Discoveries through time: how the H-GEAR project is connecting a network of the most influential people of the American Revolution

23 Jan 2024 - 3 min

The H-GEAR project is unraveling the intellectual tapestry of America’s founders by using digital methods to chart shifts in the character and structure of political discourse during the American Revolution. The project, led by Dr. Mark L. Thompson, a Senior Lecturer in American Studies at the University of Groningen, sifts through 185,000 time-stamped letters that were exchanged between seven so-called “founding fathers” and other key figures of that time. The ambition of the project is to understand how political discourse shifted during the Revolutionary era in the United States, to reveal which people had influence and power, and to discover where and how these changes spread.  

The first phase of the project involves content-based analysis, employing the ShiCo (an acronym for Shifting Concepts in Time) software tool. At the Netherlands eScience Center, Thijs Vroegh leads the team of research software engineers utilizing this software to scrutinize the usage of words over time. More specifically, the team aims to trace how liberal and republican concepts and ideologies shifted in the period between 1725-1835, uncovering the subtle nuances in language usage that shaped political discourse. Thijs explains, “Through diligent research, we uncover the dynamic dialogue between liberal and republican principles—a testament to the ongoing evolution of American independence”. Given a small set of user-provided keywords (e.g., freedom, liberty, right), ShiCo gives insight into changes in the vocabulary used to denote the concept by examining the semantic relations between words in different years.  

The second phase employs temporal social network analysis to establish links between the writers through time. Through the analysis of letters exchanged, the project seeks to identify the most influential figures and map the network that propagated these political ideologies.  

The preliminary findings underline that Thomas Jefferson emerges as the central figure of this period – not surprising given his leading role in drafting the Declaration of Independence. However, because the corpus of letters is biased with its focus on the founding fathers, the researchers acknowledge that the results are equally biased.  

With anticipation of the 250th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence in 2026, Mark L. Thompson, Jelte Olthof, Erik Tjong Kim Sang and Thijs Vroegh believe interest in the American Revolution will garner even more attention. Therefore, there are plans to develop a user-friendly webpage where researchers and the general public alike can explore and interact with the data, fostering a deeper understanding of the project’s findings. As Thompson notes, “We’d love for interested members of the public—whether they are located in the USA, the Netherlands, or anywhere else—to be able to use these tools and explore these texts so they can ask and answer their own questions about this foundational era.”

Who are we? 

The eScience Center is a research organization dedicated to applying research software to answer research questions in any scientific domain through project collaborations. It has the largest concentration of dedicated, high-level research software expertise in the Netherlands. The eScience Center also has a fellowship programme and makes all of its software and training materials openly available online. For more information about what we offer, visit esciencecenter.nl.