The collection, selection, and publication of the correspondence of great (and not so great) Americans has a history nearly as old as the nation's. Volumes of letters began appearing by the early nineteenth century, including those authored by obscure as well as by famous men. As Thomas Jefferson once said, "The letters of a person, especially of one whose business has been chiefly transacted by letters, form the only full and genuine journal of his life."
The enterprise of publishing collections of letters changed, however, in 1943. That year the Thomas Jefferson Bicentennial Commission decided to provide for a new kind of edition: one that would be scholarly and complete, that would run to tens of volumes rather than one or two, and that would be supplemented with annotations and editorial essays. Only thus, the commission decided, could the life of the author of the Declaration of Independence be opened up to scholars, students, teachers, and members of the general public—to the American people. The first volume appeared in 1950.
This project spawned others, and in so doing transformed the work of documentary editing in the field of history. The papers of the great Founding Fathers—James Madison, George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, the Adams family, and Benjamin Franklin—began to take shape. So did editions of men and women of lesser reputation and slighter status, including Robert Morris, Aaron Burr, John Marshall, Dolley Madison, Benjamin Rush, and Eliza Lucas Pinckney. Some, like those of Hamilton and Rush, are long completed. Others, such as the papers of Jefferson himself, continue to be worked on to this day. The product of all this labor has been a trove of magnificent scholarship, valued not only for the wide-ranging and meticulously transcribed letters themselves, but also for the way in which their contents have been researched and explored.
After more than a half century of work, this vital national project has been transformed by the revolution in digital publishing. All of the papers of the Founding Fathers, once simply lined up book by book on rows of shelves in homes and libraries, will be available online through the National Archives at the request of the U.S. Congress and through Rotunda, the digital imprint of the University of Virginia Press, which has also created born-digital editions of the papers of other historical figures such as Eliza Lucas Pinckney and Dolley Madison. The Founding Fathers period has entered the electronic age.
People of the Founding Era (PFE) is both a product and a byproduct of this revolution in communications. The project addresses the issue not simply of how we distribute information, but of the tools we bring to bear in the analysis of that information. It is a cliché (and indeed incorrect) to say that books are linear while websites are not; after all, a book, and especially a book of letters, can be read in an entirely nonlinear fashion; pick up a volume and go to its index. But where electronic publications really differ is through the ways that new digital tools can structure our approach to and experience of the work.
Consequences of this revolution include the creation of new models of content and changes in scholarly conventions relating to paratexts. Given the right structure—employing databases and tagging—publishers and scholars can slice and dice information in many ways: they can aggregate and they can segregate; and they can—with the help of human intervention—make sure this is all done in ways that are consistent and that lead to approachable and simply visualized results. This revolution in communications has opened up many possibilities not only for documentary editing but for using the materials from those editions in new and exciting ways.
A Prosopographical Approach
The goal of People of the Founding Era is twofold: one is biographical; the other is prosopographical. These important and complementary approaches allow the user to discover a complex and rich set of offerings.
The biographical information that appears in People of the Founding Era is taken from the annotations and editorial apparatus created by the editors of the Founding Fathers and other authoritative editions. Information from numerous editions has been gathered and the biographical information aggregated into a biographical glossary of the Founding era. Readers will, for example, find various short biographies of the poet-diplomat Joel Barlow and the lawyer-statesman Richard Rush culled from different editions. PFE has brought together and presented these as a group so that users have decades' worth of research at their fingertips. Some subjects profiled are well-known individuals who can be found in the Dictionary of American Biography, such as Barlow or Rush. Sometimes they will be middling merchants and bankers, or county-level farmers, or local newspaper owners, men and women who were midlevel county citizens, neither members of the elite nor the poor and illiterate. Sometimes they are simple soldiers, such as John Belfour, or a slave, such as Matilda, a domestic servant who belonged to George Washington. These are people who will never be found in the Dictionary of American Biography.
As a biographical resource, then, PFE will be invaluable to scholars, students, teachers, and members of the general public as they explore historical sites and works (which often offer but glancing references to individuals without providing more full information or context). PFE will aid genealogists searching for family members. And PFE will allow the scholar and writer to discover more than was ever before possible about the people who wander in and out of their documents. For example, for someone writing about James Madison or Orange County, Virginia, or studying the slave trade in Virginia, the information that a low-level county official named James G. Blakey, a farmer and innkeeper who lived on the fringe of Madison's social world, was—among his many occupations—a slave picker may provide important context.
