Editing the Correspondence

Collection and Preparation

To prepare the correspondence for publication in volumes, we start with copies of the original manuscript pages. Deciphering these manuscripts is often our first challenge, as was the case with the following pages, written to Madison by Tench Coxe, ca. November 22, 1801. (Click on any of the following samples to see a larger image of the full page.)

Once the manuscripts for a volume have been gathered, we produce typed transcriptions and proofread these against the manuscript copy. During this process of collection and proofreading, we decide how each document will appear in the volume. If a document is unavailable in other printed sources and/or addresses topics of some importance, we are likely to print it in its entirety. We almost always print in full Madison's correspondence with other major political figures and his rare family letters. We usually print lengthy missives, previously published material, and letters which deal with routine subject matter as abstracts—with the subject matter described and key passages quoted. We usually omit documents such as passports, ships' certificates, dinner invitations, and other routine paperwork, unless the document provides key information regarding Madison's whereabouts or important events. Occasionally we discover references to documents that we are unable to find. In those cases we prepare a calendar entry describing everything we know about the missing document.

Research and Annotation

After collecting, identifying, proofreading, and sorting the documents we research and annotate them. We try to determine the dates of undated letters, to identify the correspondents in unsigned and unaddressed letters, and to describe persons and subjects with which we think our readers might be unfamiliar. This step becomes especially important in the Secretary of State and Presidential series, where consular, ministerial, and even domestic correspondents often refer to European, South American, and Mediterranean affairs, to seizures of American ships abroad, and to a broad array of foreign characters and events.

Checking and Editing

The 1,500 to 1,800 typed pages of the volume are then passed to our editorial assistants, who check the footnotes for style and accuracy, proofread all the transcriptions again, and copyedit the notes. At this stage, we make trips to the National Archives, the Library of Congress, and other repositories to check questionable readings, dockets, and marginal notations not clearly visible on our copies. After the entire volume has been checked, a clean copy is printed out, submitted to a final proofreading, and delivered to the University of Virginia Press.

To Press!

After an initial reading by our editor at the press, the manuscript goes to the printer to be typeset. Within three months we receive the galley sheets, which we proofread against our clean copy to catch any errors that might have slipped in during typesetting. The corrected galleys go back to the press and approximately two months later we receive the page proofs. We then have a month to generate the volume's index, proofread again, and return the page proofs to the press. The index is typeset, returned to us for proofreading and correction, and sent back to the press. Approximately six months later the finished volume is released and review copies are sent out (see the printed pages below—the final version of Tench Coxe's letter from above). In the meantime the process has started all over again for the next volume.

Special Cases, including Code

In some cases, however, the process is more complicated. Some documents—those that are badly defaced, torn, undated, misdated, or unsigned, for instance—pose special problems. Included in this category of "problem documents" are letters written in code.

James Madison, Thomas Jefferson, and others used codes for a variety of reasons. Mail was even more insecure in the eighteenth century than it is now. In the late 1790s especially, private correspondence that went through the U.S. mail was subject to inspection by postmasters who were on the whole Federalist in their politics. A common complaint at the time was that letters were tampered with and their contents sometimes published in the newspapers. To avoid this fate, Madison and Jefferson often sent their letters unsigned or partially in code.

Sensitive diplomatic correspondence was also encoded, as well as being sent in multiple copies by different routes. Private letters sent overseas were also subject to seizure in those uncertain times and were often written in code.

Here is an example: a letter (left) written by James Monroe to Madison on September 8, 1795, when Monroe was U.S. minister to France. In this case we were lucky enough to have a copy of the code key (right) shared by Madison, Monroe, and Jefferson. This is a simple number code, in which letters, words, or combinations of letters are represented by numbers. Madison's clerk used this code key to supply the words that appear written above the numbers in Monroe's letter.

Coded letters of that time, all laboriously encoded and decoded by hand, are littered with errors. As editors, we want to know the writer's intention as well as the message received (that is, what the writer encoded as well as what the receiver decoded), so we decode the letter again ourselves, using the key, and print that version (below left). We compare our version with the clerk's decoding and identify any discrepancies in the annotations that follow the letter in the published volume (right).

In some cases, we do not have a code key. For instance, to interpret the diplomatic code used by Charles Pinckney when he was U.S. minister to Spain in the early 1800s, we must rely on the decoding done at the State Department. In such cases we have to reconstruct a code key as best we can from the existing decoded letters.

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