The Technical Writing Legacy of the Founding Fathers

The American Revolution was not only a war of weapons, but also a battle of ideas and communication. Among the founding fathers, several stood out for their ability to articulate complex ideas clearly and persuasively, functioning in many ways as technical writers. They played a crucial role in shaping the ideological foundation of the United States and mobilizing public support for independence. Let’s explore the contributions of founding fathers who can be considered technical writers, examining the impact of their work.

Portrait of Benjamin Franklin in grey suit. Text by image reads: “Pardoning the Bad, is injuring the Good.” Benjamin Franklin Poor Richard’s Almanack"

Benjamin Franklin

Benjamin Franklin is the first one most of us will think of regarding technical writing, known for his work as a scientist, inventor, diplomat, and writer. We can see his technical writing skills in his numerous publications and pamphlets addressing a wide range of topics, from science to politics. In his popular publication, Poor Richard’s Almanack, Franklin wrote about complex ideas regarding practical advice and scientific observations in a manner that the general public could understand. Additionally, his ability to communicate complicated ideas in a precise and engaging manner helped disseminate revolutionary ideas and build public support for the cause of independence. His diplomatic writings also played a crucial role in securing French support during the American Revolution.

  • Scientific papers and publications. Franklin’s writings on electricity and other scientific subjects were concise and methodical, contributing to the advancement of knowledge and earning him international recognition. Franklin is well-known for his experiments and discoveries regarding electricity. In 1751, he published “Experiments and Observations on Electricity,” detailing his groundbreaking experiments with lightning and electricity while making scientific concepts accessible to a broad audience through unambiguous and concise writing.
  • Technical manuals and guides. One popular example of his manuals is his 1744 “An Account of the New Invented Pennsylvanian Fire-places.” This publication provided in-depth instructions and illustrations on the construction and operation of an innovative heating device he invented, known today as the Franklin stove.
  • Inventor’s descriptions. Franklin wrote precise and thorough descriptions of his inventions, such as bifocal glasses and the lightning rod. He explained their functionality, benefits, and construction, helping in their adoption.
  • Civic and public health documents. Franklin’s writings about public libraries, fire insurance, and sanitation improvements were comprehensive and persuasive, often including practical instructions and technical details.
  • Advancement of science and technology. Franklin’s logical and organized documentation of experiments significantly contributed to the advancement of knowledge in electricity and other fields. His ability to communicate complicated ideas effectively helped spread his discoveries and encouraged further research and innovation.
  • Education and public understanding. By writing in a style that was accessible to the most people, Franklin played a crucial role in educating people about scientific and technical matters. His writings helped make science and technology more approachable and understandable.
  • Practical applications and innovations. Franklin’s technical writings on his inventions and improvements, such as the Franklin stove and lightning rod, had immediate practical applications. His understandable instructions facilitated the adoption of these innovations, improving public safety and comfort.
  • Influence on technical communication. Characterized by clarity, precision, and accessibility, Franklin’s approach to technical writing set a stand for future technical communication. He showed how technical writing could be both informative and engaging, influencing generations of writers and communicators.

Official portrait of Thomas Jefferson wearing black. Text reads: "...our liberty depends on the freedom of the press, and that cannot be limited without being lost." Thomas Jefferson letter to Dr. James Currie January 28, 1786"

Thomas Jefferson

Thomas Jefferson, the principal author of the Declaration of Independence, was a lawyer, philosopher, and statesman. His precise and articulate writing style was pivotal in conveying the colonies’ grievances and aspirations. He’s considered an early technical writer because of his meticulous documentation, clear and precise writing style, and contributions to a variety of scientific and technical subjects. The Declaration of Independence not only justified the colonies’ break from Britain but also articulated universal principles of human rights and governance. Jefferson’s technical writing in this and other documents provided a distinct vision that inspired both contemporaries and future generations.

  • Declaration of Independence. Jefferson’s drafting of the Declaration was a masterful exercise in technical writing, laying out the philosophical justifications for independence in a logical and persuasive manner. While primarily a political document, the Declaration of Independence is a testament to Jefferson’s ability to effectively convey complex ideas, a hallmark of good technical writing.
  • Statute of Virginia for Religious Freedom. Jefferson viewed this statute as one of his greatest achievements, along with the Declaration of Independence and his founding of the University of Virginia. He wrote it in a way that the general public could understand the importance of religious liberty and the separation of church and state, using understandable and impactful legal and philosophical arguments.
  • Detailed and concise architectural plans. Jefferson very carefully documented architectural designs for buildings such as Monticello and the University of Virginia. His descriptions of dimensions, materials, and construction techniques are early examples of precise technical writing.
  • Agricultural practices. Jefferson’s detailed records of his agricultural experiments include crop rotation methods, soil types, and farming techniques. His Farm Book, aimed at improving agricultural practices, is just one example.
  • Contributions to science and innovation. He invented or improved several devices, including the polygraph (copying machine), the moldboard plow, and a cipher for encoding messages. Jefferson documented these in an accessible manner, providing detailed instructions and explanations.
  • Governmental reports and documents. As Secretary of State and President, Jefferson authored reports and documents that required straightforward communication of technical and difficult information, such as “Notes on the State of Virginia,” which included scientific and technical observations about the state.
  • Clarity and accessibility. Jefferson translated intricate Enlightenment ideas into direct and impactful prose in the Declaration of Independence and Statue of Virginia for Religious Freedom. These documents set a high standard for future technical documents, demonstrating the power of precise language in conveying complex ideas. 
  • Scientific and practical innovation. Jefferson’s writings and schematics contributed to agricultural, architectural, and other scientific advancements. His instructions and detailed drawings highlight the role of plain and detailed technical writing in scientific and practical innovation, and his precision had a lasting influence on architectural and engineering practices.
  • Precise governmental documentation. His ability to present detailed information in an organized and comprehensible manner in governmental documentation was essential for informed decision-making and public transparency.