If one goal is biographical, the other is prosopographical. Prosopography is the study of groups—collective biography—and dates back to the early days of the professionalization of history in the late nineteenth century, with roots in the eighteenth-century encyclopedists. The word itself is from the Greek prosopon, or character, and graphy, or writing.
Much of the early prosopographical work was done in Germany on Roman history. One of the shining stars of the early movement for prosopography as encyclopedia was a German classicist named Friedrich Münzer, a Jew born in 1868 who converted to Lutheranism and died in 1942 at Theresienstadt. Rather than focus on the movers and shakers of the Roman world, the great men who stride through historical narrative, Münzer concentrated on hundreds of lesser people, working out family relationships as well as patterns of office holding, marriage, and naming conventions. The goal—and Münzer was only one of several such scholars—was to construct an accurate picture of how the Roman republic actually functioned, both socially and politically. Ronald Syme (1903–1989), a New Zealander who settled in Britain and taught classics and history at Oxford, publishing his greatest work, The Roman Revolution, in 1939, was deeply indebted to Münzer and the earlier generation of German scholars in his interpretation of Roman politics studied as collective rather than individual activity. Another great historian of the mid-twentieth century was Lewis Bernstein Namier (1888–1960), a Jew who left central Europe before World War I and spent most of his academic career at the University of Manchester. Namier looked to prosopography, rather than to one or two outstanding leaders, to explain great events. Instead of focusing on political parties and their ideologies, Namier committed himself to studying the individuals who made up the British Parliament, arguing that the party itself, whether Tory or Whig, was not simply an institution but a compilation of local interests and shifting alliances. The way to understand history was through collective biography rather than through focus on the great man or institution.
Prosopography, then, is a method of historical inquiry that studies collections of biographical material about people connected by family, friendship, patronage, commerce, voluntary associations, and religion, or associated by date or place.
In the United States, Charles Beard, focusing on economic relationships between the founders, in 1913 published An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution of the United States, using a rough form of prosopography. In the 1960s, U.S. historians turned their attention to social history—or history from the bottom up. American historians such as Stephen Thernstrom used a prosopographical approach to examine poverty and mobility in his Poverty and Progress: Social Mobility in a Nineteenth Century City, a study of Newburyport, Massachusetts, first published in 1964. Among historians, the term became well known in 1971 when the British historian Lawrence Stone wrote an essay published in Daedalus defining the term as part of the "new social history." It continues to be employed. As recently as 2001, Edward J. Balleisen identified his methodology of collective biography (albeit without using the term prosopography) in Navigating Failure, his study of "503 bankrupts whose commercial careers constitute the heart of this study."
Recently, there has been a rebirth of interest in prosopography because of the power of computer analysis and the ways in which databases can generate new ways of examining large sets of data. Several projects harness the power of population studies and collective biography through the World Wide Web, such as PASE, or the Prosopography of Anglo-Saxon England and The Prosopography of the Byzantine World, both out of King's College London.
People of the Founding Era thus attempts to marry two different approaches to history, biographical and prosopographical. The goal has been to pursue this quest through the analytic power of the computer, using databases and other tools to generate new ways to look at large sets of data.
An Overview of PFE
The creation of People of the Founding Era was made possible by the digitization of the editions of the Founding Fathers by the University of Virginia's digital imprint, Rotunda. Beginning with the Papers of George Washington in 2007, Rotunda has made available online over 200 volumes of Founding Fathers content. By aggregating from this digital resource all of the biographical content for a given person and presenting it to the user as a single and unique "record," PFE isolates relevant, informative text from references to people of the same name and simply passing mentions.
To date we have culled biographical statements from the annotations of The Papers of George Washington, The Papers of Dolley Madison, The Letters of Benjamin Rush, The Papers of Thomas Jefferson, and The Adams Family Papers. PFE is initially offering biographies for a sum total of 65,583 people, of whom 55,220 were men and 9,707 were women. In terms of occupations, 3,371 were in the military, 1,703 were politicians at some point in their lives, 3,211 were merchants, 1,855 were lawyers, 1,138 were physicians, 1,099 were writers, 4,775 were slaves, and 677 were planters. Some biographical entries are detailed; others consist of little more than a mention. (More subjects and a greater range of prosopographical and visualization tools will be added in subsequent versions.)
