The names and public acts of the founding fathers are familiar to many Americans, but their thoughts have remained largely a mystery.
"People think it would be difficult to touch them as who they were," historian David McCullough told a recent Senate hearing. "And it is, except in what they wrote."
For 65 years, scholars have been compiling, transcribing and annotating the writings of Benjamin Franklin, George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and Alexander Hamilton. By the time the work is completed in 2049, the letters, diaries, official papers and other writings of the historical figures will be chronicled in 341 volumes, each 600 to 800 pages.
On Feb. 7, the Senate Judiciary Committee heard from scholars, librarians and others seeking to improve public access to the papers while the bound volumes are finished over the next 41 years. The consensus was that the papers should be available online, but there was little agreement on how -- and how rapidly -- that should be accomplished.
Brian Lee, a spokesman for the National Endowment for the Humanities, which provides financial support for the project, said in an interview that it was crucial to get the papers online quickly, and the fastest way to do that was "in the form of nonedited papers."
Such a move concerns historians, who gain as much from the editors' annotations of each detail as from the original words. "The footnotes are pure gold," McCullough told the panel. "Many are masterpieces of close scholarship."
Editing the documents is not a process that can be rushed, scholars said.
First, the documents are gathered from archives, libraries, private homes and other depositories. Then an editor transcribes each page, which may be blurred, faded or damaged.
After that, the transcription is annotated to identify each significant person, event and place mentioned in the text.
Editors then compare it with all other known texts of the document and note any variations.
Such close study is costly and time-consuming. So far, nearly $60 million in private and public money has been spent on the project. Rebecca W. Rimel, president and chief executive of the Pew Charitable Trusts, which has contributed more than $7.5 million, told the Senate panel that about one volume per founding father is completed each year.
The bound, annotated copies will be most beneficial to scholars, said Stanley N. Katz, a professor of public affairs at Princeton University and chairman of Papers of the Founding Fathers Inc., an umbrella group that raises money for the project.
But he acknowledged that the public would have easier access to the documents if they were online.
About two-thirds of the volumes have been published. Because Hamilton was only 49 when he was killed in a duel with Aaron Burr, he left fewer papers than the other five. The collection of his writings is the only one to be completed. One volume of the Hamilton papers costs $180; the complete set of 27 volumes is $2,600.
"We don't imagine any individual is going to buy these series," Katz said last week.
There is a split over where to put the online versions. Papers of the Founding Fathers supports digitization of "fully verified, scrupulously accurate texts" on a fee-based website at the University of Virginia Press. The Pew Charitable Trusts supports placing unannotated documents, along with digitized versions of the volumes as they are produced, "on a single, easily accessible and searchable website, such as that of the Library of Congress."
"It ought to be free to everyone," Rimel told the panel. "These are the founders' words."
In a September 2006 letter to the National Endowment for the Humanities, the editors of the five ongoing projects -- based at the University of Virginia, Princeton and Yale universities, the Massachusetts Historical Society and the Thomas Jefferson Foundation -- said that if they were given $13 million, all of the papers could be searchable online through a single database within five years.
The editors' plan would digitize the papers of Washington, Adams, Jefferson and Madison and make them available through Rotunda, an online publication service of the University of Virginia Press.
Franklin's and Hamilton's would be added online later. The plan calls for increasing staff and office space, as well as improving coordination among the five projects, which work independently.
Rotunda began digitizing the published volumes of the Washington papers in 2004, paid for by Mount Vernon and the University of Virginia. Even without a secure source of funding, the online project is moving forward, with Adams' papers due next month and Jefferson's and Madison's expected in the next year.
The price for access to all four presidents' papers has not been set. It is expected to be a sliding scale. For example, to gain access to the Washington papers already on the Rotunda site, individuals and high schools pay a one-time fee of $663, with prices increasing to $6,630 for large research universities.
"Once a library buys it, they have it forever," said Penelope J. Kaiserlian, director of the University of Virginia Press.
But the cost could prevent the public from getting the papers, said Deanna Marcum, associate librarian for library services at the Library of Congress.
She urged the senators to support placing an online version, including unannotated papers, at her institution, which she said already had digitized copies of the presidential papers of Washington, Jefferson and Madison.
"The scholarly editions in their current form are serving the scholarly community well, but we serve a different audience," she said.
Historians emphasized that placing the information online or speeding the process should not be allowed to affect the quality of the work.
The papers' editors, McCullough told the committee, "are the best in the business, and the high quality of the work they do need not [and] must not be jeopardized or vitiated in order to speed up the rate of production. There really should be no argument about that."
McCullough, who said he supported increased funding so that additional staff could be hired, noted that he had relied extensively on the founding fathers' papers for two of his bestselling books, "1776" and the Pulitzer-winning "John Adams."
"Their value is unassailable, immeasurable. They are superbly edited. They are thorough. They are accurate," he said, adding: "I know how essential the papers are to our understanding those great Americans and their time."