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The Founding Fathers Online

by keith donohue

S ix weeks after the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia ended, George Washington

received a letter from his fellow delegate Gouverneur Morris dated October 30, 1787.
In it he discusses the prospect of the adoption of the Constitution among the various states, and
he credits Washington for its success, “Indeed I am convinced that if you had not attended the
Convention, and the same Paper had been handed out to the World, it would have met with a colder
Reception, with fewer 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 of the new and unruly republic.
“And indeed among these thirteen Horses now about to be coupled together there are some of every
Race and Character. They will listen to your Voice, and submit to your Control; you therefore must
I say must mount this Seat.”

Left to right: George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and Ben Franklin.
Washington was not swayed immediately, and indeed, his correspondence over the
next year shows just how assailed he was by uncertainty and his own desire to retire
from public life. At last he was persuaded by his fellow patriots, and in April 1789,
he left Mount Vernon for New York City to assume the office he was to hold for the
next eight years.
The story of George Washington’s reluctant acceptance to stand for election as first
President of 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’s
part comes most fully alive through the actual words of the participants. Captured in
letters to and from Washington, his angst and vacillation over the presidency are often
tinged by a certain underlying pride in being asked so often and so forcefully.
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 historians
to write biographies. Now, Washington’s papers, along with those of five other of his
contemporary Founding Fathers, will soon be freely accessible via the Internet as a
result of an ongoing project sponsored by the National Historical Publications and
Records Commission (NHPRC), with strong congressional support.
The voluminous letters, diaries, and papers kept by Washington offer a first-hand
account not only of his struggle over the question of the presidency but virtually
every aspect of his life from his youth to his forays in the French and Indian War, the
creation of Mount Vernon, his leadership of
the Continental Army, his presidency of the
Constitutional Convention, and his years as
first President.
Like many 18th-century property owners and
statesmen, Washington maintained meticulous
records of his business, professional, and
personal life, and these historical documents
are the primary source materials for our
understanding of those distant times and
events. Chernow acknowledges, in his book,
his own debt to those primary source materials:
Author Ron Chernow holds a copy of The Papers of George

The Founding Fathers Online Prologue 13

on a comprehensive edition of The Papers providing historical context; annotations
of James Madison, although the first 10 clarifying the significance and meaning of
volumes were edited at the University particular items; and extensive indexes for
of Chicago. The John Adams Papers are each volume and for entire series.
currently being published by Harvard The papers themselves are drawn from
University Press with editorial work at originals and copies of originals located in the
the Massachusetts Historical Society. National Archives, the Library of Congress,
Princeton University is the home to and in literally hundreds of archives, public
most of The Papers of Thomas Jefferson, and private, across the United States and
and in 1999, the Thomas Jefferson around the world.
Foundation at Monticello took on part Once copies had been assembled and
of the job and began The Papers of Thomas arranged in chronological order, editorial
Jefferson: Retirement Series. The Papers of teams began the task of deciphering,
Benjamin Franklin was established in 1954 interpreting, and transcribing handwritten
under the joint auspices of Yale University documents. Every transcription is verified
and the American Philosophical Society. against the original, in the words of one
James Madison
Between 1961 and 1987, Columbia editor, “line by line, word by word, letter by
Any biographer of George Washington University Press published the complete letter.” This attention to accuracy ensures
must stand in awe of the scholarly 27-volume edition of The Papers of Alexander that final transcriptions reflect the most
feat accomplished by the eminent Hamilton. verifiable versions of the originals.
team of editors at The Papers of George All told, there are 236 volumes of The next stage in the process is
Washington project, which operates these documentary editions in print, annotation—identifying the significant
out of the University of Virginia at and each volume contains hundreds of correspondents, the subjects and events
Charlottesville. By gathering 130,000 documents sent to and from the statesmen, under discussion, and references to other
relevant documents from around the including letters, diary and journal entries, people, documents, and publications
globe, they have produced a modern publications (such as The Federalist Papers within the project and elsewhere.
edition of Washington’s papers that in the Hamilton edition); editorial essays Annotation is frequently the most time-
eclipses the far more modest edition introducing the selection of documents and consuming part of the process, and it plays
published by John C. Fitzpatrick back
in the 1930s and early 1940s. Whereas
Fitzpatrick, in his thirty-nine volumes,
limited himself to the letters written by
Washington, the new edition—sixty
volumes of letters and diaries and still
counting—includes letters written to
him as well as excerpts of contemporary
letters, diaries, and newspapers. Expert
commentary appears at every step
along the way. Strange as it may seem,
George Washington’s life has now been
so minutely documented that we know
far more about him than did his own
friends, family, and contemporaries.

