens! It was good of you to get my bill through today, but you made a very grave mistake when you said I was eighty-two today. I am not eighty-two: I am only eighty.” The James Madison Papers currently reside in the Library of Congress.

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