Prologue Magazine

The Founding Fathers Online

Winter 2010, Vol. 42, No. 4

By Keith Donohue

Refer to CaptionGeorge Washington (148-GW-18), John Adams (148-CD-4(15)), Thomas Jefferson (208-PU-104HH(4))

Six weeks after the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia ended, George Washington received a letter from his fellow delegate Gouverneur Morris dated October 30, 1787.

In it he discusses the prospect of the adoption of the Constitution among the various states, and he credits Washington for its success, "Indeed I am convinced that if you had not attended the Convention, and the same Paper had been handed out to the World, it would have met with a colder Reception, with fewer and weaker Advocates, and with more and more strenuous opponents."

Morris goes on to argue, in a letter preserved in the Papers of George Washington, that only Washington is suitable to become President and take the reins of the new and unruly republic. "And indeed among these thirteen Horses now about to be coupled together there are some of every Race and Character. They will listen to your Voice, and submit to your Control; you therefore must I say must mount this Seat."

Washington was not swayed immediately, and indeed, his correspondence over the next year shows just how assailed he was by uncertainty and his own desire to retire from public life. At last he was persuaded by his fellow patriots, and in April 1789, he left Mount Vernon for New York City to assume the office he was to hold for the next eight years.

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The story of George Washington's reluctant acceptance to stand for election as first President of the new nation is told with great élan in Ron Chernow's new biography, Washington: A Life, and while well known, this Hamlet-like wavering on Washington's part comes most fully alive through the actual words of the participants. Captured in letters to and from Washington, his angst and vacillation over the presidency are often tinged by a certain underlying pride in being asked so often and so forcefully.

Chernow was able to describe in detail Washington's dilemma by turning to Washington's papers, which have been collected over the years and used by historians to write biographies. Now, Washington's papers, along with those of five other of his contemporary Founding Fathers, will soon be freely accessible via the Internet as a result of an ongoing project sponsored by the National Historical Publications and Records Commission (NHPRC), with strong congressional support.

The voluminous letters, diaries, and papers kept by Washington offer a first-hand account not only of his struggle over the question of the presidency but virtually every aspect of his life from his youth to his forays in the French and Indian War, the creation of Mount Vernon, his leadership of the Continental Army, his presidency of the Constitutional Convention, and his years as first President.

Like many 18th-century property owners and statesmen, Washington maintained meticulous records of his business, professional, and personal life, and these historical documents are the primary source materials for our understanding of those distant times and events. Chernow acknowledges, in his book, his own debt to those primary source materials:

Any biographer of George Washington must stand in awe of the scholarly feat accomplished by the eminent team of editors at The Papers of George Washington project, which operates out of the University of Virginia at Charlottesville. By gathering relevant documents from around the globe, they have produced a modern edition of Washington's papers that eclipses the far more modest edition published by John C. Fitzpatrick back in the 1930s and early 1940s. Whereas Fitzpatrick, in his thirty-nine volumes, limited himself to the letters written by Washington, the new edition—sixty volumes of letters and diaries and still counting—includes letters written to him as well as excerpts of contemporary letters, diaries, and newspapers. Expert commentary appears at every step along the way. Strange as it may seem, George Washington's life has now been so minutely documented that we know far more about him than did his own friends, family, and contemporaries.

George Washington is but one of the Founding Fathers whose life has been so minutely documented. An editorial team at the University of Virginia is also working on a comprehensive edition of The Papers of James Madison, although the first 10 volumes were edited at the University of Chicago. The John Adams Papers are currently being published by Harvard University Press with editorial work at the Massachusetts Historical Society.

Princeton University is the home to most of The Papers of Thomas Jefferson, and in 1999, the Thomas Jefferson Foundation at Monticello took on part of the job and began The Papers of Thomas Jefferson: Retirement Series. The Papers of Benjamin Franklin was established in 1954 under the joint auspices of Yale University and the American Philosophical Society. Between 1961 and 1987, Columbia University Press published the complete 27-volume edition of The Papers of Alexander Hamilton.

All told, there are 242 volumes of these documentary editions in print, and each volume contains hundreds of documents sent to and from the statesmen, including letters, diary and journal entries, publications (such as The Federalist Papers in the Hamilton edition); editorial essays introducing the selection of documents and providing historical context; annotations clarifying the significance and meaning of particular items; and extensive indexes for each volume and for entire series.