George Washington is but one of the

Founding Fathers whose life has been so
minutely documented. An editorial team
at the University of Virginia is also working Barry Faulkner’s mural in the Rotunda for the National Archives features some of the Founding Fathers.

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an essential role in placing the documents helped the Founders projects with research turn, became the basis for the Emmy
and their contents in context. Specialized into archives and collections, and by Award–winning television series on HBO.
knowledge about the historical period is 1964, Congress had authorized funds for Likewise, historian Joseph Ellis’s Founding
necessary to illuminate these details, and the agency to award grants. Over the past Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation,
editors provide further context through decades, the NHPRC has funded all six which received the 2001 Pulitzer Prize
introductory materials. of the projects (with the exception of the for History, and David Hackett Fischer’s
Modern historical documentary editing— Jefferson Retirement Series) in their ongoing Washington’s Crossing, which received the
based on the precepts and rigorous standards work, and the print publication resulting 2005 Pulitzer Prize for History, used the
of scientific history—began in the 1940s from this massive effort is about two-thirds work of the documentary editions, as did
with work by Julian Boyd of Princeton on complete. Walter Isaacson’s Benjamin Franklin: An
the Thomas Jefferson papers, financed by a Historians have praised the work of the American Life.
major gift from the New York Times. In 1950, editors behind these documentary editions In addition to his new biography on
Boyd presented the first volume to President and relied on the papers to create new and Washington, Ron Chernow used the
Truman, who called for publication of all of exciting histories and biographies. David Columbia University project to write
the papers of the Founding Fathers. McCullough told Congress in 2008, “The Alexander Hamilton: A Biography (2004).
“I am convinced that the better we value of the Papers of Founding Fathers Dozens of other histories, biographies, and
understand the history of our democracy, goes far beyond their scholarly importance, artistic interpretations have used the original
the better we shall appreciate our rights as immense as that is. These papers are papers to create fresh versions of the old
free men and the more determined we shall American scripture. They are our political story of America’s founding.
be to keep our ideals alive,” he said. The faith, the free and open exchange of ideas, Politicians across the
President also asked the National Historical the often brilliant expressions of some of the spectrum recognize the
Publications Commission—which later most fertile minds, the greatest statesmen, value of the Founders’
became the National Historical Publications patriots, and seers in our history.” papers, and President
and Records Commission—to plan a McCullough’s own work is testament to Ronald Reagan said
national program for publication of the the value of the edited papers. His Pulitzer George Washington
papers of other public figures important to Prize–winning biography John Adams relied
understanding American history. heavily upon The Papers of John Adams
During the 1950s, the Commission documentary edition, and that work, in

