Archives of Revolution

By Emma Hart, Sean Quimby, and Karin Wulf

We know revolutions by their archives. Or, as Michel-Rolph Trouillot noted almost 30 years ago in Silencing the Past, “the Haitian Revolution…entered history with the peculiar characteristic of being unthinkable even as it happened” (p. 73) because the narrative of revolution (as opposed to rebellion) was absent from the archival record assembled by French colonial officials.  Archives are more than the records created in a moment; they are the intentional aggregation of some records, the curation, preservation, description, and access to a set of historical materials by a group or groups. Thus, the events of Haiti’s revolution, the first of the western democratic revolutions to be led by enslaved people and to establish a free state, passed into historical narrative reflecting those colonial archival presences, emphases…and silences.

The archives of the American Revolution are foundational to our understanding, current and future, of the complex events of the late eighteenth century in North America and around the globe. With the United States’ 250th anniversary fast-approaching, and the public’s trust in experts and their sources at an all-time low, the time is right for a close look at these archival foundations. As we prepare to commemorate 2026 we also need to think carefully about the archives we are making, and will make, in the name of this landmark event.  By raising these issues, asking these questions, and laying out some of the high stakes involved in how we answer them, we hope to encourage an intentional, collaborative, multi-disciplinary and multi-professional approach, particularly among archivists and historians, to archives of revolution .[1]

Questions about archives are critical for scholars, politicians, and the public alike as we commemorate this major national milestone. But what do we mean by and what have been, historically, the archives of revolution?  Even at the founding, and certainly in the decades following it, a certain type of American was already hard at work collecting records of the revolution. Mostly literate, white, and male, these Americans worked alone and together to compile and preserve materials that would constitute an archive of revolution. Their goal was invariably connected to the creation of a national narrative. 

Some were quirky loners, like the Swiss émigré Eugene de la Simitière, whose notes, copyings, and newspaper clippings now at the Library Company of Philadelphia are a guide to the everyday actions of the city’s radical revolutionary committees. In the post-revolutionary generation, Jeremy Belknap, Peter Force and Jared Sparks set about the collection and the curation of large quantities of revolutionary materials. Along with other like-minded individuals, they helped to establish the nation’s oldest institutional revolutionary archives in New England, at the Massachusetts Historical Society (MHS) and the American Antiquarian Society (AAS).

Because the AAS’s principal founder, Isiah Thomas, was a printer he—along with others in the trade—was keen to collect print and also to edit and print archival materials. Indeed, the edited documentary volume has remained at the core of the revolutionary archive through to the present, with careful expanded investment for the bicentennial in 1976. Perhaps to an even greater degree than the unpublished archive of revolutionary documents, these edited volumes have both reflected and reinforced the hierarchy that lies at the heart of the revolutionary archive; by making the letters and papers of the Founding Fathers, and the institutions of government they created, accessible and legible, they shepherd scholars towards the revolutionary history encased between the luxurious binding of the multi-volume papers series.

Over the last quarter century, digital technologies and methods have transformed both the nature of archives and their accessibility. Historians can now scan thousands of documents and articles for keywords thanks to resources such as Early American newspapers and the digitized Evans collections. Founders Online, funded in part by the National Historic Preservation and Records Commission as part of their support for the papers projects of founders, gives instant access to many millions of words written by the Revolution’s leaders. In anticipation of 2026, the American Philosophical Society (APS) is leading an initiative by Philadelphia institutions to create a common digital repository of revolutionary-era materials relating to that city’s experience of the Revolution, most of which currently lie undigitized in their respective archives.

These efforts can democratize access to a revolutionary archive. And though Founders Online and the new APS project are both openly accessible, many researchers know too well that prohibitive subscription costs for other aggregated content can remain a barrier. We must also be cautious of the idea that digital access somehow annuls either the intensive and expensive process of archival work, or the curated nature of documentary collections; there will always be individuals making choices about what is placed in an archive, and what is left out. Furthermore, cost plays a role in digitization just as it has in other dimensions of archiving.

As historians and archivists ourselves, we want to harness the enthusiasm for the Revolution that will accompany the semiquincentennial in the name of a more considered discussion of the raw materials of the historian’s craft. Doing so, we believe, can help us to mark this anniversary meaningfully, while also communicating to a wider audience the significance of what we do, and why our fetish for evidence, accurate description, and careful documentation, matters. 

It is also an opportunity for our profession to work across the divides that have emerged as it became ever more specialized. To bring historians and archivists together in order to re-examine “the revolutionary archive” while imagining the potential of a new, more expansive, inclusive, and dynamic one, we can begin by reflecting on our common roots. Until the Society of American Archivists (SAA) was founded in 1936 (two years after Congress established the National Archives and Records Administration), the American Historical Association (AHA), founded in 1884, was the professional association for both archivists and historians. In other words, both professions mutually came of age only a generation or more after Belknap, Force, and Sparks had established an archive of the American Revolution that was for all intents and purposes canonical.

As the archival profession developed in the early twentieth century, it was guided by the thinking of men like Sir Charles Hilary Jenkinson, who held that archival records were, as non-human agents, inherently objective and unbiased. And so, a profession that would ally itself more and more with the sciences (the term “archival science” first came into widespread usage in the 1930s) was for many years not very interested in reflecting on its own subjectivities. That began to change in the early twenty-first century with the maturation of critical archival studies. Influenced by post-modernism, feminism, critical race studies, and post-colonial theory, critical archival studies is “emancipatory in nature” and concerned with the role archives play in the production of knowledge.[2]

In response, archivists have undertaken a number of projects aimed at repairing past injustices. For example, reparative description remediates data that, consciously or unconsciously, excluded or silenced the voices of individuals or communities whose experiences may be reflected in a given archive but was overlooked by archivists in the past. Of particular note as we think about the Revolutionary archive are projects that focus on indigenous history. Organized by professional groups like the Native American Archives Section (NAAS) of SAA and supported by tools like Mukurtu and Local Contexts, a number of archival repositories, including the American Philosophical Society, have undertaken efforts to improve access to material through more accurate and more sensitive description. 

