When most people think of American Independence they think of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, but what’s often missed is those documents were only a few final sheets of paper out of the hundreds of thousands it took on the journey to make and maintain them.
Those two documents came after years of arguing, convincing, campaigning, and concerted effort among the Founders to work out the right course for the country.
Thanks to the Founders Archive Online who transcribed and published 150,000 letters from the Founding Fathers, we can look deeper into the lives of the main Founders: Franklin, Washington, Jefferson, Adams, Hamilton, and Madison in a way that's not possible through reading their letters individually.
Instead, we can transform their letters into data to visualize how their lives and influence changed over time as well as the personal sacrifices they made as they worked to solidify Independence.
Although each Founder was important, its tough to tell which parts of their lives were the most significant because they accomplished and did so much. Visualizing letters is fascinating because they can help illustrate when they were most active and which periods were most important.
Below you can see all the letters the Founders sent over their lifespans from the data we have. What stands out immediately is how many letters Washington sent during his time as General of the Continental Army. Without a doubt this was the busiest time of his life, as coordinating an entire army and working with a republican government was no easy task.
But, many of the Founders sprang into action during the Revolution as it began in 1775. Compared to what correspondence we have from them before the Revolution, it’s clear how relatively unknown these men were before the war. When it ended officially in 1783, the drop in correspondence was considerable.
Letters Sent by Year
While major events certainly affected them, the most profound changes in their lives occurred from career advancements.
For Jefferson, who retired three separate times, the waves in his correspondence are clearest. He retired in 1781, 1793, and again finally in 1807. For each of his retirements there's a clear decrease in his letter writing and then a sharp uptick once he re-enters public service. His election as Virginia Governor, Secretary of State, and then the Presidency mark when his correspondence was most active.
Looking at the other founders, each of their promotions to higher offices came with enhanced responsibility. Whether taking on ambassadorships, military posts, or executive positions, each new position was accompanied with increased correspondence.
These days it’s difficult to imagine how much work sending and receiving hundreds or thousands of letters per year was. Even in Jefferson’s retirement when his letter writing was much decreased from it’s peak he said, “… from sun-rise to one or two o’clock, and often from dinner to dark, I am drudging at the writing table…. this is the burden of my life”.
It’s important to remember all these letters were written by hand and many involved research before responding to them, which made answering them all quite the challenge.
Not only did the number of letters sent by the Founders increase over time, so did their networks and the number of people they corresponded with.
Where I was able to, I mapped the locations of both the sender and recipient for each letter in the dataset and charted their connection. This made it easier to visualize the individual networks of each founder and observe how their networks shifted throughout their careers.
Each of them started with seemingly local correspondence. Washington for instance, whose letters were mainly from those in and around Virginia in the 1750s, span over a half a dozen countries and almost every one of the thirteen states by the time of his Presidency.
For Franklin, Jefferson, and Adams, their time in Europe drastically changed their networks. A significant portion of their correspondence was with others around Europe during this time which was due to their responsibilities as American Ministers and the long travel times for letters sent across the Atlantic.
Social Network Connections
- Philidelphia Printer
- Pennsylvannia Colony Representative
- Minister to France
- Commander in Virginia Militia
- Commander of Continental Army
- Delegate to Continental Congress
- Envoy to France
- United States Minister
- Vice President
- Governor of Virginia
- Ambassador to France
- Secretary of State
- Vice President
- Aide to General Washington
- Secretary of the Treasury
- Senior Officer of US Army
- Congressional Delegate
- House of Representatives
- Secretary of State
Far from Home
Although each Founder was ambitious in their own way, they still made plenty of sacrifices as their scope of influence and power increased. The clearest example of this is from the amount of time they spent away from home.
Franklin, Jefferson, and Adams collectively spent decades overseas in Europe. And even for Washington, Hamilton, and Madison, most of their careers were spent hundreds of miles from their private residences at the nation’s capital. Nothing about being away from home, and sometimes family, was easy.
John Adams wrote after being in Europe for several years in 1783, “I tremble when I think of such a Thing as going to London. If I were to receive orders of that sort, it would be a dull day to me. No Swiss ever longed for home more than I do.”
And yet despite his feelings, he ended up staying in Europe another four years as an ambassador until 1787.
Average Yearly Distance From Home
Distance in Miles
Wishes to Retire
All this work, grueling travel, and constant judgement in the public spotlight took a toll. Washington, Adams, and Jefferson were more than ready to retire far before their Presidencies. In fact, both Washington and Jefferson retired multiple times before the call of their country brought them back into the public eye.
At different points in their careers they all voiced their desires to retire or to return to their restful abodes. While data and visualizations can help with understanding things holistically, sometimes going right to the source is best. These comments in their letters illustrate the sacrifices they made and the burdens they carried.
George Washington, 1795
"...and altho’ I have no cause to complain of the want of health, I can religiously aver that no man was ever more tired of public life, or more devoutly wished for retirement, than I do."
Full Letter ›
Thomas Jefferson, 1782
"...I considered that I had been thirteen years engaged in public service, that during that time I had so totally abandoned all attention to my private affairs as to permit them to run into great disorder and ruin..."
Full Letter ›
John Adams, 1795
"My forces of Mind and Body are nearly Spent— Few Years remain for me, if any, in public Life probably fewer still"
Full Letter ›
It’s interesting to read these remarks since it’s not often we hear about the toil these men went through as they accumulated glory for themselves and their country. And while they certainly did carry a burden, there’s no question that they each had unrivaled energy and commitment to their cause. The importance of their contributions can’t be overstated and it’s amazing what they were able to accomplish working together.
The source of data for this article comes from founders.archive.gov which comprises over 150,000 letters sent by the Founding Fathers. The Founders Archive does a wonderful job tagging each letter with the author, recipient, and date each letter was sent.
It’s worth noting that even 150,000 letters don’t represent all the Founding Fathers correspondence. Some letters still need to be transcribed, others have been lost, and many were destroyed by their recipients or by time. But this still represents an exceptionally large, useful dataset.