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The Founding Fathers: Coming to a Web Site Near You

by David S. Ferriero, Archivist of the United States

Thomas Jefferson heard that his one-time antagonist and White House predecessor had not been well, so the seventy-one-year-old sage of Monticello wrote to the seventy-eight-year-old John Adams on July 5, 1814: “Our 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 rec[eived] 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,” he wrote. “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, researchers would have had to spend a lot of time digging through books and old files to discover documents such as those. Now, the new searchable Web site Founders Online (http://founders.archives.gov) can provide them almost instantly. I extracted the exchange between Jefferson and Adams in just a few minutes.

Founders Online contains papers of six of the Founding Fathers—Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Alexander Hamilton, Jefferson, James Madison, and George Washington. The site will have a tremendous impact on the work of students, teachers, historians, and others, and it will be an important tool in our efforts at the National Archives to improve civic literacy and expand access. Eventually, Founders Online will contain 175,000 documents from the founding era, including many through which site visitors 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; and the evolving thoughts and principles shared in personal correspondence, diaries, and journals.

Founders Online is the result of a partnership between the National Historical Publications and Records Commission (NHPRC), the grant-making arm of the National Archives, and the University of Virginia Press’s Rotunda, the electronic imprint edition of the University of Virginia Press. Rotunda created the infrastructure and database for this project, and their unique vision for electronic publishing of historical documents carried the site to fruition.

For many years the editors of those print editions have been hard at work collecting, selecting, arranging, editing, and annotating the founders’ words for publication. There are 242 volumes in print, and now these volumes can go online; we owe the print-edition 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.

Additionally, Founders Online is the direct result of the leadership shown by the National Historical Publications and Records Commission (NHPRC). The role of the NHPRC in the development of Founders Online began after 2008, when Congress asked the National Archives to find a way to make the papers of the Founding Fathers freely available to the American people in an online environment.

The NHPRC extends the work of the National Archives into the nation’s archives at the state and local levels and at institutions large and small. Since 1964, the NHPRC has awarded $215 million to 5,000 projects in all 50 states and special jurisdictions. It has helped establish local archives, funded professional training of archivists and documentary editors, as well as supported research and development in processing and electronic records.

There are so many treasures that Founders Online can produce easily and quickly. Visitors can see firsthand the close working relationship between Washington and Hamilton from the American Revolution through Washington’s term in office. They can track Franklin’s role in the 1783 Treaty of Paris, which ended war with Britain. Or they 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, the site’s documents reveal the Founding Fathers’ private lives: the devotion expressed in the letters between John and Abigail Adams; Hamilton’s feud that led to the fatal duel with Aaron Burr; and Washington’s decades-long problems with his teeth.

Founders Online is a key part of the mission of the National Archives, and it addresses the president’s goal for open government to make history accessible, discoverable, and usable by the American people.

A postscript: neither Adams nor Jefferson died “at [the] top,” but they did die on the same day—July 4, 1826—hundreds of miles apart, as the nation they helped found celebrated its fiftieth birthday.

Join the Archivist of the United States at his blog at http://blogs.archives.gov/aotus and visit the National Archives Web site at http://www.archives.gov.


About the Archivist

David S. Ferriero is the 10th Archivist of the United States. Prior to his confirmation on November 6, 2009, Ferriero served as the Andrew W. Mellon Director of the New York Public Libraries.