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Founding Fathers’ Papers Headed for Internet

by David S. Ferriero, Archivist of the United States 

At the National Archives, we often note that we have ten billion pieces of paper in our holdings, containing the history of our nation from its beginnings in the Revolutionary period up to present. Now, we know that we don’t have all the documents that tell the story of our democracy. That’s why we are active in ensuring that historical documents not in our holdings are also preserved and made easily available to everyone. We do this through our grant-making arm, the National Historical Publications and Records Commission (NHPRC).

Since NHPRC began making grants in 1964, it has given $200 million to 4,800 projects in all 50 states and special jurisdictions. Grants have funded such projects as digitizing the records at the University of Florida related to the exploration of the Everglades; making available the Walter Cronkite papers, the Vietnam Veterans Archives, and World War I and World War II Soldiers’ Collections at the Center for American History at the University of Texas; publishing the papers of Abraham Lincoln, Eleanor Roosevelt, and Martin Luther King, Jr.; and developing an electronic records archives for the State of Hawaii. (You can learn more at http:// www.archives.gov/nhprc/.)

Perhaps the most prominent and ambitious of the projects we have funded is the publication of the papers of our Founding Fathers. This undertaking has involved tracking down, preserving, transcribing, and providing access to the papers of six founding fathers: John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Alexander Hamilton, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and George Washington. The scope is enormous: It includes their writings from childhood through the Revolutionary period and until their deaths. And it includes letters written to them as well.

Many of the papers are held in private hands, with historical associations or in state or local libraries or archives. Some are held by the National Archives and the Library of Congress. The task of pulling together all their papers--which includes letters to each other as well as The Federalist Papers--began in the 1950s at several universities and historical societies.

Now, the entire undertaking is about two-thirds complete and is moving into a new phase. In the last regular appropriations legislation for the National Archives, the Congress directed us to find ways to make the founding fathers’ papers more readily available to historians, scholars, and the public. The lawmakers also set aside funds in the NHPRC’s budget specifically for this project. To that end, the NHPRC recently entered into a cooperative agreement with the University of Virginia (UVA) Press and its ROTUNDA Digital Imprint to place the published documents online.

Working from the print editions of the founders’ papers that have been published so far, UVA Press will develop a fully searchable database of the papers, freely accessible to the public, through a Web site hosted by the National Archives. A prototype Web site will be launched by September 2011 that will include 154 volumes drawn from 4 print editions, including document transcriptions and editors’ annotations and introductory essays, with approximately 70,000 documents and almost 125,000 explanatory notes. By 2013, all of the existing documents and notes in the 242 printed volumes of the Founders will be hosted online.

This project is a prime example of the major impact that the NHPRC has on the enrichment of the history of our country, as it has provided funding for the papers projects for all six founders. The Papers of John Adams, for example, were heavily mined by historian David McCullough in writing his 2002 Pulitzer Prize-winning biography, John Adams, which later became an Emmy- winning series on PBS. Historian Joseph Ellis used some of the papers of the founders for his 2001 Pulitzer Prize-winning book, Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation. Ron Chernow used the Papers of Alexander Hamilton in writing his landmark biography, Alexander Hamilton, and he researched the Papers of George Washington for his recently-published biography of our first president. For these authors and countless others, the founders’ papers have provided a much richer and more complete record of the intellectual debates among the founders as they led and inspired efforts to win our independence and structured the government for a young democracy.

There are many more histories that have benefitted from the papers of these founding fathers and other publishing projects on the founding era supported by the NHPRC, and many more will undoubtedly benefit in the future from this project. At a time when the Constitution and the intents of the founding fathers are often debated, this project will produce an invaluable resource for those interested in how our nation was created.

Visit the ROTUNDA Founders Early Access Project at http://rotunda.upress.virginia.edu/founders/FOEA.html.


About the Archivist

David S. Ferriero is the tenth Archivist of the United States. Prior to his confirmation in 2009, Ferriero served as the Andrew W. Mellon Director of the New York Public Libraries. For more information about NARA, visit http://www.archives.gov and read the archivist's blog at http://blogs.archives.gov/aotus.