Week Three: Omeka Items

Source 1: American Colonization Society Certificate to James Madison


Source 2: James Madison to Robert I. Evans, June 15, 1819.


The first source I found was a certificate that the American Colonization Society granted to James Madison to certify that he was a member of the group for life. There’s a drawing on the certificate of palm trees and seemingly African imagery. We discussed the expatriation movement that some Americans supported as well as the convoluted legacy the founders have with the paradox of supporting liberty simultaneously with supporting the institution of slavery. When I was looking for sources, this one seemed to link those two ideas we discussed. Sending African Americans back to where they were taken from is complicated in that, it does seem like it was what some people felt was the best solution to ending slavery, but it also feels like a racist solution. It does give in to the idea that blacks and whites cannot live together. Additionally, we discussed that the African Americans who were being discussed to go back to Africa were so many generations removed by that point that they would be going back to a place that really wasn’t their home. In searching for sources, I read a little bit about how some abolitionists, like William Lloyd Garrison for example, were very against the idea of emigration for African Americans. I didn’t know that James Madison was a member of the American Colonization Society. On the one hand, it’s weird to see Madison supportive of anything even semi-related to abolition since he himself had slaves at his Virginia plantation. But then again, for Madison not to support a form of abolition also feels contradictory in that he was an advocate of liberty and an author of the Constitution, including the Bill of Rights. It goes back to that idea of the Paradox of Liberty we discussed.

I found the certificate on the website for the Library of Congress. The basic information is included in the metadata, like the year the certificate is from and who it’s made out to. The collection is listed. It’s from The James Madison Papers at the Library of Congress collection and it’s a hyperlink so that users are able to look at other items in the collection too, which is useful. I would say though that there is no background information included to give the user an idea of what the American Colonization Society stood for or worked to do. There is no information on James Madison either. The more information available to the user, the better.

The second source I found is complementary to the first in what it says to the reader. It’s a letter that James Madison wrote in 1816 on the subject of gradually eliminating slavery in the United States. In typical Madison fashion, the letter is thorough and analytical. He lays out what problems the country would encounter in trying to get rid of slavery, namely problems with enslavers agreeing to it and the money the government would have to spend on it. The letter is somewhat contradictory, mirroring what we see when studying the founders’ opinions on slavery. On the one hand, he calls slavery a “great evil under which the nation labors”, while also expressing interest in the expatriation movement many abolitionists abhorred. Additionally, Madison isn’t open about these views. He doesn’t want them to be attributed to him, asking for the comments “not to be publickly referred to in any use you may make of them.”

I also found the second source in the Library of Congress’s James Madison Papers collection. There was some good information like the day the letter was sent/written and I really appreciated that there was a transcript of the letter because it is difficult to read the handwriting. Again though, there wasn’t a summary of what was said in the letter. I’m also still not sure as to who Robert I. Evans is. More information here could be helpful.


One thought on “Week Three: Omeka Items

  1. These sources are incredible! I really like how they are complementary to one another as well. The metadata is very rich and it was a great idea to include the transcription of James Madison’s letter–something I forgot to emphasize in class. Unlike Chronicling America which uses a computer to “read” the text for transcriptions, someone had to personally read Madison’s handwriting and manually create the transcription. From my experience, I would say that most of the text sources on LOC are transcribed (especially popular/ presidential sources), which makes me really appreciate the amount of work put into constructing their digital collections.

    The visual elements of the certificate are interesting and illustrative of the goals of the society. You were definitely right to consider this as a visual source. It’s also interesting that it wasn’t just an ideology that bound ACS members together, it was a real membership in this sort of “club” which makes it sound almost elite and private. Really strange.

    As for the letter, Madison was responding to another letter/inquiry from Evans, who was an abolitionist in Philadelphia. I wonder what his letter to Madison said. Your analysis of this source is intricate and it perfectly illustrates the complex hypocrisy of the founders. For people like Madison, abolition was a process that they believed should be gradual, followed with the expatriation of free Black people, and also included compensation for slaveholders.

    It will be interesting to see in upcoming chapters how staunch abolitionists responded to people like Madison. Closer to the Civil War, abolition eventually became an all or nothing issue, forcing people to commit to one side or the other. But more on that later.

    Thank you for such intriguing sources and analysis!

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