American Archives by Peter Force

FORCE, PETER (Nov. 26, 1790-Jan. 23, 1868), archivist, historian, son of William and Sarah Ferguson Force, was born near Passaic Falls, N. J. His boyhood was spent largely in New York, and in New York City he learned the printer's trade. During the War of 1812 he served in the army, entering as a private and coming out a lieutenant. In 1815 he moved to Washington, D. C., with his employer, to work on government-printing contracts. The Washington printers of his day were almost inevitably drawn into politics; Force was no exception to this rule. In 1822 he was elected to the city council, and later to the board of aldermen, serving for a time as president of each of these bodies. A supporter of John Quincy Adams in the campaign of 1824, he naturally became a Whig when the new party was formed; in 1836 he was elected mayor of Washington, on the Whig ticket. Two years later he was reelected, without opposition. In 1848 he again became a candidate for the same office, but this time he was badly beaten, standing lowest of the three candidates. In 1823 he established a semi-weekly newspaper, the National Journal, devoted to the candidacy of John Quincy Adams. In 1824, the campaign year, the paper became a daily, and continued as such until 1831. Although a Whig, Force seems to have taken his politics decently, as he did everything else, and to have avoided the bitter partisanship of some of his contemporaries. In this respect his political career was typical of his whole life. His relations with his associates were always pleasant. On various occasions he was accorded honors, perhaps not important in themselves, but suggestive of the esteem in which he was held. When he was only twenty-two years old, for example, he was chosen president of the New York Typographical Society. Later, in Washington, he became president of the National Institute for the promotion of Science, and a member of the board of managers of the Washington National Monument Society. Never a jovial man, but on the contrary rather quiet and reserved, he was possessed of a pleasing geniality that attracted people to him.

Force is best known, however, not as a politician or newspaper man, but as a collector and editor, first of statistical, then of historical material. In 1820, and for the eight years following, he printed a register of the public offices, from 1820 to 1836, with the exception of a three-year interval when he was immersed in politics, he published the National Calendar, later National Calendar and Annals of the United States, an annual of historical and statistical information. Then he collected and published four volumes entitled: Tracts and Other Papers, Relating Principally to the Origin, Settlement, and Progress of the Colonies in North America (Washington, 1836-1846). These are reprints of rare pamphlets bearing on the early history of the colonies. His father, a soldier in the Revolution, seems to have inspired in him a lively interest in the history of that movement. As a result, the son devoted the greater part of his middle and later years to the collection of historical materials dealing with the colonial period and the Revolution. In this connection Force brought out his greatest work, the monumental volumes known as the American Archives. As originally planned, the Force project involved the publication, in twenty or more folio volumes, of important original materials of American history from the seventeenth century through 1789 -- official documents of various kinds, legislative records, and private correspondence of special significance. The work was begun under contract with the Department of State, under authority of an act of Congress The six volumes of Series Four were published from 1837 to 1846, and by 1853 three volumes of the Fifth Series had appeared. These nine covered the years 1774-1776. At that point the work suddenly stopped; Secretary of State Marcy refused to approve Force's plans for the completion of the undertaking, and no more volumes appeared.

Marcy's decision was a serious blow to Force, and to the cause of historical study in America. Basing his hope of reimbursement on a definite contract, sanctioned by Congress, Force had gone heavily into debt in order to secure his material. Now, at the age of sixty, he was faced with actual hardship. He might have sought relief through a petition to Congress, or by judicial process, but this he refused to do. Fortunately his situation was not as bad as it had at first seemed. In compiling the Archives he had procured an extraordinary mass of historical material, much of it extremely rare. Although he was inspired by the collector's urge to accumulate, he had shown good business judgment in his purchases. He found himself therefore in possession of a large library of considerable commercial value. This he finally sold to the Library of Congress for $100,000.

In addition to his work on the Archives, Force made some other contributions to American history. He was the first scholar to discover that the so-called Mecklenburg Declaration of Independence of 1775 was not what it purported to be. Then he published The Declaration of Independence, or Notes on Lord Mahon's History of the American Declaration of Independence (London, 1855 ). Occasionally, too, he printed a paper on a subject not directly related to his field: in 1852, Grinnell Land: Remarks on the English Maps of Arctic Discoveries, in 1850 and 1851; and in 1856, a "Record of Auroral Phenomena observed in the Higher Northern Latitudes" (Smithsonian Contributions to Knowledge, Vol. VIII). These minor works perhaps are of interest merely to the antiquarian, but the American Archives are still indispensable to every student of the American Revolution.

[The best account is the short paper by A. R. Spofford, in the Records of the Columbia Historical Society, vol. II (1899), pp. 218-33 See also "Peter Force," in Am. Hist. Record, Jan. 1874; and G. W. Greene, "Col. Peter Force, the American Annalist" in Mag. of Am. Hist., Apr. 1878. There are scattered references to him and to his work in W. B. Bryan, History of the National Capitol (2 vols., 1914-16) and in the Memoirs of John Quincy Adams, vols. VI, VII, and IX. The private papers of Force are in the Lib. of Cong ] R.V.H.

Table of Contents --- Whimsy --- Community Events --- New Releases

to email your comments. . .

Hope Farm Press (

Copyright 1996, 1997 & 1999, renewed 2011 by Richard Frisbie -- All rights reserved.