Founders Online: The Ultimate Source in Founding History


Launched on June 13th in Washington, D.C., the Founders Online website at the National Archives allows people to search an archive of the Founding Era. Anyone… students, researchers, citizens, lawyers can follow the debate about different founding documents such as the Constitution and the Bill of Rights.

The papers of Benjamin Franklin, George Washington, John Adams (and family), Thomas Jefferson, Alexander Hamilton and James Madison and those who corresponded with them have been assembled in 242 documentary editions.

For the past 50 years, the National Archives has been copying documents from collections in the United States and around the world to create a record of the Founding Era. They have transcribed thousands of primary source documents… letters, diaries, ledgers and legislative drafts. They have transcribed these documents, added annotations to broaden understanding, and created volumes of books.

Launched initially with 120,000 fully searchable documents, The National Archives expects to have approximately 175,000 records.  Founders Online gives the following suggestions to help with research:

Researching a person: To discover the writings to/from a specific person, use the author and recipient facets on the Founders Online home page, or whenever the facet choices appear on the search or search results pages. Entering the first few letters of the last name in the empty box that appears above a facet name list will narrow the number of choices.

Beyond a person’s own writings, you may also want to search for items that mention the person in the writings of others. For example, you are interested in Mercy Otis Warren (1728–1814), a Boston woman known for her political writings. Warren wrote and received letters, and you can conduct the faceted search described above to locate these items. However, there are also references to Warren written by other individuals. To find these, conduct a general search for her using the phrase “mrs warren.” Such a search will result in many additional documents.

Researching a time period: To focus on a particular time period, select one of the predefined time periods and then narrow your search by entering terms in the search bar. Then click “Go.” Or use the date selector on the search page to enter a start date, end date, or both, to filter your results. (The dates searched are the dates when documents were written, when that is known.)

Researching a concept: Concepts are best searched for by experimenting with variations of search terms. Individuals used different terms for concepts over time and often did not use terms consistently. For example, you can search for such concepts as liberty, freedom, “bill of rights” or “freedom of the press” or “checks and balances” as single terms, or phrases (using quotation marks), or by using Boolean searching. Once you have a result set, sorting by Relevance will give highest ranking to documents whose title contains your search terms, or where your search terms occur at a high frequency relative to document length.

A guide with details about how to search this site can be found at .  The database has two nice features: the citation on the right side column and a permalink to each document.

A search on the topic of “Sally Hemings” resulted in the following letter describing Thomas Jefferson:

sallyhemingsThe footnotes below the letter contain biographical information about Elijah Fletcher and “Black Sal.”


Besides insights into their private lives, the Founders Online site provides understanding into the various Founders’ views on many public policy issues related to the founding or our country.  Having so many primary source documents transcribed and available online can further the discourse in our own era.

~Betty Thomas~

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Filed under electronic resources, Library, Of Interest to Law Students, Websites

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