Official portrait of Alexander Hamilton wearing black. Text reads: “It will be of little avail to the people, that the laws are made by men of their own choice, if the laws be so voluminous that they cannot be read, or so incoherent that they cannot be understood;” The Federalist Papers"

Alexander Hamilton

Alexander Hamilton was a lawyer, economist, and political theorist. His prolific writing included The Federalist Papers and various financial and political documents that were instrumental in shaping the fledgling United States. Hamilton’s financial reports helped establish the economic stability and creditworthiness of the new nation, and he made extensive contributions to governmental and financial documents that were foundational to the U.S. economic system. His detailed and systematic approach to writing helped lay the groundwork for American financial policy and governance. His technical writing in The Federalist Papers was crucial in securing the adoption of the Constitution, providing detailed explanations and justifications that addressed concerns and countered opposition. 

  • The Federalist Papers. Hamilton, along with James Madison and John Jay, wrote a series of essays arguing for the ratification of the U.S. Constitution. Hamilton’s essays were detailed and logically structured, persuading skeptics of the new framework of government. These essays were a blend of political theory and practical governance, written in a  persuasive style. Hamilton’s contributions included detailed arguments on financial and governmental structures. Essays 30-36 focused on fiscal policy, taxation, and the powers of the federal government to manage finances. Using a logical structure and detailed examples, he argued for a strong central government.
  • Reports on public credit. As the first Secretary of the Treasury, Hamilton wrote the “Report on Public Credit” in 1790. That and subsequent reports laid out detailed plans for managing the national debt, establishing public credit, and creating a national bank. His reports were comprehensive technical documents combining economic theory with practical policy recommendations. His first report included complex financial calculations and projections, written in a way that lawmakers and the public could understand it, demonstrating Hamilton’s ability to translate intricate economic concepts into actionable policy.
  • Other writings. Hamilton’s 1791 “Report on Manufactures”  detailed the importance of developing manufacturing industries in the U.S. The report included economic analysis, recommendations for tariffs and subsidies, and plans for infrastructure development. His “Report on a National Bank” outlined the operational mechanics of a national bank, including its role in stabilizing the economy, issuing currency, and regulating credit. His detailed and methodical writing was meant to convince policymakers of the bank’s necessity.
  • Foundation of American financial system. Hamilton’s writings on public credit, national banking, and manufacturing provided a blueprint for the U.S. financial system. He established principles of sound financial management that influenced American economic policy for generations.
  • Influence on policy and legislation. His powerful technical documents were instrumental in the passage of key legislation, including the establishment of the First Bank of the United States and the adoption of his financial policies. Future economic decisions used his reports as reference points.
  • Promotion of industrialization. Hamilton laid the groundwork for America’s industrial policy in his “Report on Manufactures,” promoting the growth of manufacturing and infrastructure and contributing to the country’s economic development.
  • Legacy in technical writing. Hamilton’s methodical and detailed approach to writing complex governmental and financial documents set a standard for technical communication in the public sector. His ability to make technical subjects accessible to a wide audience influenced how policymakers and economists presented their ideas.

Official portrait of James Madison wearing black. Text reads: The accumulation of all powers, Legislative, Executive, and Judiciary, in the same hands, whether of one, a few, or many, and whether hereditary, self-appointed, or elective, may justly be pronounced the very definition of tyranny. James Madison The Federalist Papers"

James Madison

James Madison, known as the “Father of the Constitution,” was a political theorist and statesman. His meticulous and systematic approach to writing was evident in his contributions to The Federalist Papers and the drafting of the U.S. Constitution. He is considered an early technical writer due to his extensive contributions to the creation and explanation of the Constitution, as well as his detailed documentation of governmental processes and political theory. His precise and analytical writing style was instrumental in shaping American political thought and institutions. Madison’s writings in The Federalist Papers and his contributions to the Constitution were fundamental in shaping the framework of American government. His ability to coherently explain and defend the proposed system of government helped ensure its adoption and implementation.

