J. Franklin Jameson: the Father of the National Archives

Today’s post comes from Elle Benak from the National Archives History Office.

On December 28, 1955, the American Historical Association dedicated a plaque to J. Franklin Jameson, noting his “persistence and wise guidance” in establishing the National Archives.

Photograph of plaque presented to the National Archives by the American Historical Association in tribute to J. Franklin Jameson, 1955. (National Archives Identifier 12169393)

The plaque still hangs on the wall in the Pennsylvania Avenue entrance of the National Archives Building in Washington, DC, as a reminder of Jameson’s role in establishing the agency and his dedication to preserving our history.

Jameson’s extensive career prepared him to become a fierce advocate for the creation of the National Archives.

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J. Franklin Jameson. (National Archives Identifier 12169072)

His 1882 Ph.D. from Johns Hopkins University was the first doctorate of history to be granted by the university. The subject was a fairly new academic discipline at that time. After leaving Hopkins, Jameson went on to teach history at Brown University and University of Chicago.

In 1884, Jameson became one of the founding members of the American Historical Association (AHA). The AHA was created to establish professional standards and training for the emerging history field. Jameson’s involvement with AHA from its beginning established his reputation among other prominent historians.

From 1895 until 1928, Jameson was the managing editor the American Historical Review, the AHA’s main publication. He served as the AHA’s president in 1907.

Jameson also worked at the Carnegie Institute in Washington, DC, as director of the historical research department. While there, Jameson supervised several projects, including a documentary on archival resources around the world. He later became the chief of the Manuscripts Division at the Library of Congress.

Letter from A.R. Newsome to J. Franklin Jameson with congratulations on the passage of the National Archives Act, June 21, 1934. (National Archives Identifier 12078919)

Through these experiences, Jameson learned of the poor state of the nation’s historical records. This awareness motivated him to push for the creation of an institution to safeguard the nation’s documentary heritage.

For over 30 years Jameson relentlessly lobbied Congress to create a national depository to preserve the country’s historical documents.

In 1926 Congress finally passed legislation to fund an archives building. Construction didn’t begin until 1931, and Congress did not create the National Archives as an agency until 1934.

Jameson’s persistence during those years kept the idea of a national archives alive.

He continued to be an advocate for the National Archives right up until his death in 1937, just few years after the agency’s creation. He never was able to witness the full realization of his life’s work.

While Jameson is best known for his role in the creation of the National Archives, he would not have accomplished this without the wealth of experiences he gained working with the historical community. His time with AHA, the Carnegie Institute, and the Library of Congress taught him the importance of preserving our nation’s documentary heritage. Jameson’s keen awareness of the disastrous state in which the country’s most important documents were being kept sparked him to be an advocate for change.

Read the post, “The act that gave us the National Archives,” to learn more about Jameson and his role in creating the National Archives.

3 thoughts on “J. Franklin Jameson: the Father of the National Archives

  1. My father, Boyd C. Shafer, was the managing editor of the American Historical Review, at this time ( 1953 to 1963) and I remember him speaking about Jameson often. Kirstin Shafer Moritz, Falmouth, MA

  2. I’m enjoying reading about Jameson. He is actually my husband’s great-grandfather and I’m interested in learning as much about him as I can. If you have more sources of information on him, please let me know. Also, any sources on his daughter Katrina Jack nee Jameson would be helpful.

    1. Have you read this book: Gondos, Victor, J. Franklin Jameson and the birth of the National Archives, 1906-1926 [Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1981].

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