While such initiatives are rightly motivated by ethics, it would behoove both communities of practice to better understand whether and how they impact historical scholarship. This is especially necessary as scholars across disciplines—but especially in literary studies and history—have leaned into the archival turn with their own critical perspective. From work like Trouillot’s on the ways that archival holdings have shaped historical narratives to work on the historical context for the creation and growth of archival and library institutions, to scholarship on reading particular archival texts and objects in the context of their production, scholars have developed robust ways to think about institutions and materials as having histories of their own. Those histories are becoming topics for study, but they also call for an awareness about how they frame every subject that emerges from these places.

There is an especially fruitful conversation to be had around acts of curation; that is, how changing descriptive practices, large-scale digitization, and fresh historiographical perspectives might, all and mutually, help to constitute new archives that advance and reframe our thinking about the American Revolution. As significant an impact as critical archival theory has had on the day-to-day practice of archives, the profession remains very much committed to the nineteenth-century concept of respect des fonds, which holds that the evidentiary value of an archive depends on understanding and preserving the context of its creation. Digitization, changing descriptive practices, and technologies like IIIF (International Image Interoperability Framework), and linked open data make it possible to build new interpretative contexts, to connect geographically disparate collections, and to harvest and assess archival collections as data. What are the implications of this for “the archive” as it is defined by archivists? And given the scholarship on the nature of archives, for scholars working against the grain or along the grain, how can historians work with these new developments to both ask and answer new historical questions?[3]  

If we are going to make the most of the opportunity that 2026 presents us, we will need to curate revolutionary archives together by drawing upon our shared professional commitments and expertise. 1976 was the impetus for new additions to the archives that were foundational for historians then working in a pre-digital age. America’s revolutionary narrative has also been enriched and expanded with decades of new research. Fifty years later, therefore, we work in a very different environment. We recognize the potential of the digital humanities for communicating more complex understandings of the Revolution to a wider audience while we also comprehend the amount of work across boundaries that is required to realize this potential. We call here for a coming together so that we might fulfill the promise of uniting disciplines, technologies, and fresh, intentional archival legacies.  

Emma Hart is the Richard S. Dunn Director of the McNeil Center, and a Professor in Penn’s history department. She is the author of two books on early American history; Building Charleston: Town and Society in the 18thc British Atlantic World (2010) and Trading Spaces: the Colonial Marketplace and the Foundations of American Capitalism (2019).

Sean Quimby is the Associate University Librarian for Special Collections at the University of Pennsylvania, where he oversees the Jay I. Kislak Center for Special Collections, Rare Books and Manuscripts; Schoenberg Institute for Manuscript Studies; Library at the Katz Center for Advanced Judaic Studies; and the University Archives and Records Center. Broadly speaking, his research interests lie in modern archives, and the intersecting theoretical, ethical, technological challenges that they pose to researchers and to the institutions that steward them.

Karin Wulf, is the Beatrice and Julio Mario Santo Domingo Director and Librarian of the John Carter Brown Library and Professor of History at Brown University.  She writes for public and academic audiences about history, scholarly publishing, and why footnotes can save democracy (really).  A historian of gender, family, and politics in the 18th century British Atlantic, she is the author of the forthcoming Lineage:  Genealogy and the Politics of Connections in 18th Century British America from Oxford University Press.

Title Image: Box used by George Washington for the preservation of papers from the Constitutional Convention of 1787. Source: National Museum of American History.

Further Reading:

Cook, T., Schwartz, J.M. Archives, records, and power: From (postmodern) theory to (archival) performance. Archival Science 2, 171–185 (2002).

Fuentes, Marisa, Dispossessed Lives: Enslaved Women, Violence, and the Archive (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2018)

Ghaddar, J.J., Caswell, M. “To go beyond”: towards a decolonial archival praxis. Arch Sci19, 71–85 (2019).

Stoler, Ann Laura.  Along the Archival Grain:  Epistemic Anxieties and Colonial Common Sense (Princeton University Press, 2010)


[1] With thanks to the colleagues who joined us for an AHA panel in Philadelphia in January 2023 on Archives of Revolution and raised critical questions about archival production, characterization, and dissemination, Dorothy Berry and Patrick Spero. 

[2] Michelle Caswell, Ricardo Punzalan, T-Kay Sangwand in a special issue of Journal of Critical Library and Information Studies (Vol. 1 No. 2 (2017): Critical Archival Studies), 2.

[3] Valuable examples of interpretive aggregating and open-linked data for archival materials include the sites Slave Voyages and

One thought on “Archives of Revolution

  1. I find it disappointing (but predictable) that an essay which starts and ends with references to Troillot remains entirely focused on the “American Revolution” and the “Americans” present in “the archives.” All of which are entirely within and about the US of A as if these events (and these people) existed in isolation from and to the exclusion of the rest of the hemisphere let alone the rest of the world. This inclusivity rhetoric might have inclined the author to think about how the “American Revolution” is inextricably bound up in broader dynamics which transcend a single national history and ought to be transcontinental, transatlantic and global.

    This author might do well to read some of ths essays on this site and look at work which does this as part of this endeavor.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s