The Washington Post

National Archives puts Founding Fathers’ papers online

The story is told of Founding Fathers Benjamin Franklin and John Adams sharing a bed in a room with one window while staying in a New Jersey tavern in 1776.

Adams, afraid of the night air, closed the window. “Oh!” said Franklin. “Dont shut the Window. We shall be suffocated . . . Open the Window and come to bed, and I will convince you.”

Adams, writing in his diary, said he complied and got into bed. Franklin “then began an harrangue, upon Air and cold and Respiration and Perspiration, with which I was so much amused that I soon fell asleep, and left him and his Philosophy together.”

On Thursday, the National Archives plans to launch a new online tool that brings together the papers of Adams — including his diary — and George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, Alexander Hamilton, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison.

The “Founders Online” Web site makes the papers of these historic figures available for the first time in a free, searchable Internet source, the Archives says, and gives “a first-hand account of the growth of democracy and the birth of the Republic.”

For years, the Archives has helped publish original records of the Revolutionary War era. Documents were collected, transcribed, annotated and issued in hundreds of volumes.

That project is still underway, and it is the contents of those volumes that are now going online.

“This is huge,” David S. Ferriero, archivist of the United States, said Wednesday. “I can remember from my earliest days in the libraries at MIT as a shelver, shelving those blessed volumes.

“So to have lived to the point where now I can sit down at my desk and search . . . it’s really powerful,” he said. “The most exciting thing about the whole digital information world is the impact that it’s going to have on scholarship . . . the discoveries that people are going to make.”

The site is designed to be user-friendly even for school students, and Ferriero said he hoped it will help them learn how to do research.

And there is much more than dry accounts of bygone occurrences.

There’s a 1772 letter to Thomas Jefferson from his father-in-law reporting, among other things, that the sale of a shipload of 405 newly-arrived African slaves outside Richmond was going slowly.

There’s an early draft of what would become the Declaration of Independence, less artful than the final version, which Jefferson wrote in 1776.

It begins: “Whereas George . . . king of Great Britain . . . heretofore entrusted with the exercise of the kingly office in this government hath endeavored to pervert the same into a detestable and insupportable tyranny . . .

And there’s an intimate 1776 letter from Abigail Adams to her absent husband, John, about the family’s struggle to fend off smallpox via primitive inoculations.

“I write you now, thanks be to Heaven, free from paine, in Good Spirits, but weak and feeble,” she wrote after her inoculation. “All my Sufferings produced but one Eruption . . .

“The small pox acts very odly this Season,” she wrote. “There are Seven out of our Number that have not yet had it, 3 out of our 4 children have been twice innoculated, two of them Charles and Tommy have not had one Symptom . . .

“I believe you will be tired of hearing of small pox, but you bid me write every post and suppose you are anxious to hear how we have it,” she wrote.

She closed the letter, “I am at all times and in all States unfeignedly yours.”

The Web site was created through an agreement between the National Historical Publications and Records Commission, the grant-making arm of the Archives, and the University of Virginia Press.

Mike is a general assignment reporter who also covers Washington institutions and historical topics.


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