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Getting to know Andrew Jackson through Archival Digging

Associated Press Writer

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Two centuries after he lived, historians are still geTtting to know Andrew Jackson through the work of archival sleuths like Dan Feller.

Much has been written about the seventh U.S. president, the hero general of the War of 1812 known as “Old Hickory,” the self-made man and frontier plantation owner who lived and died at his Nashville home, The Hermitage.

He was the dominant actor in American politics between Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln; co-founder of the modern Democratic Party, and unprecedented wielder of executive power in political appointments, banking reform and removal of American Indians from the East.

But there are overlapping debates about Jackson, Feller said.

“One is the debate about whether he was his own master” in governing with a close circle of advisers, Feller said. “A slightly different version of that is the debate about whether Jackson had any idea what he was doing.”

“We are finding evidence for both,” Feller said. “So it is not to settle this debate one way or the other, but to keep it going.”

Feller is director of the Andrew Jackson Papers project at the University of Tennessee, a federally supported effort to locate, decipher, transcribe and chronologically publish every significant letter or document Jackson sent or received during his life (1767-1845).

This is time-consuming work. Feller has just delivered the seventh of a planned 16 volumes to the University of Tennessee Press, which expects to have it in print by this time next year.

Volume VII will be about 600 pages. It will contain 454 documents, including correspondence, memorandums and early drafts of official messages. It will cover a single year, 1829, the first of Jackson’s eight years in the White House.

Considering this undertaking began in 1971, spent the first decade just tracking down documents and has produced Volume VII a mere four years since Volume VI, Feller considers the endeavor on track.

Although when asked when the project will be done, Feller laughed that was a little like asking “how much longer will I live.” He estimates 20 to 30 years.

Similar treatments are being given the papers of other early American leaders: John Adams and John Quincy Adams at the Massachusetts Historical Society, Benjamin Franklin at Yale University, George Washington at the University of Virginia and Thomas Jefferson at Princeton University.

None of those are complete yet, either.

The Jefferson project, the oldest among them, began in the 1950s. “They haven’t reached his presidency yet,” Feller noted. “So we are doing great!”

“One function of these projects is just to gather all this stuff together,” said Timothy Connelly, publications director at the National Historical Publications and Records Commission, a tiny agency attached to the National Archives that helps coordinate and fund this work.

“Sometimes it is more difficult than other times,” he said.

Feller said the Library of Congress has 78 reels of microfilmed Jackson documents – photographed, but not transcribed. More documents have been found at the National Archives, the Hermitage, UT’s Special Collections Library, various historical societies and in private hands.

“There is stuff still showing up,” Feller said.

One letter was found recently framed on a wall in a private home. Scraps of another missive from Jackson to his beloved wife Rachel turned up at a major auction house in New York. Feller was able to complete the letter with other pieces found at the Hermitage.

Feller doesn’t buy or own any originals.  Prices for a “good” Jackson letter can reach $20,000. He just wants to read, copy and transcribe the contents.

The office suite at UT’s old Hoskins Library that Feller shares with fellow editors, Tom Coens and Laura-Eve Moss, is lined floor to ceiling with brown cardboard boxes. The boxes hold more than 100,000 carefully photocopied Jackson documents.

All eventually will be published, summarized or footnoted.

The Jackson Papers won’t be setting the best-seller list ablaze. But Scot Danforth, acquisitions editor at the UT Press, said, “Scholars, particularly younger ones who are changing our view of American historiography, will find this really valuable.”

“Historians respond to their own interests and concerns of their time,” Feller said, noting that Arthur Schlesinger Jr.’s 1945 Pulitzer Prize-winning history “The Age of Jackson” devoted barely two sentences in 500-plus pages to Jackson’s role in Indian removal and the Trail of Tears, the very events with which Jackson is most closely associated today.

“What we are doing here is making available core documents, the record on which all historical scholarship is based,” Feller said.

“We can’t predict at this point what historians will think about Andrew Jackson or about Jackson’s times 100 years from now. But whatever they think about it, as long as they are practicing the discipline of history, it is going to be based on these primary sources.”

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