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From (and Before) the Serial Set: Collecting the American State Papers

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Congressional documents preceding the Serial Set from 1789 to 1817 became the American State Papers. However, these documents were not collected and published until the 1830s, when “[t]he volumes of Congressional documents, [sic] [became] too numerous for easy reference, and we (Congress) [found] a great difficulty in keeping our (the) series perfect.” (H. Doc. no. 35, 22d Cong., 1st Sess., at 5 (1831) reprinted in Serial Set vol. 217.)

Miscellaneous documents otherwise uncategorized from both the House of Representatives and the Senate are contained in the Serial Set. I came across a particular House miscellaneous document from 1859 titled, “Compilation and Publication of the American State Papers.” This document preserves correspondence between Secretary of the Senate Asbury Dickins, Clerk of the House of Representatives James C. Allen, and the publishing duo Gales & Seaton.

Scanned image of first page of Letter from the Secretary of Senate and Clerk of the House of Representatives regarding the American State Papers.
Mis. Doc. no. 39, 35th Cong., 2d Sess., at 1 (1859) reprinted in Serial Set vol. 1016

Joseph Gales and William W. Seaton were contracted to carry out the publication of the American State Papers. Also the publishers of The National Intelligencer, Gales’s reporting on the Senate and Seaton’s reporting on the House of Representatives led to their selection as the congressional publishers, a position they held officially from 1819 to 1829. Among their publications were the Annals of Congress and Register of Debates. Being “familiar with [congressional] documents,” their “official position was a guaranty [sic] of their fidelity and for the safe-keeping of the archives of the two Houses to be used in the compilation.” (H. Mis. Doc. no. 39, 35th Cong., 2d Sess., at 2 (1859) reprinted in Serial Set vol. 1016.)

I then discovered that this document is related to “An Act making provision for a subscription to a compilation of Congressional documents.” Passed two decades earlier on March 2, 1831, this Act was further clarified, with its steps tracked, through the documents bound into the Serial Set. After further investigation into the Serial Set, I found an 1831 report of Clerk of the House of Representatives Matthew St. Clair Clarke and Secretary of the Senate Walter Lowrie that details the original guidelines for republication of congressional documents.

Scanned image of first page of Report of Secretary of Senate and Clerk of House of Representatives discussing the republication of Congressional documents.
H. Doc. no. 35, 22d Cong., 1st Sess., at 1 (1831) reprinted in Serial Set vol. 217

“The great mass of these documents,” the report reads, “were to be found only in the archives of the two Houses. No complete set of them existed in any other place. They were contained in 160 octavo and folio printed volumes, 80 large folio manuscript records, and in some hundred large files of documents.” Because of the unique value of these documents, and in order to prevent a “heap of confusion,” it was asserted that Congress should oversee the selection, preparation, and preservation processes. (H. Doc. no. 35, 22d Cong., 1st Sess., at 2 (1831) reprinted in Serial Set vol. 217.)

What I found especially interesting about these documents was the consideration given to preserving the content. The relevancy of each document was judged individually, meaning there were many that were not retained. Even so, the practice of determining the “intrinsic value” of each individual document meant that these materials were also considered in how they “establish[ed] precedents and elucidat[ed] principles which may be important as references.” (H. Mis. Doc. no. 39, 35th Cong., 2d Sess., at 9 (1859) reprinted in Serial Set vol. 1016.)

Also noteworthy was the initial exclusion of annual reports from federal secretaries of major departments, including the Treasury, Postmaster General, Navy, and Comptroller. The Serial Set, however, documents these annual reports, showing the evolution of these agencies and their initiatives over time. (H. Mis. Doc. no 39, 35th Cong., 2d Sess., at 10 (1859) reprinted in Serial Set vol. 1016.)

Before compilation, a workflow was established to identify duplicates and outline the pathways of communications between the House and the Senate where documents might be similar. Each document approved for publication would then “be critically examined, to ascertain whether it be perfect or complete, embracing every document or paper intended to have been communicated with it, and necessary to present a full view of the subject matter treated.” (H. Mis. Doc. no. 39, 35th Cong., 2d Sess., at 12 (1859) reprinted in Serial Set vol. 1016.)

Documents were then numbered and organized chronologically under their designated headers. The American State Papers were divided into ten subjects: Foreign Relations, Indian Affairs, Finances, Commerce and Navigation, Military Affairs, Naval Affairs, Post Office Department, Public Lands, Claims, and Miscellaneous. By the end of publication, 38 physical volumes comprised the collection. (H. Doc. no. 35, 22d Cong., 1st Sess., at 2 (1831) reprinted in Serial Set vol. 217.)

Scanned image of page 2 of Report of Secretary of Senate and Clerk of House of Representatives, listing subjects for American State Papers collection.
H. Doc. no. 35, 22d Cong., 1st Sess., at 2 (1831) reprinted in Serial Set vol. 217

As the pages of the Serial Set are digitized, the opportunity to uncover more congressional history expands. Although the means of preserving congressional history has progressed significantly since the 1830s, it is intriguing to see the similarities between data collection then and now.

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