History buffs will soon be able to explore the private thoughts and official writings of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and other Founding Fathers in a public, online clearinghouse of their letters, journals and other documents.
The University of Virginia Press is putting the published papers of Washington, Jefferson, John Adams, James Madison, Alexander Hamilton and Benjamin Franklin on a National Archives website that is expected to be accessible to the public in 2012.
When complete, the website will allow users to read, browse and search the text of tens of thousands of documents from the period.
"There's great interest in the founding era now, more than there has been for the last 30 years," said Penny Kaiserlian, director of the Charlottesville, Va.-based publisher. "People want to go back to what the founders said, rather than what people say they said. This will give people the ability to check out quotations and get documents, and in general, get a picture of the daily life of the founders."
Offering the texts online and free of charge helps takes the Founding Fathers' correspondence out of the scholarly realm and move it into the hands of the public, including history teachers and students, said Edward Lengel, editor-in-chief of the Papers of George Washington, at the University of Virginia.
The National Historical Publications and Records Commission, part of the National Archives, will provide up to $2 million for the project.
The archive will give people direct access to primary sources that tell the stories of the men in the context of the times during which they lived and helped shape. Some of the collections also include documents from their childhood and retirement years, giving fuller glimpses into their lives.
Among the Founding Fathers' documents is Washington's letter in April 1777 to Elizabeth Mallam Neil, widow of a captain killed at the Revolutionary War's Battle of Princeton. At the time, Washington was commander in chief of the Continental Army and the Continental Congress hadn't yet enacted any measures to compensate the families of soldiers killed in the line of duty.
Washington closes his letter: "In the meantime, as I sincerely feel for your distress, I beg your acceptance of the Inclosd as a small testimony of my inclination to serve you upon any future occasion." His final notation: "Fifty Dollars sent."
"But he was not just a hero who strutted about performing great deeds," Lengel said of Washington. "He was a human who had his foibles, and could be jealous, angry and even crude at times. But he was a man who, despite all his flaws, walked the road to greatness."
The papers also serve as a reflection of American society at the time, Lengel said.
"You had thousands of people from all walks of life -- slaves, workmen, pioneers and politicians -- showing up" in documented interactions with the first president.
James Madison is primarily known as a principal architect of the Constitution's Bill of Rights. But records and correspondence from his service as Jefferson's secretary of state, and later as the nation's fourth president, will offer the public a more thorough picture of his accomplishments, said J.C.A. Stagg, editor-in-chief of the Papers of James Madison.
"He did a lot of significant things after he finished the Bill of Rights," Stagg said. "It was not downhill after that. The picture enshrined in the popular imagination is very misleading."
The U.Va. Press already has published volumes of print editions of the founders' papers, and a number of the documents appear online on its subscription-only digital site, Rotunda. U.Va. archivists will use the online documents as the framework for the National Archives' searchable database. The original documents are housed at the Library of Congress.
When complete, the website will include the complete contents of 242 printed volumes, including all of the existing document transcriptions and editors' explanatory notes.
A prototype website that includes the print editions of the papers of Washington, Adams, Jefferson and Madison is expected to be ready in about a year. A full, publicly accessible version that includes volumes from the Papers of Alexander Hamilton is expected to go live by June 2012, and by the following year, the collection is expected to include published volumes of the Papers of Benjamin Franklin.