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Now Screening: American Founding Era Papers

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Now Screening highlights NYPL's recent electronic resource acquisitions.  This month: American Founding Era Papers, available at any NYPL location, or remotely using your library card.

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Everyone's talking about the ten dollar Founding Father these days.  If you are researching the Revolutionary Era, or would like to learn more about the subjects of Ron Chernow's biography and Lin-Manuel Miranda's musical, the New York Public Library's database American Founding Era Papers is for you.  

This resource gives you online access to the collected correspondence and other documents of early American historical figures like George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Dolley Madison, and yes, Alexander Hamilton.  If you've enjoyed our current exhibition, Alexander Hamilton: Striver, Statesman, Scoundrel, or if you cannot visit New York City in person, American Founding Era Papers also gives you access to transcribed versions for many of the exhibition's items.

You can browse this database by contents (for example, to locate the digital equivalent of Volume 2 of the John Jay Papers), date, or index.  So if you were intrigued by Hamilton's letter to George Washington outlining the Newburgh Conspiracy in our exhibition and wanted to read it in full, it's as simple as navigating by "Chronology" to the documents dated February 13, 1783:

Screenshot for browsing documents by chronology
Browsing by date in American Founding Era Papers

You can browse across all documents in the database (Publication = Founders (All)), or limit the documents to a particular person's papers.  Each document is transcribed — so you do not need to decipher tricky colonial manuscript — and includes notes on its source, editorial annotations, and citation details.  The John Jay Papers also include links to digital facsimiles of the original documents.

Beginning of Alexander Hamilton's February 13, 1783 letter to George Washington, from the American Founding Era Papers database
Beginning of Alexander Hamilton's February 13, 1783 letter to George Washington, from the American Founding Era Papers database

Browsing by index can helpfully group together documents on a similar theme.  For example, if you would like to learn more about Hamilton's affair with Maria Reynolds, you can browse his index's "R" entries, including Reynolds, James; Reynolds, Maria; "Reynolds Affair;" and "Reynolds Pamphlet."  All index entries are hyperlinked to the documents referenced.  By consulting the index, you can discover that American Founding Era Papers contains both the final version of the Reynolds Pamphlet, on display in our exhibition, as well as Hamilton's edited draft:

Screenshot for browsing documents by index
Entry for Reynolds Pamphlet in the Alexander Hamilton cumulative index
Beginning of Alexander Hamilton's draft of the Reynolds Pamphlet, from the American Founding Era Papers database
Beginning of Alexander Hamilton's draft of the Reynolds Pamphlet, from the American Founding Era Papers database

For Hamilton and Washington, all volumes of their papers have been combined into cumulative indices.  For the other Founders, each volume (corresponding to the volumes of the original print editions) has its own index.  Rather than checking each volume's index separately, you might find it easier to search for your topic.

Like browsing, you can search across the entire database, or limit your search to an individual person's papers.  To begin, select "Search" from the main navigation bar:

Screenshot of main navigation bar with Search selected

The search form provides options for fine-tuning your search across multiple fields.  Here are a few tips on how to maximize your searching power: 

  1. Use "Text" to search the full text of all documents in the database.

  2. Use “Scope” to search documents, editorial notes, or both.

  3. The database includes documents in both English and French.  Use "Languages" to limit results to one of these.

  4. The database automatically “stems” your search terms (including French words).  This means that searching for "duel" will also return documents containing the words "duels," "duelling," and "duellers."  It also ignores diacritics — searching for revolution will also find the word révolution.  Finally, it is only case-sensitive when you include capital letters.  If you search weeks, you might find references to weeks as a measurement of time as well as alleged murderer Levi Weeks, but if you search Weeks, you'll limit your results to the latter.  To work around these database rules and search for exactly what you type, check the "Exact form" box.

  5. Multiple search terms are automatically combined with and.  Searching for louisiana purchase will return documents containing both of these terms anywhere in them.  To look for these two terms next to each other, enclose them in quotation marks.  To look for either term, search louisiana or purchase.

  6. Wildcards: use * for zero or more characters, or ? for exactly one character.

  7. Use “Names” to search correspondence by author and/or recipient.

  8. Use "Publications"  to limit your search to a specific individual's papers.

  9. Use "Order by" to sort your search results by relevance, date, or reverse date.  Unlike most databases, this option cannot be changed from the search results screen.  However, you can always select "Refine Search" at the top of the results screen to modify your search criteria.

For example, if I wanted to view all correspondence between Hamilton and Washington mentioning the Battle of Yorktown, I might compose this search (note the Text, Name 1, Name 2, and Sort fields):

Screenshot of search form in American Founding Era Papers
Example of a search in the American Founding Era Papers database

With thousands of documents to discover in this database, there is plenty to reward both the casual reader and the dedicated scholar.  If you're hungry for more, you can find other Revolutionary-era digitized primary sources in these resources:

If you would like to access the print editions of American Founding Era Papers, search for them by title in our online catalog (for example, The Selected Papers of John Jay).  Some portions, like Founders Early Access, are only available in digital form.

Find an interesting document in this database?  Share it in the comments!  I found Aaron Burr's post-duel letter to Doctor David Hosack, checking up on Hamilton's condition:

Aaron Burr's July 12, 1804 Letter to David Hosack
Aaron Burr's July 12, 1804 Letter to David Hosack

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