Founding Fathers Go Digital

Posted November 2, 2009 at 2:54pm

Thanks in large part to a grant from the National Archives, America’s Founding Fathers are about to leap into the digital age.

About 5,000 previously unpublished letters and documents written by early statesmen such as James Madison, Thomas Jefferson and John Adams are now available free for a limited time as part of a pilot project on the Rotunda Web site of the University of Virginia Press.

“What is eventually going to be created is a complete collection of America’s founding era,— said Keith Donohue, a spokesman for the Archives. “It’s a monumental task to transcribe, explain and arrange the works of these seminal figures in American history.—

Most of the documents available for free preview are letters written between 1785 and 1840. Before being digitized, these documents existed in university archives and libraries around the country, according to Donohue. What makes this project unique is that they’ve been uploaded and transcribed in plain text form, rather than scanned. Users need not worry about deciphering faded 18th-century handwriting. Rather, the database is fully searchable and easily accessible.

Users of the Rotunda site can get a richer and more personal glimpse into the founders’ everyday lives — the letters seem to contain as much idle chatter and routine business as great debates on pressing matters of state. Adams, for example, is captured worrying about his compost piles in a letter to his wife. In another letter, Madison sends instructions regarding the sale of his tobacco crop.

But there are more important moments in the collection, such as a famous 1823 letter from Jefferson to Madison where Jefferson challenges Adams’ memory concerning the weight of his role in the drafting of the Declaration of Independence.

According to Donohue, the project began with a nudge from Congress. In May 2008, the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Subcommittee on Federal Financial Management, Government Information, Federal Services and International Security held a hearing on the preservation of historic documents. As a result, the grant-writing arm of the National Archives decided to step up digitizing efforts and increase access by funding a pilot project through Documents Compass, a nonprofit specializing in such projects.

“There was a sense that we had all of these Founding Fathers’ documents that had not been published in a really rigorous way,— explained Sue Perdue, director of Documents Compass. Over the past 10 months, her organization worked with both the University of Virginia Press and the National Archives to bring the pilot to fruition.

The Rotunda Web site notes that these are only previews of the document transcriptions rather than final copies. Though all 5,000 have been reviewed for accuracy at least once, they’re slated to undergo additional scholarly scrutiny and annotation before being formally published in both print and digital editions. When the scholar-reviewed versions are eventually published, they will be removed from the free site and moved to the paid version of Rotunda.

But for now, interested users can access the free document.