Founding Fathers' Writings (Spring 2008 Trust Magazine briefing)

Source Organization: The Pew Charitable Trusts

04/30/2008 - Thomas Jefferson, who loved reading history, made a good bit of it himself—as did our nations’ other founding fathers. These men kept meticulous records of their thoughts and deeds—believing that their accounts would help later generations understand and better appreciate the early struggles for freedom.

“It is the duty of every good citizen,” said Jefferson, “to use all of the opportunities which occur to him for preserving documents relating to the history of our country.”

It has taken a while, but his words are being heeded.

More than 50 years ago, Congress approved the Founding Fathers Papers Project to oversee the publication of definitive editions of six founders’ writings, along with the historical notes and edits that would make the meaning and context of these documents clear to modern audiences. Since 1981, Pew has supported this work, contributing more than $7.5 million to the project as well as to specific universities overseeing individual editing efforts.

But progress has been slow. While Alexander Hamilton’s papers have been completed in 26 volumes, George Washington’s papers will not be complete until 2023 (54 volumes have been published, with 35 to go). Jefferson’s end date is 2025 (34 published and some 40 to go). Benjamin Franklin’s is 2016 (38 done, 9 to go); James Madison’s, 2030 (30 done, at least 16 to go); and John Adams’s, 2050 (30 published, 29 to go).

And although the intent has always been to make the papers widely available to the public, the cost to do so has become increasingly prohibitive. A single Hamilton volume costs $180, and the complete set $2,600, for example—out of the reach of most public libraries and institutions of higher learning. Indeed, a recent poll of 200 major public libraries found that just 12 had more than one founding-father volume.

In February, the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee held hearings on the founding fathers project to explore ways to hasten the scholarly work and its public dissemination. Pew president and CEO Rebecca W. Rimel, invited to testify, called for an accelerated publication schedule, wider public access to the papers through digital technology and greater congressional oversight of this important federal initiative.

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