Using Mount Vernon to Teach with Documents

Historic documents provide a wealth of information about the public and private lives of individuals in the 18th century. Exploration of documents such as letters, diaries, newspapers, pamphlets, business reports, legal documents, and books provide students an opportunity to enhance historical literacy skills. As a plantation owner, military general, and the first president of the United States George Washington left historians many written documents, including over 60,000 letters he sent and received. Mount Vernon uses these documents to interpret the historic site, to gain a deeper understanding of Washington’s thoughts, actions, the people he knew, and the world he lived in.

Teaching with Documents Tips:

Handwritten documents from the 18th century can be intimidating and difficult for students due to barriers such as vocabulary, cursive writing, and lack of historical context. Support materials such as word banks, printed transcripts, and contextual information can help break down these barriers.

Providing students with a consistent analysis routine to use throughout the school year can help increase student confidence as they progress through increasingly more difficult documents. Strong analysis routines include 5Ws and SOAPSTONE. Encourage students to mark up their copies of documents with a consistent system to help differentiate the information they have been asked to identify (circle dates, highlight names, underline main arguments).

The first step to reading a historic document is comprehension, but focusing on building student skills in sourcing, contextualizing, close reading, and corroborating allows for students to dive deeper into the historical importance of a document. Sourcing asks students to look for the who, what, when, and where of the document. Contextualizing should focus on the main idea of the document and its historical context. Close reading asks students to identify the author’s argument, evidence, and any potential bias in the document. Finally, encourage students to use corroboration to put the document into the larger historical narrative by comparing and contrasting it with other sources.

Letters, diaries, and newspapers are not the only types of written documents. Ledgers, censuses, lists, broadsides, and recipes are just a few examples of other types of documents that can provide an introduction to written sources.

Documents at Mount Vernon

In line with common practices at the time, Martha Washington destroyed the private correspondence between her and George Washington following his death. Three letters have survived to this day, including one in the collection at Mount Vernon, that gives a glimpse into the words they shared with each other.

Historians sometimes use documents in ways the author rarely intended. Washington’s meticulous practice of requiring farm reports, combined with his own note taking and bookkeeping records, provide historians with named references to many of the enslaved individuals and hired laborers on George Washington’s plantation. These references, when combined with other documentation, aided in the creation of biographies of previously unknown historical figures.

Different types of documents show different sides of George Washington. Letters written during the American Revolution and Washington’s presidency are very formal, as are the business letters he wrote throughout his life. In the letters he wrote to his good friend Chastellux he reveals personal feelings and opinions that aren’t evident in his business, political, and military correspondence. In his “Compend of Husbandry” notes you can see Washington’s enlightened experimental side as he tracks the soil types in his crop rotations.

Notations made in printed texts by Washington are rare, but in one stellar example he marks the presidential copy of the Acts of the First Congress by bracketing the points in the constitution that reference the powers and responsibilities of the president.

Comparing documents from different points in George Washington’s life can help to understand what issues he felt strongly about across his lifetime and what issues he changed his thinking about. You can see similar themes of the importance of national unity in his Circular to the States, Farewell Address, and last will and testament. Alternatively, you can see his changing views on slavery throughout his life as well.


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