Founding Fathers’ papers go online

By Brian McNeill
November 29, 2009

More than 200 years after they were written, some 5,000 previously unpublished documents of the founders of the United States — including Thomas Jefferson, John Adams and James Madison — are at long last available to the public at no cost.

The Documents Compass group of the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities at the University of Virginia has spent much of the last year proofreading and transcribing thousands of pages of letters and other papers.

The documents are now available online for free at the University of Virginia Press’ digital imprint called Rotunda.

“It’s an exciting project,” said Penelope Kaiserlian, director of the UVa Press. “It’s using 21st-century technology to approach 18th-century materials.”

The online project is a federal pilot study that aims to expand public access to the papers of America’s founders. It is funded by a $250,000 grant from the National Historical Publications and Records Commission, which is a division of the National Archives.

“We want the general public to know that these documents exist and that they’re easily available online and that they’re free of cost,” said Sue Perdue, director of Documents Compass.

For decades, the papers of Jefferson, Adams, George Washington and others have been available only in expensive, hard copy tomes that are not widely circulated. Purchasing a complete set of the 26 volumes of Alexander Hamilton’s papers, for example, costs around $2,600.

The print versions of these documents include detailed analysis and footnotes from scholars, but the process is not a quick one. A study by the National Historical Publications and Records Commission found that Washington’s papers would not wrap up until 2023 and Adams’ papers would not be done until 2050.

Such delays sparked an intense lobbying push by historians and scholars to urge Congress to find some way to give the public access to some of these historic documents sooner rather than later. Last fall, President George W. Bush signed into law the Presidential Records Preservation Act of 2008 — which was sponsored by former Sen. John W. Warner, R-Alexandria, — that required the National Archives to speed up the publication of documents and publish letters online.

U.S. Sen. Tom Carper, D-Del., who held hearings on the matter in May, praised the effort at UVa to post the documents online.

“Our nation’s history should not stay walled-up behind the doors of only large libraries that are not accessible to many students and researchers,” Carper said in a statement. “That’s why I fought to get the National Archives to publish these documents online and in a timely matter so that anyone interested in our history can more easily read and learn about the early Americans here at the birth of our nation.”

The papers now available online are “early access” documents that have not been edited and do not include footnotes or any of the other scholarly information found in the printed collections of papers. The “early access” papers will remain online until they are published in a printed collection.

If the pilot project is successful and future funding can be secured, Kaiserlian said, more previously unpublished documents may be made available online down the road.

The UVa Press is the longtime publisher of the Papers of George Washington, which has 55 volumes to date, and the Papers of James Madison, which has 32 volumes so far. Rotunda, UVa Press’ digital imprint, has published digital versions of the published volumes of the papers of Washington, Adams and Jefferson. Rotunda’s staff is currently working on a digital version of the papers of Madison.

The searchable database of letters and other papers that are now available contains several gems.

“It’s kind of hidden in there, but there’s some great materials,” Perdue said.

Several letters exchanged by Jefferson and Adams show the difficulties they faced when establishing trade between the newly formed United States and Europe.

Many of Jefferson’s later letters offer a behind-the-scenes glimpse about his efforts to set up the University of Virginia. These include his attempts to deal with his debt, recruit professors and purchase the university’s land in Charlottesville. One letter from Jefferson to Madison in March 1825 describes some of the first students coming to UVa.

“Our Students are at present between 50. & 60, and are coming in 2. or 3. every day,” Jefferson wrote. “We hear of many on the road who cannot come on, the Richmond and Fredericksburg stages having ceased to run. Some of them hire horses and get on. The schools of ancient & modern languages and Mathematics have a little over or under 30 each. Nat. Philosophy fewer, because few come well enough prepared in Mathematics to enter that school to any advantage. They are half idle all, for want of books, Hilliard’s supply, shipped from Boston the 2d inst. being not yet arrived.”

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