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."
The timeline is so long that Rebecca W. Rimel, the Pew trusts' president, said only half in jest that her goal is to have the papers completed "in our lifetime."
Pew, a large foundation in Philadelphia, has been trying to make the founding fathers' writings accessible to the public since 1981. It has poured $7.5 million into the papers and wants to see that investment reach fruition.
Rimel and Jordan took a major step in that direction in the 1990s. They were instrumental in persuading Princeton University to allow a portion of Jefferson's papers, those from his retirement years, to be annotated by the Thomas Jefferson Foundation near Jefferson's home, Monticello, in Charlottesville. Princeton had been working on Jefferson's oeuvre by itself since the 1940s, but agreed to split off the final papers Jefferson accumulated as a way to complete the full set of documents earlier than expected.
The effort has speeded publication considerably. But, typically, the decision did not occur without a fight. John Catanzaritti, who was the editor of the papers at Princeton, took early retirement rather than see the project divided into two parts, Katz and Jordan said.
Pew is now trying a new, governmental tack to move the process forward. At least $30 million of taxpayer funds have gone into the papers projects since 1965, though federal accounting has not always been easy to follow.
This year Pew retained Michael A. Andrews, a former Democratic congressman from Texas, to organize an effort to persuade Congress to provide more oversight for the projects and to scare up more funding for them.
Rimel and Andrews assembled a heavyweight group of advocates. In addition to McCullough and Jordan, its supporters include Richard Moe, president of the National Trust for Historic Preservation; U.S. Archivist Allen Weinstein; and Deanna B. Marcum, an associate librarian of Congress, who represents Librarian of Congress James H. Billington.
Besides their concern about the pace of the projects, the activists are eager to provide the scholarship and the papers to a broader audience. A recent poll of public libraries found that very few have many if any of the volumes on their shelves.
The main reason is cost. A complete set of 26 volumes of the papers of Hamilton runs about $2,600.
"Many of us have been concerned that the scholarly editions have been very slow to be produced, and ordinary people don't have as much access to those materials as we would like them to have," Marcum said. "We've already digitized the founding fathers' papers that we hold at the Library of Congress; we would like to see more of this kind of access to such papers from the projects as well."
That's easier said than done, the papers' editors say, especially when it comes to the annotated books. "We would love to have the volumes done and would love to do them more quickly, but physical and fiscal constraints indicate that's not likely to happen," said Theodore J. Crackel, editor of the Washington papers at the University of Virginia.
"It's unrealistic unless we radically reconceptualize the product," Katz agreed.
Both men noted that efforts have already been stepped up to put the documents onto the Internet, with the University of Virginia considered a leader in that effort.
But the Pew-led lobbyists are not satisfied that enough has been accomplished, especially McCullough, who does not believe that a quicker completion would sacrifice quality. Instead, he blames the slow progress on "the little fiefdoms of each project, which have been working in their own way in their world for over two generations."
"I liken this all to the Washington Monument, which ran out of money and stood there on the Mall like a giant marble stump," he said. "Finally, they went ahead and finished it."
The papers project also needs to be completed, he said. "It is a monument that will last longer than any of the monuments we now have."