While PFE's biographies are aggregated from the biographical work found in the editions listed above, the same procedures were not used in creating the material for our prosopographies. It is important to understand, therefore, that although biographical statements appear as found in the original annotations, additional research has been conducted and new data added to expand the prosopographical depth of this publication. Data such as birth and death dates, places of birth and death, dates of marriage, and data relating to children and occupations have been incorporated into the cumulative data about these 65,853 people.
PFE does not constitute the re-creation of an entire world. Nor does it even provide a statistical sample. A Roman historian such as Ronald Syme could claim that in writing about the transformation of state and society in Rome between 60 bce and 14 ce, "emphasis is laid, however, not upon the personality and acts of Augustus, but upon his adherents and partisans." He followed the lives and actions and deeds of many, if not most, of those adherents and partisans. Edward Balleisen in his 2001 book used a set of 503 companies that had gone bankrupt in 1841–43; his evidence is restricted to information about a subset of companies, and he was able to identify and research that entire subset. Prosopographers such as Namier and Beard attempted to examine a whole, complete, world of people. They tried not to work with averages or percentages but to consider everyone. Indeed, reading the works of Lewis Namier is a bit like entering the world Anthony Trollope created in his Palliser novels. A writer, Trollope invented the dialogue and gossip that accompanied the imagined parliamentary maneuverings, but Namier also must have been able to imagine the unrecorded whisperings of the past from what his incredibly granular research about his population—and what he could read about their parliamentary activities—told him.
Scholars and students should remember, therefore, that although PFE covers well over 65,000 people, we do not know what percentage of women, or of those born in 1775, this population constitutes. PFE must be read as providing a sense of the period rather than a statistical whole. Relevant questions to consider might include, How many people were born in Ireland, who were they, what did they accomplish, where did they live, and how did they make a living? Is there a sense of community, or of change in that community over time? What does PFE reveal about migration patterns and how they changed? People of the Founding Era, again, follows a prosopographical approach. It is not intended to offer up a collected biography of any specific set of people who lived during the Founding Era. Rather, PFE attempts to pull together a combination of narrative and data that will become a critical tool for understanding these years and the people who inhabited that world.
PFE's methodology relies on computer, or automated, processes whenever possible, but relies on human analytic work to a great extent as well. The very first step of the project is to use machine-aided text extraction to identify and locate the relevant biographical text from each edition, using cues provided by the print editions' indexes. Next, the data resulting from the text extraction is assessed: Records from different sources about a single individual are merged into a single unique person record, referred to here as the creation of a name authority record. Additionally, records are split apart for different people of the same name, a process referred to here as deduplication.
Creating Unique Name Authority Records
As with a back-of-the-book index, the aim of PFE is to ensure that people with identical names are uniquely distinguished. Take the following example:
- Allan, John (1747–1805)
- Allan, John (of Frederick County)
Providing the finer-grained detail in parentheses allows users to identify the John Allan they are a looking for, or simply alerts them to the fact that information is provided for two John Allans.
A book's index functions as a name-authority system for the people mentioned in the book. Similarly, in a documentary edition that runs across many volumes, all names are ideally expressed the same way from one volume to the next. However, names are not consistently expressed from one documentary edition to another (from the Washington Papers to the Adams Papers, for example). Thus, PFE is designed to unify all of the records that come from the many sources for a unique person, and it assigns the most commonly used and most complete name to that record. At the same time, all alternative names, such as pseudonyms and nicknames, are tied to the main record. As with any name authority system, the objective is to point all versions of a name in use to a single record.
PFE derives its authority from the editions themselves in addition to the other authoritative works on which the additional PFE research relies. PFE is not intended to act as a name authority standard in the same way that the Library of Congress applies its name authority standard, one that establishes and shares its guidelines for the creation of library cataloging records. However, at some point, PFE records could be linked to outside name authority systems such as the Library of Congress's MAchine Readable Cataloging standard (MARC) or Virtual International Authority File (VIAF), making it more useful to users and relevant across other external content.
