Stan Katz: Invited to testify about founding fathers' papers

How did you spend Thursday, Stan?

Well, it is a complicated story. I took Amtrak from Princeton Junction at 6:16 a.m. in order to make a 10 a.m. hearing of the Senate Judiciary Committee. Aha, you say, the chairman, Senator Leahy, a Vermont Democrat, wanted your views on waterboarding, or perhaps on whether or not to confirm the latest bunch of President Bush’s judicial nominees?

Nope. Senator Leahy wanted my opinion, and that of several others, on “The Founding Fathers’ Papers: Ensuring Public Access to our National Treasures.” Why me? Because my field (well, one of them) is constitutional history? Nope.

Since 1983 I have been the chairman of the board of the Founding Fathers Papers Inc., a tiny nonprofit group that represents the (originally five, now six) great editorial projects established to publish the papers of Benjamin Franklin, George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison. The projects, which began with the Jefferson Papers edition at Princeton in 1943, are actually edited at the Massachusetts Historical Society (Adams), Yale University (Franklin), and the University of Virginia (Washington and Madison). We split the Jefferson project into two in 1997, and the Thomas Jefferson Foundation at Monticello now supervises the editing of Jefferson’s retirement papers (after 1809). The six editorial teams have produced 207 volumes in the last half century, and they now publish roughly one volume per project a year. But the task is enormous, since the editing challenge is so complex, and at this pace we hope to finish all of the presidential projects (the full Adams family will take much longer) by the early 2020s.

The projects were originally backed by private individuals, corporations and private philanthropic foundations. FFP Inc. was established to assist the editors in raising private funds to support their work, and to relieve them of some of the fund-raising burden. But the federal government (the National Endowment for the Humanities and the National Historic Publications and Records Commission) have contributed almost as much money (around $60-million to date) to the effort.

Recently there has been pressure to pick up the pace of publication of the letterpress editions (large, heavily annotated volumes) and to supplement them with digital online versions. The FFP projects have in fact been digitizing their materials since 1988 with support from the Packard Humanities Institute, and the Rotunda imprint of the University Virginia press is now undertaking to provide online versions of the previously (and currently) published volumes.

But the Senate (both the Judiciary and Finance Committees) wants to know whether FFP can get this information (“our National Treasures”) to the public more quickly and in digital form. The pressure for this comes from one of the principal private funders, the Pew Charitable Trusts, which has hired a lobbyist to put pressure on the relevant federal agencies, and thus on FFP. Which is why I had to get up so early yesterday. …

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