Founding Fathers Find Their Way Into MOOCs


Age of Jefferson MOOC screenshot
Age of Jefferson MOOC screenshot

On President’s Day, February 17, 2014, the University of Virginia and Monticello launched the “Age of Jefferson” MOOC. This MOOC, or massive open online course, consists of six lectures given by renowned Jefferson expert and BackStory radio’s 18th Century American History Guy, Peter Onuf. Using some resources created by VFH documentary editing program, Documents Compass, the course explores Jefferson’s importance not just for Virginia or the United States, but his lasting legacy as a spokesman for democracy on the world stage. Students of all ages and backgrounds may take the course for free and can choose to proceed through the course in whatever way suits them. They may view some or all of the lectures, and select any, none, or all of the short assignments that make up the course. Since its launch, the MOOC has already attracted a wide array of domestic and international participants who are actively discussing the key issues addressed in the first lecture. The course will be offered until the end of March on Coursera and iTunes University.

Virginia Foundation for the Humanities played its own important if indirect role in helping to make the course possible. The “Age of Jefferson” requires students to do several short reading assignments for each class, consisting of primary source materials freely available on the internet. Many are letters penned by Jefferson himself about such subjects as democracy and slavery. Almost half of the reading assignments are from Founders Online, the National Archives’ initiative to collect letters of major founding fathers in one location, and make them freely accessible to the public.

Founders Online

VFH’s own Documents Compass has provided Early Access letters for Founders Online. Five reading assignments for the Age of Jefferson, for instance, are Early Access documents that are currently being edited by the Thomas Jefferson Retirement Series at Monticello, but will not be officially published for several years. Through work on a three-year National Archives grant, Documents Compass is proofreading and digitizing over 50,000 such documents including those by other founding fathers, and providing access to these letters before they are published in a fully-annotated version.

Many of these letters allow readers to hear Jefferson’s own words on his oft-questioned views on slavery. For example, one reading assignment for the “Age of Jefferson” focuses on a January 22, 1821 letter Jefferson writes to his long-time friend and sometimes political rival, John Adams. In it, Jefferson worries that if Congress has the power to regulate slavery in Missouri it could also “declare that all [the slaves] shall be free.” Despite having denounced slavery throughout his life, Jefferson fears that emancipation would be “the tocsin of merely a servile war.”  He declares that a change in law would not change popular opinion, which he believed was not ready to see African Americans as free citizens; he also expresses that enslaved people are not prepared to manage their own freedom. “Are our slaves to be presented with freedom and a dagger?” he asks, pointedly, and ultimately recommends “resignation.” In another letter, just a little over a month before his death, he urges a correspondent to wait patiently for the end of slavery, saying “a good cause is often injured more by ill timed efforts of its friends” and that “time, which outlives all things, will outlive this evil also.”

Peter Onuf in the BackStory studio
Peter Onuf in the BackStory studio

Other Early Access letters that were proofread and digitized by Documents Compass staff explore Jefferson’s thoughts on the Declaration of Independence, religion, education, and government. Such ideas continue to resonate powerfully with Americans today, and both the “Age of Jefferson” course and Founders Online allow readers to dive directly into the historical documents themselves. Founders Online helps support efforts like the “Age of Jefferson” course in allowing participants to better understand exactly what kind of nation the founders were trying to create, and how much their ideals and aspirations continue to affect the United States today. Thanks to Documents Compass staff, these documents and many more are available in Early Access form to anyone who wishes to learn even more about the sage of Monticello than what is covered in Dr. Onuf’s course.

Dr. Onuf is Thomas Jefferson Memorial Foundation Professor Emeritus at the University of Virginia, and serves as the 18th Century Guy for Backstory with the American History Guys, a VFH weekly radio show and podcast featuring historians who explore contemporary topics through three centuries of American history.

Documents Compass at VFH provides tools and expertise to create digital editions of historical and literary documents. The program’s work can be seen through Founders Online and People of the Founding Era.

For more on Jefferson and his life visit VFH’s Encyclopedia Virginia.