The process of machine-aided text extraction is very effective for extracting text and for making exact matches of like names, but automated processes are not able to discern when seemingly identical records (or persons with identical names) are mistakenly combined—machines will frequently make matches that are not true matches. Humans are thus required in such cases to assess the collected biographical narratives, supplemented with additional research, in order to determine when one person record should be split into multiple records. This process of deduplication is ongoing, particularly as each new population of names is merged into the original population.
Each person record in PFE contains the aggregated biographical references extracted from the documentary editions, providing as much of the original contextual information as possible to the user. As a further aid to users, each record provides links directly into the document in which the original content is located so the user can see the document in its entirety, including all of the annotation. PFE retains the extracted text verbatim from the original edition. When external resources are consulted in order to provide data in a person record, a Documents Compass Citation is provided. This is the case when we supplement what is known about a person from the documents in the documentary editions, or when we do not have any information from the documentary editions.
Structured Data: Prosopographical
While the biographical information is narrative in format, the prosopographical data is quite the opposite. It is structured. The data are controlled so that users get consistent and meaningful search results. This is a familiar concept to users of relational databases in which every field has controlled values from which users must select when creating new records or searching through them. In the same way, PFE has restrictions in place for the expression and creation of all the structured data. All of the data in the prosopography side of the project follows the established categories and vocabularies, or taxonomies, in use.
PFE created some of this structured data at the outset of the project during machine-aided extraction. For example, all records were assigned a gender value of male as a default value. Other values such as surname and forename were extracted automatically based on heuristic models (e.g., predictable textual patterns) that are found in the source material; that is, the formulaic expression of names in the index as Last name, First name. (The initial capital letter and the separating comma are key to this formula.) The project leveraged to the fullest extent possible the potential data "points" that could be safely assigned without human intervention.
The next step was to fill in each person record with whatever data could not be populated through the automated process described above. This includes first and foremost life dates, place of birth, place of death, name components (e.g., surname, married name, and nicknames), and occupation. PFE controls the expression of all of this data by standardizing it as has been noted. For example, a birthdate of "the 1st of January in 1783" is not searchable in the way that 1783-01-01 is. The use of a prescribed date format (YYYY-MM-DD) that adheres to the International Organization for Standardization (or ISO), means dates are uniform and searchable.
PFE looked to external controlled vocabularies when addressing the variety of occupations practiced during the Founding era. This choice was made because occupations are not referred to in the same way across all of the biographical sources, nor are all still practiced. There were concerns that users of PFE would not be able to query the data for occupations in a meaningful way without the application of some form of standardized vocabulary, or taxonomy, to describe the occupations represented in the data. PFE has over 1,400 unique occupations.
PFE turned to a freely available taxonomy called Human Relations Area Files (HRAF) to create its controlled occupational vocabulary. The primary advantage HRAF provides is its broad spectrum of generic descriptive categories: these classifications obviate the need to define occupations no longer practiced. For instance, HRAF's super- and sub-categories classify a "cradler" as someone active in agriculture, and more specifically, tillage. These categories can be used to filter the search results.
In many cases we know a good deal about a person from the documentary editions that provide extensive biographical content. Some of these people can be found in prominent biographical dictionaries such as the Dictionary of American Biography, the Dictionary of Virginia Biography, or the Biographical Directory of the United States Congress. Consulting these resources enables us to fill in much of the data right at the start. In thousands of cases, however, the factual data we have from the editions is limited because the person named is peripheral to the edition or little is known about the person. In these cases we must do additional research to fill in the gaps. In order to do this, PFE has turned to the plethora of resources available online. The increasing digitization of both primary sources and historical scholarship provides an excellent opportunity to cull quickly and easily material that would once have required hours of labor and countless miles of travel to collect. Far-reaching projects such as Google Books have placed thousands of monographs at the fingertips of scholars, while more directed efforts such as America's Historical Newspapers provide in one place entire collections of historical media. Likewise, the Internet plays host to the work of generations of genealogists, with both reproductions of nineteenth-century texts and contemporary databases such as Ancestry.com available for view. These kinds of sources, with their focus on family instead of on historical prominence, contain information about many figures otherwise absent from the record. Wikipedia, although not considered authoritative by some, is fairly reliable for well-known individuals, and it leads us to external sources. Many people in PFE do not appear in Wikipedia.