The Founding Fathers Online

libraries across the nation, the project editors press has built on the pioneering vision of
realized in the late 1980s that one way to UVA faculty to harness digital technology
increase access to their work was through in the service of scholarship and education
electronic publication and the Internet. through the Rotunda imprint. As a public
Several of the projects began investigating university, we applaud the leadership of
ways to translate their materials from print the National Archives in bringing this
to electronic publication for the World important archive to life. Making these
Wide Web. materials available to the public for free
In 2001 the University of Virginia reflects the core values of the University and
Press, with help from a major award from indeed of our nation’s founding generation,
the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and whose words will now be readily available to
matched by funding from the President’s teachers, students, and citizens.”
Office of the University of Virginia, founded Editors at the projects echo her remarks.
Rotunda (, Jim Taylor, director of The Papers of
an electronic imprint of the press. Part of the John Adams project at the Massachusetts
early work of Rotunda was to create digital Historical Society, said, “Free access to the
versions of the documentary editions of the Founders Online will serve a much broader
Founding Era. audience of citizens the way that Rotunda’s
The fruit of this vision, the American subscription version serves the scholarly
Founding Era Collection, is currently community.”
available by institutional license. Now, Barbara Oberg, director of The Papers of
through a cooperative agreement with the Thomas Jefferson at Princeton University, said,
National Archives, the University of Virginia “Founders Online is a significant step toward
Press will develop a full-featured web site— making the nation’s cultural patrimony
hosted by the National Archives—that will freely available to the American citizenry.
allow free access to the papers of the six ‘Knowledge,’ Thomas Jefferson wrote, ’is
Founders. the common property of all mankind.’ If a
Alexander Hamilton The Founders Online will begin with a republic is to survive—let alone thrive—
in 1986, “I have great hope for the children prototype public web site to be launched by free access to knowledge is basic, and what
of America, that they too will read the works October 2011 that will include 154 volumes better place to begin than with the words of
of Madison, Washington, Jefferson, Adams, drawn from the Washington, Adams, America’s founders? But to make Founders
and Hamilton. For in their letters to each Madison, and Jefferson print editions. Online possible at all, it has taken the
other and in their essays, in their arguments Approximately 70,000 documents and expertise, hard work, and dedication of the
and in their opinions, all so passionately almost 125,000 explanatory notes will be editorial teams behind the effort.”
stated, the image of an age can be discerned.” available in this first stage. Within two years, The new web site will be built on a
While their print editions reside in the web site will have added the published half-century of work by documentary
volumes of Hamilton, and by 2013, it plans editors—the tireless scholars who collected,
to have all of the existing documents and transcribed, annotated, indexed, and
To learn more about
• Founding Fathers who signed notes in the 242 print volumes online in a published the original papers.
the Declaration of Independence, single web site where individuals can read, The possibilities for new discoveries
go to browse, and search through a new lens to the are endless. Teachers will be able to call
charters and click on “Join the
Signers of the Declaration.”
Founding Era. up primary source material in the history
• Founding Fathers who signed the Constitution, “This award to help the University of classroom in the blink of an eye. Students
go to and Virginia Press create a new online presence and scholars will have the ability to home
click on “Meet America’s Founding Fathers.”
for the papers of our nation’s founders is in on key concepts and search across all six
• The National Historical Publications and
Records Commission, its work, and its grants great news for the University and for scholars collections, not only by simple word searches
program, go to everywhere, said University of Virginia but by terms assigned in the indexing process
President Teresa Sullivan. “For 10 years, the and through editorial annotations.

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For example, the Founders’ views on
slavery might be assembled in a single
set of search results in which many of the
original documents do not use the word
at all.
Or one might collect all the correspondence
between Adams and Jefferson along with
their contemporaries’ views on each man
and create a richer portrait on their fraught
Or one might trace the Founders’ letters
and diaries and debates leading up to the
Constitutional Convention, their thoughts
during the meetings in Philadelphia, the
ratification of the Constitution by the states,
and how the Washington administration,
first Congress, and first Supreme Court
implemented the grand experiment.
The Founders Online continues that
experiment in democracy by making freely
available in one place the original words of
the original statesmen. Although it holds
only a small portion of the primary source
material, the National Archives is an ideal
home for this collection.
In the same Act of Congress creating
the National Archives in 1934, there was
language establishing a National Historical
Publications Commission designed to
publish the most important documents of
our history, whether or not those papers
were in the stewardship of the government.
The Commission augments the work of
the National Archives and creates a way for
partnerships to be created with other archives
John Adams
in the nation to help tell the American story.
In announcing the creation of the “As scholars and statesmen debate and Madison—rarely agreed together on
Founders Online, David S. Ferriero, the meaning of documents such as the public policy for the new nation, though they
Archivist of the United States, said that Constitution and Bill of Rights, they can were unanimous in support of the principles
having these papers online will better inform turn to the originals and the wit and wisdom and underlying idea of America. Now today’s
current-day debates over the meaning of our of the Founders’ own debates. And we can best minds will have the chance to contrast
founding documents. only express our gratitude for the effort of and compare the Founders’ words and ideas
“This new archive of the Founding Era dedicated editors and scholars to create this through a communications medium that none
will revolutionize our understanding by work, a national monument to the founding could foresee, though all would acknowledge
creating for the first time a free and fully of our nation.” it as a democratizing force. The words of the
searchable collection of the Founders’ The great minds who fiercely debated Founders belong online, where people across
own words in the context of their time,” the founding of our country—Franklin, the country and around the world can freely
he said. Washington, Hamilton, Adams, Jefferson, read and wonder at their wisdom. P