The papers themselves are drawn from originals and copies of originals located in the National Archives, the Library of Congress, and in literally hundreds of archives, public and private, across the United States and around the world.

Once copies had been assembled and arranged in chronological order, editorial teams began the task of deciphering, interpreting, and transcribing handwritten documents. Every transcription is verified against the original, in the words of one editor, "line by line, word by word, letter by letter." This attention to accuracy ensures that final transcriptions reflect the most verifiable versions of the originals.

The next stage in the process is annotation—identifying the significant correspondents, the subjects and events under discussion, and references to other people, documents, and publications within the project and elsewhere. Annotation is frequently the most time-consuming part of the process, and it plays an essential role in placing the documents and their contents in context. Specialized knowledge about the historical period is necessary to illuminate these details, and editors provide further context through introductory materials.

Modern historical documentary editing—based on the precepts and rigorous standards of scientific history—began in the 1940s with work by Julian Boyd of Princeton on the Thomas Jefferson papers, financed by a major gift from the New York Times. In 1950, Boyd presented the first volume to President Truman, who called for publication of all of the papers of the Founding Fathers.

"I am convinced that the better we understand the history of our democracy, the better we shall appreciate our rights as free men and the more determined we shall be to keep our ideals alive," he said. The President also asked the National Historical Publications Commission—which later became the National Historical Publications and Records Commission—to plan a national program for publication of the papers of other public figures important to understanding American history.

During the 1950s, the Commission helped the Founders projects with research into archives and collections, and by 1964, Congress had authorized funds for the agency to award grants. Over the past decades, the NHPRC has funded all six of the projects (with the exception of the Jefferson Retirement Series) in their ongoing work, and the print publication resulting from this massive effort is about two-thirds complete.

Historians have praised the work of the editors behind these documentary editions and relied on the papers to create new and exciting histories and biographies. David McCullough told Congress in 2008, "The value of the Papers of Founding Fathers goes far beyond their scholarly importance, immense as that is. These papers are American scripture. They are our political faith, the free and open exchange of ideas, the often brilliant expressions of some of the most fertile minds, the greatest statesmen, patriots, and seers in our history."

McCullough's own work is testament to the value of the edited papers. His Pulitzer Prize–winning biography John Adams relied heavily upon The Papers of John Adams documentary edition, and that work, in turn, became the basis for the Emmy Award–winning television series on HBO.

Refer to CaptionBenjamin Franklin (148-CD-14-20), James Madison (148-CC-13-9), Alexander Hamilton (148-CP-6)

Likewise, historian Joseph Ellis's Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation, which received the 2001 Pulitzer Prize for History, and David Hackett Fischer's Washington's Crossing, which received the 2005 Pulitzer Prize for History, used the work of the documentary editions, as did Walter Isaacson's Benjamin Franklin: An American Life.

In addition to his new biography on Washington, Ron Chernow used the Columbia University project to write Alexander Hamilton: A Biography (2004). Dozens of other histories, biographies, and artistic interpretations have used the original papers to create fresh versions of the old story of America's founding.

Politicians across the spectrum recognize the value of the Founders' papers, and President Ronald Reagan said in 1986, "I have great hope for the children of America, that they too will read the works of Madison, Washington, Jefferson, Adams, and Hamilton. For in their letters to each other and in their essays, in their arguments and in their opinions, all so passionately stated, the image of an age can be discerned."

While their print editions reside in libraries across the nation, the project editors realized in the late 1980s that one way to increase access to their work was through electronic publication and the Internet. Several of the projects began investigating ways to translate their materials from print to electronic publication for the World Wide Web.

In 2001 the University of Virginia Press, with help from a major award from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and matched by funding from the President's Office of the University of Virginia, founded Rotunda (, an electronic imprint of the press. Part of the early work of Rotunda was to create digital versions of the documentary editions of the Founding Era.

The fruit of this vision, the American Founding Era Collection, is currently available by institutional license. Now, through a cooperative agreement with the National Archives, the University of Virginia Press will develop a full-featured web site—hosted by the National Archives—that will allow free access to the papers of the six Founders.