Starting from the material provided by the editors, as well as clues in the Founding Fathers' letters themselves, PFE's staff have used these digital resources to expand what is known about the PFE population. As with any historical undertaking, it has been our responsibility to weigh the reliability of the material we encounter online. In our research, credence is given first to the editors' work and other academic efforts, such as American National Biography, over the less-well-cited works of amateurs and family historians. When faced with conflicting factual data from the documentary editions, the most frequently cited value is used.
Beyond the information the project has collected about this population's individuals, PFE also seeks to build connections between them. As noted above, prosopography explores a society's interrelations to build a picture of how it functioned. This first version of PFE focuses primarily on kinship connections to provide an idea of the structure and connections between the era's most significant families. To this end, we have also added family members not mentioned in Rotunda's Founding Era Collection when we can find reliable sources providing information about their lives and relations. Between the aggregation of biographical text, the structuring of significant life data, and the construction of networks, PFE seeks to provide users with a variety of perspectives from which to view the material collected in People of the Founding Era.
The Next Phase
Thanks to a fourth grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation awarded in early 2014, PFE continues to expand its database, incorporating the following editions and projects of the Founding Era: The Papers of Eliza Lucas Pinckney and Harriott Pinckney Horry, Index of Virginia Printing, The Geography of Slavery in Virginia, Creating a New Federal Government, and Thomas Jefferson’s Dinner List Project. Many of those records are included in this third installment and all will be included in the fourth installment in early 2016.
The editors of PFE would like to thank the following: For their oversight, management, and data-herding skills, project managers Martin Kane, Trevor Hiblar, and Chris Martin. For their help in originating the project concept, we thank Jean Bauer, Mary MacNeil, and Susan Severtson. People who helped at the University of Virginia include Sara Lee Barnes, Alison Booth, Worthy Martin, and Daniel Pitti. We have many individuals from documentary editing and other projects to thank including: David Mattern and John Stagg (James Madison Papers), David Hoth, Ed Lengel, and Jennifer Stertzer (George Washington Papers), C. James Taylor (Papers of John Adams), Connie Schulz and Mary Sherrer (Pinckney Papers), Susan Spengler (Jefferson Papers: Retirement Series), Daniel Preston, Cassandra Good, and Heidi Stello (Monroe Papers), David Rawson (Virginia Printers), Peter Kastor (Creating a Federal Government), and Tom Costa (Geography of Slavery). At the Massachusetts Historical Society we thank Ondine LeBlanc and Nancy Heywood. At Poplar Forest we thank Wayne Gannaway and Travis McDonald. At Monticello we thank Christa Dierksheide. At Ash Lawn-Highland we thank Sara Bon-Harper. Harold Short and Jonathan Bradley at King's College London have been supportive of this project from the outset.
Thanks to the staff of IDM including Jason Bush, Paul Hayslett, Helen Langone, and Allan Orsnes. Many thanks as always to Stephen Perkins of Infoset. We would not have got this project off the ground without them. The same is also true for the staff of Rotunda at the University of Virginia Press, including Jason Coleman, Tim Finney, Mark Saunders, David Sewell, Shannon Shiflett, and the Press's former director Penny Kaiserlian. We are especially thankful to Bill Womack for his superb design of PFE that truly brings it to life.
The project relies on the efforts of numerous students (undergraduate and graduate) and temporary staff at U.Va. They include the following: James Ambuske, Elspeth Berry, Adrian Brettle, Jessie Brunelle, Tom Butcher, Michael T. Caires, Dane Cash, John Conroy, Chris Cornelius, Amy Larrabee Cotz, Sarah Donelson, Julie Doxsey, Helen Dunn, Emma Earnst, Jennifer Elliot, Stephanie Finn, Leif Fredrickson, Mary Mason Williams Foukal, Andrew Garland, Bonnie Gill, Mahati Gollamudi, Evan Hall, Stephanie Kingsley, William Kurtz, Kristen Lochrie, Chris Martin, Paul Mawyer, Gavin Murray-Miller, Alexandra Natoli, Steve Neumeister, Lindsay O'Connor, Erin O'Hare, Olga Revenko, Paul Ringel, Holly Runde, Emily Sandberg, Greg Seib, Amanda Thompson, Greta Von Kirchmann, Katherine Zantow, and Michael Zielinski.