In the Course of Human Events, Still Unpublished

By Jeffrey H. Birnbaum
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, December 15, 2007

More than 200 years after they were written, huge portions of the papers of America's founding fathers are still decades away from being published, prompting a distinguished group of scholars and federal officials to pressure Congress to speed the process along.

Teams of experts have been laboring since Harry Truman was president in the late 1940s to compile and annotate the letters, correspondence and documents of George Washington, John Adams, James Madison, Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson. About $58 million has been spent in the past 30 years alone.

Yet, according to a study by the National Historical Publications and Records Commission, the Washington papers will not be finished until 2023, with 54 volumes published and 35 more to go. The Adams papers, 29 volumes shy of the planned 59-volume set, will not be done until 2050.

Only the papers of Alexander Hamilton have been finished, largely because scholars did not have as many papers to comb through. Hamilton died at age 49 after a duel with Aaron Burr.

An assortment of highbrow lobbyists -- led by the Pew Charitable Trusts, and including presidential historian David McCullough, the librarian of Congress and the archivist of the United States -- have been trying to persuade lawmakers to allocate more funds for the effort, known as the Founding Fathers Project. They also want Congress to demand that the papers, as well as the scholarship that accompanies them, be much more widely distributed, especially online.

"I feel very strongly that this is as worthy as any publishing effort that I know of," said McCullough, winner of two Pulitzer Prizes. "It's just a shame that it is taking so long."

Dan Jordan, president of the Thomas Jefferson Foundation, describes the delay in harsher terms: "It's an embarrassment. I've also heard other words used, like 'criminal,' 'scandal.' "

Access to the documents, which include letters to and from the principals, diary and journal entries as well as official papers, has been strictly limited. Scholars, historians and other interested parties have been able to glimpse the originals over the years, but these privileged few have had to travel to the six locations where the documents are kept, primarily at major universities.

McCullough, for example, said he had access to the Adams papers at the Massachusetts Historical Society in Boston when he was researching his biography of the second president. But he said the book, which won the Pulitzer Prize, would have been better if the annotated version of those papers had been completed.

Many of the founding fathers' letters have been transcribed and made available over the years, and the original documents can increasingly be found online. But it is the painstaking annotation of these thousands of documents -- their detailed explanation -- that takes so long. Scholars check and double-check each reference and then try to explain each one and put it in context. A page of the massive annotated tomes can contain a snippet of a document and then a long footnote of explanation.

Scholars in charge of the five remaining sets of papers strongly believe that those annotations cannot be rushed and are resisting the lobbyists' push. They say that top-flight scholarship requires them to deal accurately and completely with these precious documents and that such work takes time -- lots of time.

"This is not an industrial process, this is a skilled process," said Stanley N. Katz, chairman of the Papers of the Founding Fathers, which represents the five efforts, many at major universities. "Scaling up would be difficult for us if we are to maintain the general character of the volumes we have now."

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