  • The Federalist Papers. Madison’s essays focused on the structure and principles of the new government, emphasizing checks and balances and the importance of a large republic. Along with Hamilton and Jay, Madison published The Federalist Papers to support ratification of the U.S. Constitution. Madison’s essays are known for their detailed analysis of the Constitution’s principles and their logical arguments. In No. 10, he addresses the dangers of factionalism and argues for a large republic, presenting a explicit problem statement, analysis, and solution. He explains the system of checks and balances and the separation of powers in No. 51, providing details about how each branch of government will function and interrelate to ensure no single branch becomes too powerful. 
  • Constitutional notes and drafting. Madison’s technical writing skills were essential in drafting the Constitution, as he articulated complex political theories and principles in anorganized manner. Madison took extensive notes during the Constitutional Convention of 1787, and his detailed documentation provides a comprehensive record of the debates and decisions that shaped the Constitution. His notes are a meticulous record of the debates and decisions at the Constitutional Convention. They include detailed accounts of the arguments made by various delegates, the compromises reached, and the rationale behind different provisions of the Constitution.
  • The Virginia Plan. Madison’s Virginia Plan proposed a structure for a new government and was critical to the drafting of the Constitution. His plan included detailed descriptions of the legislative, executive, and judicial branches.
  • Shaping the U.S. Constitution. Madison’s technical writings in The Federalist Papers were key in persuading states to ratify the Constitution. His detailed arguments helped explain the new framework of government to the public and addressed concerns about potential weaknesses.
  • Documentation of founding principles. His notes from the Constitutional Convention provide an invaluable primary source for understanding the intentions of the framers. This documentation is used extensively by historians, legal scholars, and the judiciary to interpret the Constitution.
  • Development of political theory. Madison’s contributions to The Federalist Papers, particularly his writings on factionalism and checks and balances, have had a lasting influence on political theory. His structured approach to explaining these concepts has made them foundational to American political science.
  • Influence on policy and governance. Madison influenced the development of American political institutions with his detailed and logical approach to writing about governmental structures and processes. His work provided a model for future technical writing in the field of public administration and policy.

Portrait of John Jay as US Chief Justice. Text reads: “It is too true, however disgraceful it may be to human nature, that nations in general will make war whenever they have a prospect of getting anything by it.” ― John Jay, The Federalist Papers"

John Jay

An often-forgotten founding father, John Jay was one of the three authors of The Federalist Papers. He also wrote detailed treaties, legal opinions, and diplomatic correspondence in his duties as Governor of New York, Minister to Spain, Chief Justice of the United States, and Secretary of Foreign Affairs. He was also deeply involved in forming the new government of New York and drafted that state’s constitution. 

  • Jay Treaty. Jay negotiated and wrote the Jay Treaty of 1794 between the United States and Great Britian. The treaty text and his explanatory writings were unambiguous and methodical, aimed at addressing complex international issues. This treaty with a recent enemy required careful, detailed language to address specific issues between the two countries.
  • The Federalist Papers. Jay wrote five of the essays that supported the ratification of the U.S. Constitution. His essays focused on the importance of a strong central government and the need for a unified approach to foreign policy and national defense. No. 2 shows the necessity of a strong federal government for the safety and happiness of the American people, where he lays out logical arguments for the benefits of union and the dangers of disunity. In Nos. 3-5, he focuses on foreign policy and national defense, using detailed historical examples and logical reasoning to argue that a unified federal government is better equipped to handle international relations and protect the interests of the United States.
  • Diplomatic correspondence. Jay was a diplomat and the first Chief Justice of the United States. His writings included detailed treaties, legal opinions, and diplomatic correspondence that required precise and technical language. The treaty itself, along with Jay’s correspondence and explanatory writings about it, highlights his ability to effectively write about complex legal and diplomatic matters. His writing helped articulate the treaty’s terms and benefits to both American and British audiences.
  • Support for ratification of the Constitution. Jay’s contributions to The Federalist Papers were key to advocating for ratification. His reasoned arguments helped persuade skeptics of the need for a strong central government and a cohesive approach to foreign policy.
  • Foundation of American foreign policy. Jay’s writings on foreign policy in The Federalist Papers laid the groundwork for the United States’ approach to international relations. His emphasis on unity and strength in dealing with other nations influenced early American diplomatic strategy.
  • Legal and diplomatic clarity. As the first Chief Justice, Jay’s legal opinions and writings helped establish the foundations of American jurisprudence. His logical writing style in legal opinions provided a model for future judicial writing.
  • Influence on treaty negotiations. Though controversial, the Jay Treaty but played a significant role in averting war with Great Britain and stabilizing American foreign relations. Jay’s careful writing in negotiating and explaining the treaty helped ensure its terms were understood and accepted.

Final Thoughts

These men played a crucial role in the American Revolution and the establishment of the United States. Their ability to communicate complex ideas plainly and persuasively was instrumental in mobilizing support, articulating ideological foundations, and shaping the governance of the new nation. Their writings have a lasting impact on American society and governance, still influencing political thought and legal interpretation. The Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and The Federalist Papers remain foundational texts that are studied and referenced for their enduring relevance and clarity. The impact of their technical writing continues to impact us today, highlighting the enduring importance of clear and effective communication in shaping history and society.

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