Compilation of the Messages and Papers of the Presidents

Kelsey Howe

Primary Source Reports



James D. Richardson, A Compilation of the Messages and Papers of the President. New York: Bureau of National Literature, Inc., 1897.


What is it?  Describe its form and contents.

A Compilation of the Messages and Papers of the Presidents is a 20 volume work containing all Presidential messages, papers, addresses, communications, and proclamations to Congress, beginning with George Washington and ending with Woodrow Wilson.  However, as compiler James D. Richardson points out in his prefatory note at the beginning of the first volume, these Presidential communications do not include "those nominating persons to office and those which simply transmit treaties, and reports of heads of Departments which contain no recommendation from the Executive." (v)  The first 18 volumes are made up of these Presidential messages, while the final two volumes consist of a thorough encyclopedic and biographic index supplement to the rest of the series.  The set is organized in the chronological order of the Presidents and their communications within their respective presidency.  At the beginning of each President's section, there is a portrait of his estate and himself, which is followed by a short opinion statement concerning his life and contribution to American history and society.  After this statement, a picture and mini-biography of his wife is included, followed by a quick biography of the President, himself.  After the introduction to each President is made, the actual messages of the President are arranged in chronological order.  Following each presidential section are questions for the reader to answer and suggestions for other important readings that pertain to the particular president.

When was it made?  By whom?  Why?

A Compilation was commissioned by the Joint Committee on Printing of the 52nd Congress, beginning in 1894, resulting in the compilation being led by James D. Richardson and published in New York by the Bureau of National Literature, Inc. in 1897.  Richardson, along with the Joint Committee on Printing, believed that the Presidential messages, ranging from proclamations to vetoes, are all extremely important to American and governmental history.  The pressing issues of today are often talked about and confronted within these documents that are over a century old, so not only can they be utilized to help solve current problems, but also ignite curiosity in American history.  The Committee, felt that this set of volumes would be a compact, useful tool for legislators, as well as scholars and history students that are easily accessible.

Who appears in it?

The main characters within these volumes include all of the Presidents from Washington to Wilson.  These volumes also include many members of their cabinets and important congressional and political figures of the time.  Brief blurbs accounting for each President's wife is also included.  A very comprehensive listing for many historically and politically important characters over the course of the 28 presidencies is documented within the Biographical Index which can be found in the 20th volume of the set.

How is it organized?

The first volume of 20 begins with the congressional resolution authorizing the compilation of all of these documents, which is followed by Richardson's prefatory note.  Before George Washington gets to grace the pages, the Declaration of Independence, Articles of Confederation, and the Constitution are included.  Then, each President (in chronological order) gets his own section, which includes a portrait of his estate and himself, followed by a commentary on his contribution to history, as well as a portrait and biography of his wife, and a biography of himself, before all of his messages and papers are arranged chronologically until the next President comes along.  Each record contains a date and a title containing the particular audience to whom the speech/communication was made.  This organization continues through the 18th volume, until the 19th volume begins with an Encyclopedic Index, which continues into the final volume of the set, and followed by a Biographic Index and lastly, an Appendix denoting the delegates of the 65th Congress.

How do you use it?  Does it have finding aids or supplemental material?

The is no Table of Contents at the beginning of the first volume, so when trying to access information from this series, it would be most useful to start working with the Encyclopedic Index in the final two volumes (19 and 20) to find particular Presidents, political and historical figures, keywords, issues and debates discussed in a particular message, etc.  There are no other finding aids or supplemental material in addition to the two volumes of indexes at the end of this 20 volume set. 

How do you get access to it?  Where is it physically located, and what strictures (if any) are placed on access?

The call number for the set is J81.B96g, and all of the volumes can be found in the Main Reference section on the main floor of the Hawthorne-Longfellow Library.  The volumes are available for public access during library operating hours, but are not available for checkout (non-circulation) and are not allowed beyond the main room on the first floor.  There is also a shorter, more compact, version of the set located in the H-L basement in the government section (call number: AE2.113/2), which only includes 10 volumes covering the time between 1789-1897.  This 10 volume set, unlike the version in the main reference section, is available for checkout.  In addition to these two sets located in the library, there are several online sources that provide some, if not all of the series (such as: and

What kinds of questions can it answer?

A Compilation of the Messages and Papers of the Presidents is useful for quick, compact information on all of the messages, proclamations, and communications of the President, starting with Washington and finishing up with Wilson.  The set provides informative primary sources that delve into the policy-making and decisions that each President was faced with over the course of his presidency.  These primary sources can also be analyzed for the beliefs, writing ability, and even the personality of each President.  The indexes themselves provide a plethora of information that describe other historically important characters of the era, as well as particular policies, locations, events, etc.  One of the setbacks to this particular series of primary (and some secondary-see Biographic Index) sources, is that all of the messages, proclamations, papers, and communications were all meant to be fairly public documents, so one must always keep in mind to whom the President is writing to, as well as who might have had access to the documents, which most assuredly would affect the way in which the President wrote a particular document.