From The Coalition Column of the March 2008 issue of Perspectives on History

Pushing the Pace on the Founders' Papers

Lee White, March 2008

In 2006, a book was published entitled What Would the Founders Do? a play on words on the adage, "What Would Jesus Do?" The cover of the book shows Washington, Hamilton, Franklin and other Founding Fathers sitting around a table in a modern day bar quaffing beers and presumably mulling over the events of modern day America and passing judgment on them.

Here in Washington recently, the answer to that question by some has become "We don't know what the Founders would do since it's taking so long to process their papers."
On December 15, 2007, the Washington Post published an article entitled "In the Course of Human Events, Still Unpublished," which brought attention to the length of time it was taking for the completion of the compilation and annotation of the papers of George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, James Madison, John Adams, and two projects encompassing the period prior to and during the presidency of Thomas Jefferson, as well as his post-presidency.

The Pew Charitable Trusts generated the sudden media attention on this topic. Pew President and CEO Rebecca Rimel, whose organization has contributed over $7.5 million to the various projects over more than two decades, has been quoted as saying, "The failure to complete these projects has become a national embarrassment."

To spur the federal government to move faster, last year the Pew Charitable Trusts hired former-Texas congressman Michael Andrews to lobby Congress to expedite the completion of the various projects.

The day after the Washington Post's article appeared, it became apparent that Andrews had earned his retainer. On December 16, 2007, Congress released the contents of the omnibus spending bill that would fund federal agencies through the remainder of fiscal year 2008. Tucked inside the massive report accompanying the bill was an expression of concern by the House and Senate Appropriations Committees about the length of time it was taking to complete the publication of the Founding Fathers historical papers. They instructed Allen Weinstein, the Archivist of the United States, to "accelerate the process" for completion of the projects and to develop a plan to make the papers available online "within a reasonable time frame." The archivist was given 90 days to report back to the committees, which will be late-March.

On February 7, 2008, the Senate Judiciary Committee convened a hearing to discuss the issues surrounding the expedited completion of the projects and increasing public access.
The leadoff witness was noted author David McCullough, who extensively relied on the Founder's papers for his Pulitzer Prize winning biography of John Adams. McCullough was effusive in his praise of the published papers of the Founders. "Their value is unassailable, immeasurable. They are superbly edited. They are thorough. They are accurate. The footnotes are pure gold—many are masterpieces of close scholarship."

However, McCullough made clear he was not merely endorsing expeditious processing. Speaking of the work of the documentary editors, McCullough said, "They are the best in the business and the high quality of the work they do need not, must not be jeopardized or vitiated in order to speed up the rate of production." McCullough argued for doubling the investment in the project, which would allow the hiring of additional skilled scholars, "and thereby pick up the pace with no change in quality."

Archivist of the United States Allen Weinstein agreed that the process needed to be accelerated and made available online. But he stopped short of revealing what his plans for reaching those goals would be.

Weinstein did note that producing online versions of the Founders' papers would require negotiation for the electronic rights with the copyright holders, namely university presses. He said that the presses and projects "have a long-standing financial interest in these collections as well as a commitment to thorough scholarship. At the same time scholarly presses have at the core of their mission open access to knowledge."

Deanna Marcum, associate librarian for library services at the Library of Congress, urged committee members to consider allowing the Library of Congress to serve as the host for the digitized collections of the Founding Fathers papers and to make them accessible in a single web site. She noted that the library has already digitized microfilm and made available all of the presidential papers of Washington, Jefferson, and Madison available online.

Rimel of the Pew Charitable Trusts was the next to testify. While echoing the views of the other witnesses that editing and annotating not be sacrificed to speed, she harshly criticized the pace, lack of oversight, and costs to the consumers of the finished projects. "There are no benchmarks or reporting requirements, and no one has ever questioned the efficiency of these programs or the pace of their progress." She noted that the cost of a full set of the 26 volumes of the Papers of Alexander Hamilton costs $2,600.

Rimel set forth three objectives for Congress to follow: First, a plan for the completion of the projects, with regular oversight until they are finished. Second, the expedited completion of the letterpress projects, but accompanied by sufficient funding and more accountability and efficiency. Finally, the published volumes should be digitized—along with the original, unannotated documents—and placed on a single, easily accessible web site, such as the one proposed by the Library of Congress.

Stanley Katz was the next to testify. Katz, professor at the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs at Princeton University (and a former president of the American Council of Learned Societies and vice president of the AHA's Research Division), is the chair of the board of the Founding Fathers Papers Inc., a tiny nonprofit group that represents the editorial projects established to publish the papers of Benjamin Franklin, George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison. Katz noted that by their nature these projects take a long time. He noted that while the projects are proceeding with all deliberate speed, they must be "speedy" but deliberate. He pointed out that these are works of scholarship that require craft skills and are not "an industrial process." Katz noted that the pace has picked up to the point that each project is publishing a volume per year. He also said that every one of the Founding Fathers projects is involved in the planning for or actually preparing its materials for digitization and subsequent electronic publication. Katz concluded by stating that Congress should increase the research budget of the National Endowment for the Humanities, and restore NHPRC to the fiscal year 2009 federal budget and fully fund it.

The controversy over the subject is far from over. The Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee is tentatively scheduled to hold an additional hearing on the subject and certainly the congressionally mandated report by the Archivist of the United States will generate more discussion.

—Lee White is the executive director of the National Coalition for History. He can be reached at lwhite@ historycoalition.org.