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Frequently Asked Questions

What is the purpose of this website?
If you are interested in the ideas behind the founding of our democracy, you can use Founders Online to go straight to the source. Founders Online collects in one place the papers, written by or addressed to, six key figures of the era: George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and Benjamin Franklin. All citizens can now access annotated first drafts of the Declaration of Independence, the spirited debate over the Constitution and Bill of Rights, and the records of the very beginnings of our national story. You can also read firsthand the details of the Founders’ personal lives as told in their own voices.
Where are the original versions of these documents? Can I get photos of them?

Founders Online does not have or provide digital images of the original manuscripts.

The documents are from archives across the United States and around the world, and some are owned by individuals. Many of them are housed in the Library of Congress and the National Archives. As a result, it is almost impossible for any individual to see all the original documents.

You can usually determine the location of the original version of an item by looking at the source note for the document. The source note is a series of abbreviations located in the notes section at the end of each document. The abbreviations are shorthand for the type of document and the repository where the original is located. For example, a source note that states “ALS, DLC:GW” means that the item is a signed letter in the author’s own handwriting (known as an autograph letter signed) that is located in the George Washington Papers at the Library of Congress. If you mouse over an abbreviation, a pop-up text will appear that provides these details.

Why are these documents transcribed?
Most of the original documents are handwritten and are difficult to read. Transcriptions make them legible for you. Yet at the same time, they preserve the original spellings, terms, and editing of their writers. High-quality digital images of manuscript pages are not available for most of the thousands of documents reproduced here.
Who created the transcriptions and notes?
The massive work of locating, transcribing, and annotating all of the documents has been done by the editorial staffs of the six Founding Fathers projects at the University of Virginia, University of Chicago, Princeton University, Columbia University, the Massachusetts Historical Society, the American Philosophical Society, and Yale University. You can read the About page for an overview of their work and links to information on each project. For the past fifty years the National Archives, through its National Historical Publications and Records Commission, has supported these projects.
How should I cite a reference to a document in Founders Online?

There is a “Cite As” section in the right-hand sidebar of each document that gives a suggested citation form. You should include at least the title and the URL; the “Original Source” information is optional, as a reader can find that information by referring to the online document. Please do not cite only the original source information without the website information, because the version in Founders Online may contain corrections not present in the earlier print version.

Note that your publisher or school may recommend or require a specific format for citing online resources. If so, use that format, just being sure to include all the relevant information given in our “Cite As” form.

I have what might be an original Founding Era document. Can you authenticate it and/or tell me its value?

Founders Online is a cooperative project of the National Archives and Records Administration (“National Archives”), through its grant-making arm, the National Historical Publications and Records Commission (“NHPRC”), and the University of Virginia Press (“UVA Press”), a part of the University of Virginia. Neither the NHPRC, nor the UVA Press, appraise or authenticate documents for the public.

Persons interested in having a document or record authenticated or appraised may wish to contact either the Antiquarian Booksellers Association of America (“ABAA”) or the International Society of Appraisers (“ISA”); both organizations maintain lists of their members who are qualified to appraise historic documents, records, books, and related materials. Information on the ABAA may be found at its website ( and the ISA at its website ( Neither the National Archives nor the UVA Press endorses the services provided.

Is there an API that provides access to document data?
We offer an API that allows users to download machine-readable data (in JSON format) containing basic metadata for documents along with a plain-text transcription of document content (minus editorial notes).
Who did the work that went into this site?

The University of Virginia Press directed the digitization of the printed volumes (for the Adams Papers, in collaboration with the Massachusetts Historical Society). The text of each volume was rekeyed or, for the most recent volumes, extracted from digital files, and then marked up in XML (using the guidelines of the Text Encoding Initiative ). (The documents from Thomas Jefferson’s retirement period are a special case: they were created from the start as XML by the staff of The Papers of Thomas Jefferson: Retirement Series.) The rich XML markup permits linking of notes and cross-references, mouseover expansion of abbreviations, and querying on features such as names and dates. The core programming that runs the search and display interface of Founders Online was also done by UVA Press technical staff.

The Ivy Group of Charlottesville, Virginia, was responsible for the preliminary user surveying, site navigation and graphic design, web styling, layout, and most of the JavaScript underlying Founders Online.

What software powers this site?
Founders Online uses the MarkLogic database and application server to index, search, and deliver content stored natively as XML. This system provides the faceted search facilities that make it easier to find the documents you want.
Will more content be added in the future?

Except for the Hamilton Papers, the projects represented in Founders Online are ongoing and continue to publish new volumes. Depending on our agreement with each project, we aim to add documents from these volumes about 18 to 24 months after print publication.

The funding authorized for Founders Online specified the six projects that are included here. Expansion in the future is possible but would require additional funding and agreements with copyright holders.

Why are there duplicate copies of some documents?

Mainly because they are represented in more than one of the Founding Fathers published editions. Consider a letter from Thomas Jefferson to George Washington: it will naturally appear in both The Papers of Thomas Jefferson and The Papers of George Washington, and we reproduce both versions here. You may notice that transcriptions differ slightly (sometimes because different source texts were transcribed), and of course the annotations will be unique to each project. In the case of Washington’s letters, much of his Revolutionary War correspondence is reproduced or summarized in the Hamilton Papers because Alexander Hamilton, as Washington’s aide-de-camp, actually drafted them. And there are duplicates in the Madison Papers of some diplomatic communications that were sent in multiple copies.

In addition, for diary volumes from the Adams and Washington Papers, we have split each daily entry into a single document for granular results in searching, but also created single documents for entire months, to make it easier to read larger segments. (For example, the year 1788 from John Quincy Adams's diary.) This means that search results may include both the single-day and the whole-month context from the same volume.

What do special marks in the transcriptions like brackets and deletions mean?

In order to prepare transcriptions of these original documents, each editorial project had to agree on how to indicate where a writer revised the text. In general, brackets or superscripts will indicate additions to the text in the documents. Words or letters that are crossed out in transcriptions were also crossed out in the originals. These changes can help you see the changes made by each author as he wrote his thoughts. In some documents, mousing over words in brackets will provide a tooltip explanation of the editorial change.

We plan to add links to more explanatory material concerning the different projects’ editorial policies in a future release.

Why do some items appear in search results as “not found”?
In some cases, if the editors know that a letter or document existed because of other references to it, they include what information they know about it. If they never found an item (perhaps because it was lost or destroyed), they want to share this fact with users.
How did you come up with the look for the website?
The floral border is based on wallpaper from James Madison’s Montpelier estate. See “About the Art” for more information.
If I notice a bug in the website or a possible error, how do I let you know about it?
Please refer to our contact page. (If you find a misspelling in a document, keep in mind that 18th/19th-century spelling was less regular than our own. But do report possible errors in the editorial notes.)