By EVELYN SINCLAIR
The North American delegates to the early Congresses, meeting first in Philadelphia in August 1774, wrote a lot, and roughly 10 percent of their letters and other written records have survived into the 21st century.
No one is more familiar with the 23,000 surviving documents than Paul H. Smith, editor of Letters of Delegates to Congress, 1774-1789. These 18th century manuscripts are like snapshots. They are pictures of the formative days of the United States and of those who fought to build a nation and shape a government. They offer an unparalleled opportunity to study these pictures of a developing republic.
About 20 percent of these surviving documents are housed in the Manuscript Division of the Library of Congress, another 20 percent at the National Archives. The remainder are scattered far and wide -- in archives, historical societies, universities, colleges and libraries in the 13 original states, in the West and the Midwest, in the homes of private collectors, on the shelves of dealers and autograph hunters, in Europe, or even farther away.
When the papers of the Continental Congress were transferred from the State Department to the Library of Congress in 1903 (before the National Archives existed) and the first of the 34 volumes of the Journals of the Continental Congress, 1774-1789, edited by Worthington D. Ford et al., was published by the Library of Congress in 1904, historians began to look carefully at the records of the activities of the early Congresses to see what they could learn about the beginnings of the nation. These official records were very spare, however, and to augment them, the historical research arm of the Carnegie Institution planned an edition of the letters and the reports that delegates in Congress had written back to their states about congressional business. The project to publish delegate letters to flesh out the journals began in 1906 and became Edmund C. Burnett's eight-volume edition Letters of Members of the Continental Congress (Washington: Carnegie Institution, 1921-36). Without benefit of photocopiers and with the interruption of a world war, it took Burnett three decades to produce these eight volumes of carefully selected and abridged materials.
Today, however, some 23,000 letters and other documents are published in their entirety in the 26 volumes of Letters of Delegates to Congress, 1774-1789. Mr. Smith and the editors working with him accomplished this feat at the rate of about one volume every 11 months, publishing the first in 1976 and the last, a cumulative index, this year. Each clothbound volume has illustrations, is indexed and is printed on acid-free paper. Volume 26 also provides a list, with dates of attendance, of the 344 delegates representing the 13 states who attended Congress during the 15 years when the colonists decided to declare their independence from Great Britain, fought for their rights and freedom, managed to achieve a confederation, composed and ratified the Constitution of the United States and elected their first president.
Some of these delegates are well known today -- George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, James Madison, Benjamin Franklin. But others are not and have remained in greater or lesser obscurity: John Dickinson of Pennsylvania, Samuel Chase of Maryland, John Witherspoon of New Jersey, Lewis Morris of New York, Oliver Wolcott of Connecticut, John Langdon of New Hampshire, Nicholas Van Dyke of Delaware, William Few of Georgia, or Thomas Bee of South Carolina. But these men, known or unknown, became the daily companions of the editors who sought out their letters in the repositories where they lay buried and sometimes forgotten.
Uncovering existing documents proved to be an exciting pursuit, each discovery leading to others, and each potentially shedding new light on what had been understood about the past. Essays supporting a strong central government, written anonymously in 1783 and attributed to James Madison, for instance, were discovered to be, in fact, written by John Francis Mercer. The editors began to realize that early historians had based many of their conclusions on the recollections of old men who reminisced about the years between the signing of the Declaration of Independence and the ratification of Constitution but distorted many of the hard facts. Even 50 years after the signing of the Declaration, by the anniversary year of 1826, the timing and details of critical events had become unclear. The importance of contemporary written documents was reinforced with every new letter the Letters editors read.
Joining Mr. Smith in this intensive research effort were, over the years, assistant editors Gerard W. Gawalt, Rosemary Fry Plakas, Eugene R. Sheridan and Ronald M. Gephart. These historians found the Library an ideal place to work. Over the course of two centuries, many private individuals contributed to enriching its holdings on the American Revolution, until these collections had become unsurpassed. The enormous collections of national and local history in the Library's general collections were only minutes away from the Letters project offices, and the expertise of colleagues both inside and outside the Library, offered freely and generously in support of the edition, proved invaluable.
