Summer 2013, Vol. 45, No. 2
The Founding Fathers: At a Website near You
By David S. Ferriero
Thomas Jefferson heard that his predecessor in the White House and one-time antagonist had not been well. So the 71-year-old sage of Monticello wrote to the 78-year-old John Adams on July 5, 1814:
[O]ur machines have now been running for 70. or 80. years, and we must expect that, worn as they are, here a pivot, there a wheel, now a pinion, next a spring, will be giving way: and however we may tinker them up for awhile, all will at length surcease motion.
Adams, from his Massachusetts farm, replied as soon as he received Jefferson's letter on July 16.
I recd this morning your favour of the 5th and as I can never let a Sheet of your's rest I Sit down immediately to acknowledge it. . . . I am sometimes afraid that my "Machine" will not "Surcease motion" Soon enough; for I dread nothing So much as "dying at top" and expiring . . . a weeping helpless Object of Compassion for years
Not so long ago, you'd have had to spend a lot of time digging through books and old files to discover things like this. Now a new, searchable website, Founders Online, can provide it almost instantly. I extracted the exchange between Jefferson and Adams in just a few minutes.
Founders Online—at founders.archives.gov—contains papers of six of our Founding Fathers—Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Alexander Hamilton, Jefferson, James Madison, and George Washington.
Founders Online will have a tremendous impact on the work of students, teachers, historians, and others and serve as an important tool in our efforts at the Archives to improve civic literacy and to expand access. Eventually, it will hold 175,000 documents from the founding era.
Through Founders Online, you can trace the shaping of the nation: The extraordinary clash of ideas in the Federalist Papers. The debates carried out through drafts and final versions of public documents. The evolving thoughts and principles shared in personal correspondence, diaries, and journals.
In 2008 the Congress asked us to find a way to make these papers freely available to the American people in an online environment.
In response, the National Historical Publications and Records Commission (NHPRC), the grant-making arm of the National Archives, and Rotunda, the electronic imprint of the University of Virginia Press, formed a partnership.
Rotunda created the infrastructure and database for this project, and it is thanks to their vision for electronic publishing of historical documents that this project was carried to its fruition.
For many years, the editors of the print editions of the papers of the Founding Fathers have been hard at work collecting, selecting, arranging, editing, and annotating the words of the Founders for publication. Already, there are 242 volumes in print. Now, these volumes can go online, and we owe the editors a profound debt of gratitude.
Also important to this project was the staff of Documents Compass, a nonprofit organization dedicated to online publishing of documentary editions. Over the past few years, they have worked to provide "early access" to the thousands of documents not yet included in the print editions of the papers.
And there are so many other treasures this new website can produce so easily and quickly.
You can see firsthand the close working partnership between Washington and Hamilton from their time in the Revolutionary War through Washington's term in office.
You can track Franklin's role in the Treaty of Paris in 1783, ending the war with Britain. Or you can follow Jefferson's drafting of the Declaration of Independence and Madison's study of ancient republican governments as he drafted the Constitution.
Just as remarkably, you can find insights into their private lives: the devotion expressed in the letters between John and Abigail Adams; Hamilton's feud that led to the fatal duel with Burr; and Washington's decades-long problems with his teeth.
For the National Archives, Founders Online is a key part of our mission and the President's goal for Open Government to make history accessible, discoverable, and usable by the American people.
Neither Adams nor Jefferson died "at the top," but they died on the same day, July 4, 1826, hundreds of miles apart, as the nation they helped found celebrated its 50th birthday.
David S. Ferriero is Archivist of the United States.