National Archives Helps Founding Fathers Go Online
Press Release · Monday, October 26, 2009

Washington, DC

The National Historical Publications and Records Commission (NHPRC), the grant making arm of the National Archives, in partnership with Documents Compass at the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, is pleased to announce 5,000 previously unpublished documents from our nation’s founders are now online through Rotunda, the digital imprint of The University of Virginia Press.

The ROTUNDA Founders Early Access project ( makes available for the first time letters and other papers penned by important figures such as James Madison, John Adams, and Thomas Jefferson. The Founders Early Access portion of the site allows users to read, search, and browse the newly transcribed documents, and is available at no cost to users.

In 2008, Congress urged the National Archives to investigate ways to make the Founders Papers more readily available to historians, scholars, and the general public at no cost to researchers. As long-time funders of the print editions of the Founding Fathers documentary projects, the NHPRC worked with the editorial teams and supported a pilot demonstration project through Documents Compass, a nonprofit organization designed to assist in the digital production of historical documentary editions.

Over the past ten months, the pilot has transcribed and completed basic transcription verification for roughly 5,000 documents. These transcriptions will be fully verified, and the editorial teams will provide explanatory annotation as they proceed with their work. Each completed volume of a documentary edition contains roughly 500 documents and provides notations that identify historical figures and events to shed light on the papers’ meaning and significance.

"There is much to discover here," said Penelope Kaiserlian, director of the Press. "Take a look, for example, at Thomas Jefferson’s letter to James Madison on August 30, 1823, when the elderly Jefferson contests the memory of 88-year-old John Adams regarding the creation of the Declaration of Independence. Historians will already know this letter, but now anyone can easily find this readable version."

"This is an important stage in the process,” said Kathleen Williams, Executive Director of the NHPRC. “We have been looking for ways to help the public gain access to these documents sooner and to assist the editorial projects in completing the comprehensive documentary editions. This work advances those goals."

The Founders historical documentary editions include the papers of George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, Alexander Hamilton, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison, as well as the Documentary History of the Ratification of the U.S. Constitution, the first Federal Congress, and the first Supreme Court. Rotunda is publishing digital editions of some of these publications in its American Founding Era Collection.

"Generations of scholars, historians, and teachers will use these documents to tell the American story from its grand beginnings,” added Williams. “We will look back in wonder at the effort of countless scholars to create this work, a national monument to the founding of our nation. Transcribing documents and publishing them online at an early stage makes more of this treasure available sooner, and we look forward to the day when the entire collection is fully annotated and complete."

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