The Founding Fathers Online Prologue 17

Historian Cites Value
O f P residential P apers

O n January 20, 1777, some two weeks

after the Battle of Princeton, George
Washington sent a note to the 22-year-
auspices of the University and the Mount
Vernon Ladies’ Association of the Union.
Letters written to Washington as well as
primary source materials can readers see how
on the surface Washington appeared self-
effacing in public, but in reality, he is highly
old Alexander Hamilton, inviting him to letters and documents written by him are self-aware of his place in history and took
become his aide-de-camp. being published in the complete edition that extraordinary pains to protect his reputation,
Thus began a relationship that would will consist of approximately 90 volumes, including his great effort to preserve his
last a lifetime, with Hamilton serving as and the edition is now more than two-thirds papers during and after the Revolutionary
Washington’s trusted adviser through the complete. War. He personally supervised the transport
Revolutionary War, at the Constitutional It builds on the 39-volume edition of his papers back to Mount Vernon.
Convention, as a leader in the Federalist by John C. Fitzpatrick published in the “Washington’s mental world is richer than
Party, and as secretary of the treasury for six 1930s and early 1940s. “There are two today’s,” Chernow said “The Founders were
years during Washington’s presidency. major differences,” Chernow says. “The arguing brilliantly over the same issues we
During the months when The Federalist earlier edition only contains the letters from argue over today, but with brilliance, honesty,
began to appear under the pen name Washington, but not to him. Reading it is and integrity. You have to go through the
Publius, Washington wrote his friend sort of like eavesdropping on one end of a papers to see how fiery and forceful they
Hamilton, telling him that “when the telephone conversation. The new edition not were, because they were always conscious of
transient circumstances and fugitive only follows both sides of the correspondence, their public persona.”
performances which attended this crisis shall but each document is lavishly annotated so “It’s a simply fabulous idea,” Chernow
have disappeared, that work will merit the that one gets extracts from contemporaries. responded to the news of a cooperative
notice of Posterity; because in it are candidly I try to use eyewitness accounts, and those agreement between the National Archives
discussed the principles of freedom & the were often discovered through the footnotes.” and the University of Virginia Press to bring
topics of government, which will be always The result is another tour-de-force of the Founders Online. “Unfortunately, the
interesting to mankind so long as they shall synthesis and imagination. The New York Founders have become remote and abstract,
be connected in Civil Society.” He was, as so Times calls it, “Tenaciously researched. . . . when in fact they are rich, full-blooded, and
often, percipient and wise in his assessment. This new portrait offers a fresh sense of what fiery characters. This new site will not only
Hamilton was to draft the famous a groundbreaking role Washington played, help students learn more deeply and develop a
Farewell Address by Washington, and in their not only in physically embodying his new visceral love and respect for this era, but it will
last correspondence, Washington sent a letter nation’s leadership but also in interpreting stimulate interest in history for teachers, too,
to Hamilton full of admiration for his plan to how its newly articulated constitutional and will reconnect them to primary sources.”
establish an American military academy. principles would be applied . . . deeply Such innovative approaches lead to a
It is small wonder then that after writing his rewarding.” “democratization of historical research,”
critically acclaimed biography of Alexander Building on recent thematic biographies he says. “Archives used to be restricted
Hamilton, historian Ron Chernow would by David McCullough, David Hackett to those historians able to come visit and
turn his attention from protégé to master. Fischer, and Joseph Ellis, Chernow set out examine the documents first-hand, but
Washington: A Life appeared in October to write a cradle-to-grave biography that now an inquisitive five-year-old with a
2010 to critical acclaim, and as with his captured the essence not only of Washington, computer will be able to look at what the
Hamilton biography, Chernow credits the the political leader but Washington, the man. Founders thought.”
work of the editors on The Papers of George Washington, he felt, is often compared to
Washington. “I would have never been the other founders and is rarely scrutinized Author
emboldened without the edition of the against contemporary leaders. Keith Donohue joined the National
papers,” Chernow said. “It would have taken “He’s not given sufficient credit for his Archives in 2004 as communications
me a century to write without them. And in intelligence,” Chernow said. “Whereas director for the National Historical
a sense, I am standing on the shoulders of a Washington was not an original thinker Publications and Records Commission.
team of editors.” unlike Hamilton, who was an original as a He was a speechwriter and director of publications at the
The modern edition, The Papers of political theorist and government leader, National Endowment for the Arts and is the author of
George Washington, an NHPRC grant- Washington had the ability to latch on to the the novels The Stolen Child, Angels of Destruction, and the
funded project, was established in 1968 at ideas of others and activate them.” forthcoming Centuries of June. He has a Ph.D. in English
the University of Virginia, under the joint Only through a close reading of the from The Catholic University of America.

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