Grant Allows U.Va. Press to Make Founders' Documents Online Free to Public

October 11, 2010 — Letters, military strategies, meeting notes, journals and other historical documents from the Founding Fathers that illustrate the building of the United States of America more than 200 years ago will be made available to the general public for free, thanks to a cooperative agreement between the University of Virginia Press and the National Archives.

The agreement will create a new website to provide free access to the fully annotated published papers of key figures in the nation's Founding Era. The project is designed to include the papers of George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, Alexander Hamilton and Benjamin Franklin.

"This award to help the University of Virginia Press create a new online presence for the papers of our nation's founders is great news for the University and for scholars everywhere," U.Va. President Teresa Sullivan said. "For 10 years, the press has built on the pioneering vision of U.Va. faculty to harness digital technology in the service of scholarship and education through the Rotunda imprint.

"As a public university, we applaud the leadership of the National Archives in bringing this important archive to life. Making these materials available to the public for free reflects the core values of the University and indeed of our nation's founding generation, whose words will now be readily available to teachers, students and citizens."

The U.Va. Press – building on its landmark print editions of the founders' papers, and the work already accomplished by its digital imprint, Rotunda – will develop the new, searchable database of the papers accessible through the National Archives website. The National Historical Publications and Records Commission, the grant-making arm of the National Archives, will provide funding of up to $2 million for the U.Va. Press to undertake the work through Rotunda.

This Web resource will allow users to read, browse and search tens of thousands of documents from the founding era. A prototype website, including the contents of 154 volumes drawn from print editions of the papers of Washington, Adams, Jefferson and Madison, will be prepared by October 2011.

The fully public version will be launched by June 2012 and will also include the 27 volumes of the "Papers of Alexander Hamilton."

By June 2013, archivists expect to add the 39 published volumes of the "Papers of Benjamin Franklin." The new resource will include the complete contents of 242 printed volumes, including all of the existing document transcriptions and the editors' explanatory notes.

U.Va. houses the editorial offices of the papers of George Washington and James Madison, both published by U.Va. Press. Rotunda has published licensed digital editions of the papers of Washington, Adams, James and Dolley Madison and Jefferson. The press will continue to publish print editions of the papers of Washington and Madison.

"As the longtime publisher of the Washington and Madison papers, we are honored to be chosen to collaborate with the NHPRC to create The Founders Online," Penny Kaiserlian, director of U.Va. Press, said. "The work that the Rotunda staff have already done in recent years in creating digital editions of the papers of four of the founders will give the project a head start and allow us to bring this rich collection of documents to the public in less than two years."

"This new archive of the Founding Era will revolutionize our understanding by creating for the first time a free and fully searchable collection of the founders' own words in the context of their time," David S. Ferriero, archivist of the United States, said. "As scholars and statesmen debate the meaning of documents such as the Constitution and Bill of Rights, they can turn to the originals and the wit and wisdom of the founders' own debates. And we can only express our gratitude for the effort of dedicated editors and scholars to create this work, a national monument to the founding of our nation."

Historian Ron Chernow, author of the recent biography, "Washington: A Life," said, "Unfortunately, the founders have become remote and abstract, when in fact they are rich, full-blooded and fiery characters. This new site will not only help students learn more deeply and develop a visceral love and respect for this era, but it also will stimulate interest in history for teachers, too, and will reconnect them to primary sources."

In conjunction with entering into the cooperative agreement, Ferriero also announced the appointment of three leading scholars to a special Founding Fathers Advisory Committee. They are Edward L. Ayers, president of University of Richmond and leading scholar on the Civil War and American South (and former history professor and dean of U.Va.'s College and Graduate School of Arts & Sciences); Mary Beth Norton, professor of American history at Cornell University and leading scholar on the social and political era of 17th- and 18th-century America; and David Hackett Fisher, professor of history at Brandeis University, a leading scholar on the colonial era and Pulitzer Prize-winning author of "Washington's Crossing." The committee will advise the archivist on the progress of the founders' editorial projects; it is scheduled to meet at the National Archives on Dec. 13.

— By Anne Bromley