The Founders Online will launch in the summer of 2013. It includes over 120,000 documents and thousands of explanatory notes drawn from the Washington, Adams, Madison, Hamilton, and Jefferson print editions. Next year, the Franklin print edition will be added, along with a batch of papers that will also appear with annotations in future print editions. Within three years, the web site should include a total of 175,000 documents, and eventually it plans to have all of the existing documents and notes in a single web site where individuals can read, browse and search through a new lens to the Founding Era.

"This award to help the University of Virginia Press create a new online presence for the papers of our nation's founders is great news for the University and for scholars everywhere, said University of Virginia President Teresa Sullivan. "For 10 years, the press has built on the pioneering vision of UVA faculty to harness digital technology in the service of scholarship and education through the Rotunda imprint. As a public university, we applaud the leadership of the National Archives in bringing this important archive to life. Making these materials available to the public for free reflects the core values of the University and indeed of our nation's founding generation, whose words will now be readily available to teachers, students, and citizens."

Editors at the projects echo her remarks.

Jim Taylor, director of The Papers of John Adams project at the Massachusetts Historical Society, said, "Free access to the Founders Online will serve a much broader audience of citizens the way that Rotunda's subscription version serves the scholarly community."

Barbara Oberg, director of The Papers of Thomas Jefferson at Princeton University, said, "Founders Online is a significant step toward making the nation's cultural patrimony freely available to the American citizenry. 'Knowledge,' Thomas Jefferson wrote, 'is the common property of all mankind.' If a republic is to survive—let alone thrive—free access to knowledge is basic, and what better place to begin than with the words of America's founders? But to make Founders Online possible at all, it has taken the expertise, hard work, and dedication of the editorial teams behind the effort."

The new web site will be built on a half-century of work by documentary editors—the tireless scholars who collected, transcribed, annotated, indexed, and published the original papers.

The possibilities for new discoveries are endless. Teachers will be able to call up primary source material in the history classroom in the blink of an eye. Students and scholars will have the ability to home in on key concepts and search across all six collections, not only by simple word searches but by terms assigned in the indexing process and through editorial annotations.

For example, the Founders' views on slavery might be assembled in a single set of search results in which many of the original documents do not use the word at all.

Or one might collect all the correspondence between Adams and Jefferson along with their contemporaries' views on each man and create a richer portrait on their fraught relationship.

Or one might trace the Founders' letters and diaries and debates leading up to the Constitutional Convention, their thoughts during the meetings in Philadelphia, the ratification of the Constitution by the states, and how the Washington administration, first Congress, and first Supreme Court implemented the grand experiment.

The Founders Online continues that experiment in democracy by making freely available in one place the original words of the original statesmen. Although it holds only a small portion of the primary source material, the National Archives is an ideal home for this collection.

In the same Act of Congress creating the National Archives in 1934, there was language establishing a National Historical Publications Commission designed to publish the most important documents of our history, whether or not those papers were in the stewardship of the government. The Commission augments the work of the National Archives and creates a way for partnerships to be created with other archives in the nation to help tell the American story.

In announcing the creation of the Founders Online, David S. Ferriero, Archivist of the United States, said that having these papers online will better inform current-day debates over the meaning of our founding documents.

"This new archive of the Founding Era will revolutionize our understanding by creating for the first time a free and fully searchable collection of the Founders' own words in the context of their time," he said.

"As scholars and statesmen debate the meaning of documents such as the Constitution and Bill of Rights, they can turn to the originals and the wit and wisdom of the Founders' own debates. And we can only express our gratitude for the effort of dedicated editors and scholars to create this work, a national monument to the founding of our nation."

The great minds who fiercely debated the founding of our country—Franklin, Washington, Hamilton, Adams, Jefferson, and Madison—rarely agreed together on public policy for the new nation, though they were unanimous in support of the principles and underlying idea of America. Now today's best minds will have the chance to contrast and compare the Founders' words and ideas through a communications medium that none could foresee, though all would acknowledge it as a democratizing force. The words of the Founders belong online, where people across the country and around the world can freely read and wonder at their wisdom.

Updated June 4, 2013

Keith Donohue joined the National Archives in 2004 as communications director for the National Historical Publications and Records Commission. He was a speechwriter and director of publications at the National Endowment for the Arts and is the author of the novels The Stolen Child, Angels of Destruction, and Centuries of June. He has a Ph.D. in English from the Catholic University of America.

Articles published in Prologue do not necessarily represent the views of NARA or of any other agency of the United States Government.