Seven years ago, we launched Founders Online. In partnership with the University of Virginia’s Rotunda electronic imprint and documentary edition projects, we made a freely accessible and searchable online resource for people to read the papers of George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, John Adams (and family), Thomas Jefferson, Alexander Hamilton, and James Madison.
At the June 13, 2013, launch, some 119,000 documents were available, and today that number has grown to 183,000 documents, fully annotated, from the authoritative Founding Fathers Papers. That number will continue to grow as more documents are transcribed, annotated, and added to the database.
The modern documentary editions of the papers of these six Founders began in 1943 with the Papers of Thomas Jefferson, with the first volume appearing in 1950 using research assistance of the staff of the National Historical Publications Commission, the body that later became the National Historical Publications and Records Commission (NHPRC). The Commission issued a report to President Harry Truman in 1954 that recommended the comprehensive collecting, arranging, editing, and publishing of the papers of other individuals of outstanding importance to the founding of the nation. The success of the Jefferson Papers led to the launch of other projects: Adams and Franklin (1954), Hamilton (1955), Madison (1956), and Washington (1968).
The idea for a grants program was endorsed by President John Kennedy before his death in 1963 and, the following year, the Ford Foundation awarded $2 million to the Commission to use to provide the initial grant funds for the publishing of these collections as well as the documents associated with the ratification of the Constitution. Congressional appropriations began in 1965, and all six projects have received grant support. The Hamilton Papers project was completed first with the publication of its last volume in 1987, and the other five are working toward completion of authoritative print and online editions.
Every day, some 4,000 people access the site, and even during the early days of the COVID-19 health emergency, loyal readers were able to find and use the site for research on projects ranging from family genealogy to classroom use to writing books and articles. This year alone some 133 articles, from a National Law Review article “Is Treason Applied as the Founders Intended” to a Smithsonian article on George Washington’s genealogy, used documents from Founders Online as a resource.
Writers of book-length studies have discovered the usefulness of the searchable database that drives Founders Online. New works such as Martha Brockenbrough’s Alexander Hamilton, Revolutionary, Robert L. O’Connell’s Revolutionary: George Washington at War, Peter Stark’s Young Washington: How Wilderness and War Forged America’s Founding Father, and David O. Stewart, Madison’s Gift: Five Partnerships that Built America cite the website.
On C-SPAN’s Q&A show with Brian Lamb, David O. Stewart said, “I am a huge fan of Founders Online, which fundamentally changed my research and writing in large ways and small….Though I live in the Washington area and can get to the Library of Congress, working from home saves me two hours a day in commuting time…. Also, with Founders Online I can copy-and-paste passages that I want to quote, which reduces the donkey work of transcription and also eliminates the inevitable transcription errors. Finally, Founders Online is especially valuable in the final stages of preparing the manuscript, when you look back over your research notes and realize something about the source material that your notes don’t reveal. Is that because the source document didn’t say anything about the subject, or because your notes are lousy? Every history writer keeps a list of questions or problems like that to be addressed. With Founders Online, you can double-check those problems very readily. Convenience matters.”
In addition to historical studies and biographies of the men and women behind the documents that populate thematic studies such as Lawrence Aje and Catherine Armstrong, editors, The Many Faces of Slavery: New Perspectives on Slave Ownership and Experiences in the Americas, Corey Brettschneider’s The Oath of Office: A Guide to the Constitution for Future Presidents, and Susan Subak’s The Five-Ton Life: Carbon, America, and the Culture That May Save Us, which cites numerous letters to and from George Washington and to and from Thomas Jefferson as historical background in a book about returning to a lower-carbon footprint culture.
Lawyers use it in their briefs, amici curiae and otherwise. Government officials rely on its accuracy in laying the foundation for their remarks on everything from the Intellectual Property Rights Policy Advisory Group to the White House Historical Association’s article on “Thomas Jefferson’s Cabinet.”
Teaching American History and America in Class have built lesson plans around special topics in early American history based on documents in Founders Online. It also shows up on the syllabi for courses in American history, political science, and economics at colleges and universities, including Harvard, Penn, the University of Georgia, and there’s even a website tying together the original Alexander Hamilton letters to “Hamilton,” the musical. Lin-Manuel Miranda even gave a shout out to the primary sources on Twitter.
Hamilton Papers on Founders Online. From Alexander Hamilton to Elizabeth Hamilton, [4 July 1804].
Original document referenced in Founders Online:
Hamilton Papers, Library of Congress; copy, Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Columbia University in the City of New York (formerly in the collection of Mrs. John Church Hamilton, Elmsford, New York).
Media, social and otherwise, mine the trove. WETA, a public television station in Washington, DC, had a piece called “L’Enfant’s Guide to Getting Fired.” Blubrry’s podcast on the U.S. Presidents is one of several using Founders Online, and there are dozens of Reddit threads and a slew of Wikipedia articles which rely on the site’s authority. We’re even in the dictionary. Merriam Webster turns to Benjamin Franklin, no less, in its word history of a firebrand “https://www.merriam-webster.com/words-at-play/what-is-a-firebrand-word-history.”
And I am pleased with how Founders Online connects to the mission of the National Archives to provide access to the federal records in our care. At present 3,773 citations show up from a search for “National Archives” on Founders Online, and some of them have been digitized and the facsimiles added to the National Archives Catalog.
Here’s how to connect the dots: To see the handwritten letters these transcriptions are based on, you first need to identify the archives or library that holds the original. This is indicated in the source note (generally three letters) of each document located at the bottom of each document. Mouse over the code and the full name of the repository will appear.
Let’s say you are looking for the 1790 letter from Jefferson to Washington accepting the position of Secretary of State (https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Jefferson/01-16-02-0103). At the bottom of the Founders Online transcription are these codes: RC (DNA: RG 59, MLR). “RC” = “recipient’s copy” and DNA is the National Archives, Record Group 59, Miscellaneous Letters Received.” You could then search the National Archives Catalog and find the document reproduced there.
Jefferson Papers on Founders Online. From Thomas Jefferson to George Washington, 14 February 1790.
Founders Online brings us back to the enlightened era that brought life to the American ideal, gets us as close as we can get to the “room where it happened,” through the words recorded in the collection. Browse, take a long read, be inspired again.