The editorial team not only unearthed letters from previously unknown sources but also perfected an efficient mode of annotating the documents. They dated and identified the material, noted the location of the original document and supplied bibliographic references, but they resisted the temptation to go beyond giving basic explanations and useful information to comment on the relevance of the document or to place it in a larger historical context. Telling the larger story was left to the American historians and other interested readers who pick up these 26 volumes and make use of the published letters. Robert P. Hay, reviewing volume 25 of Letters of Delegates in the Winter-Spring 2000 issue of Ohio History, says that "the editorial work on this project has been exemplary indeed," and praises the project as "one of the most noteworthy and useful series to have appeared in the past 100 years of historical editing and publishing in America."
Just as the anniversary year of 1826 provoked recollections of the Declaration of Independence, it was the upcoming bicentennial of the American Revolution in 1976 that launched the anniversary programs at the Library of Congress that included the Letters of Delegates project, one of many publishing projects the Library undertook at the time. While doing the research for Manuscript Sources in the Library of Congress for Research on the American Revolution, a guide compiled by John R. Sellers, et al. (Washington: Library of Congress, 1975), the staff of the American Revolution Bicentennial Office located so many delegate letters in the Manuscript Division that they first proposed production of a supplement to Burnett and then expanded their proposal to a complete new edition of 25 volumes. Ten of the nation's leading historians serving as the Library of Congress American Revolution Bicentennial Advisory Committee immediately supported the idea and recommended seeking a grant from a major foundation. The Ford Foundation provided $500,000 toward an entirely new edition of delegate letters, and the project was launched in 1970 under Librarian of Congress L. Quincy Mumford, Assistant Librarian of Congress Elizabeth Hamer Kegan and Coordinator of the American Revolution Bicentennial Program James H. Hutson. The first two volumes were published in 1976 under director of publishing Sarah L. Wallace. As government publications, all the volumes have been distributed by the U.S. Government Printing Office to depository libraries in every congressional district, including many major university and research libraries.
The project continued under the administrations of the two succeeding Librarians of Congress, Daniel J. Boorstin and James H. Billington, the final volume coming out in this, the Library's Bicentennial year. A digital version of the 25 text volumes of Letters of Delegates, a fully searchable database, is available on CD-ROM (Summerfield, Fla.: Historical Database, 1998) (for Windows 3.1 or higher). Currently the National Digital Library Law Library Project is preparing an Internet version for the Library's American Memory Web site. Already available on the "Century of Lawmaking" site (http://memory.loc.gov/ammem/amlaw/lwjc.html) are the Journals of the Continental Congress.
Thus, either in print or electronically, the surviving 23,000 letters have been published for those who want to look through the widest window possible to study and understand the thoughts and actions of the men (their families and associates) and the Congress that lie at the heart of the nation's origins. To quote Robert P. Hay once again, "What an incredible tale we have seen unfolding, and how much there was -- and is -- to be learned! For years and years and years to come, we will be trying to get our minds around all that these volumes contain."
Volumes of Letters of Delegates to Congress, 1776-1789, 26 vols. (Washington: Library of Congress, 1976-2000), are available from the U.S. Superintendent of Documents, P.O. Box 371954, Pittsburgh, PA 15250-7954. Fax orders to 202 512-2250. Include the Government Printing Office stock number (for each volume) and the ISBN 0-8444-0177-3 (for the set) with the order. For more ordering information, visit the Government Printing Office bookstore online at bookstore.gpo.gov. Some volumes may be available through the Library of Congress Retail Marketing Office, 101 Independence Avenue S.E., Washington, DC 20540-4985; telephone (202) 707-0204; fax (202) 707-4047.
Ms. Sinclair is a writer-editor in the Publishing Office. Ronald M. Gephart, Manuscript Division, also contributed to this article.