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The Founding Fathers Online - Prologue, Winter 2010

The Founding Fathers Online - Prologue, Winter 2010

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Published by Prologue Magazine
The papers of six of America's Founding Fathers--Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Madison, Hamilton, and Franklin--will soon be available online
The papers of six of America's Founding Fathers--Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Madison, Hamilton, and Franklin--will soon be available online

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Published by: Prologue Magazine on Feb 09, 2011
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03/10/2011

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S
ix weeks ater the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia ended, George Washingtonreceived a letter rom his ellow delegate Gouverneur Morris dated October 30, 1787.In it he discusses the prospect o the adoption o the Constitution among the various states, andhe credits Washington or its success, “Indeed I am convinced that i you had not attended theConvention, and the same Paper had been handed out to the World, it would have met with a colderReception, with ewer 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 o the new and unruly republic.And indeed among these thirteen Horses now about to be coupled together there are some o every Race and Character. They will listen to your Voice, and submit to your Control; you thereore mustI say 
must 
mount this Seat.”
The Founding Fathers Online
by keith donohue
Left to right:
George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and Ben Franklin.
 
 
 Washington was not swayed immediately, and indeed, his correspondence over thenext year shows just how assailed he was by uncertainty and his own desire to retirerom public lie. At last he was persuaded by his ellow patriots, and in April 1789,he let Mount Vernon or New York City to assume the ofce he was to hold or thenext eight years.Te story o George Washington’s reluctant acceptance to stand or election as rstPresident o 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’spart comes most ully alive through the
actual words o the participants. Captured inletters to and rom Washington, his angst and vacillation over the presidency are otentinged by a certain underlying pride in being asked so oten and so orceully.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 historiansto write biographies. Now, Washington’s papers, along with those o ve other o hiscontemporary Founding Fathers, will soon be reely accessible via the Internet as aresult o an ongoing project sponsored by the National Historical Publications andRecords Commission (NHPRC), with strong congressional support.The voluminous letters, diaries, and papers kept by Washington oer a rst-handaccount not only o his struggle over the question o the presidency but virtually every aspect o his lie rom his youth to his orays in the French and Indian War, thecreation o Mount Vernon, his leadership o the Continental Army, his presidency o theConstitutional Convention, and his years asrst President.Like many 18th-century property owners andstatesmen, Washington maintained meticulousrecords o his business, proessional, andpersonal lie, and these historical documentsare the primary source materials or ourunderstanding o those distant times andevents. Chernow acknowledges, in his book,his own debt to those primary source materials:
Author Ron Chernow holds a copy of 
The Papers of GeorgeWashington.
Prologue
13The Founding Fathers Online
 
providing historical context; annotationsclariying the signicance and meaning o particular items; and extensive indexes oreach volume and or entire series.The papers themselves are drawn romoriginals and copies o originals located in theNational Archives, the Library o Congress,and in literally hundreds o archives, publicand private, across the United States andaround the world.Once copies had been assembled andarranged in chronological order, editorialteams began the task o deciphering,interpreting, and transcribing handwrittendocuments. Every transcription is veriedagainst the original, in the words o oneeditor, “line by line, word by word, letter by letter.” This attention to accuracy ensuresthat nal transcriptions refect the mostveriable versions o the originals.The next stage in the process isannotation—identiying the signicantcorrespondents, the subjects and eventsunder discussion, and reerences to otherpeople, documents, and publications within the project and elsewhere. Annotation is requently the most time-consuming part o the process, and it plays Any biographer o George Washingtonmust stand in awe o the scholarly eat accomplished by the eminentteam o editors at
The 
 
Papers of George Washington
project, which operatesout o the University o Virginia atCharlottesville. By gathering 130,000relevant documents rom around theglobe, they have produced a modernedition o Washington’s papers thateclipses the ar more modest editionpublished by John C. Fitzpatrick back in the 1930s and early 1940s. WhereasFitzpatrick, in his thirty-nine volumes,limited himsel to the letters written by  Washington, the new edition—sixty volumes o letters and diaries and stillcounting—includes letters written tohim as well as excerpts o contemporary letters, diaries, and newspapers. Expertcommentary appears at every stepalong the way. Strange as it may seem,George Washington’s lie has now beenso minutely documented that we know ar more about him than did his ownriends, amily, and contemporaries.George Washington is but one o theFounding Fathers whose lie has been sominutely documented. An editorial teamat the University o Virginia is also workingon a comprehensive edition o 
The Papers of James Madison
, although the rst 10volumes were edited at the University o Chicago.
The John Adams Papers 
arecurrently being published by Harvard University Presswith editorial work atthe Massachusetts Historical Society.Princeton University is the home tomost o 
The Papers of Thomas Jefferson
,and in 1999, the Thomas JeersonFoundation at Monticello took on parto the job and began
The 
 
Papers of Thomas  Jefferson: Retirement Series. The Papers of  Benjamin Franklin
was established in 1954under the joint auspices o Yale University and the American Philosophical Society.Between 1961 and 1987, ColumbiaUniversity Press published the complete27-volume edition o 
The Papers of Alexander Hamilton
. All told, there are 236 volumes o these documentary editions in print,and each volume contains hundreds o documents sent to and rom the statesmen,including letters, diary and journal entries,publications (such as
The Federalist Papers 
 in the Hamilton edition); editorial essaysintroducing the selection o documents and
 James MadisonBarry Faulkner’s mural in the Rotunda for the National Archives features some of the Founding Fathers.
14
Prologue
Winter 2010

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