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George Washington both produced and received a large number of letters, documents, accounts, and notes during his lifetime. Washington was aware of his special place in the development of the United States and as a famed and beloved military leader and statesman, and was cognizant that his papers would be of interest to future readers. The papers that survive today are available because of the care that Washington took during his lifetime, despite the sometimes careless and destructive handling that they faced after his death.
During Washington's Life
Washington was meticulous with the organization and care of his papers. At different points in his life, Washington created letter books (bound volumes with copies of his outgoing and incoming letters), used a letterpress (a device that made direct copies of writing by lifting some of the ink from the page), and even edited his copies of some of his early letters, smoothing grammar and word choice. In addition, throughout his life he hired secretaries, aides-de-camp, clerks, and copyists to assist.
Washington's letter press
As early as 1775 during the American Revolution, Washington held the safety of his papers at Mount Vernon second only to the safety of his wife, Martha Washington. George Washington instructed his cousin Lund Washington to provide "for her in Alexandria, or some other place of safety for her and my Papers."1 As the Revolutionary War progressed and the volume of papers he was creating grew, Washington was concerned for their care, once sending them to Congress in Philadelphia for safekeeping. In 1781 he asked Congress and was allowed to hire a team of clerks to transcribe and organize his letters. Upon his return to Mount Vernon after the war, he hoped "to overhaul & adjust all my papers."2
As President, Washington and his staff produced many papers. When his second term was finished, Washington had his secretaries remove the papers his successor would need and had them pack the rest to ship to Mount Vernon. During his retirement, Washington wrote that he had devoted his infrequent leisure time "to the arrangement, and overhaul of my voluminous Public Papers—Civil & Military—that, they may go into secure deposits."3
Washington also planned to erect a building at Mount Vernon especially to store his papers. The building was not constructed by the time of his death. Even on the last day of his life, Washington worried about his papers. His friend and longtime secretary Tobias Lear recorded that, hours before his death, Washington told him, "I find I am going, my breath cannot continue long. . . do you arrange & record all my late Military letters & papers—arrange my accounts & settle my books."4
After Washington's Death
In his will, Washington bequeathed all his civil and military papers, as well as his " private Papers as are worth preserving," to his nephew Bushrod Washington, a U.S. Supreme Court justice.5 In the months following George Washington’s death, Tobias Lear organized the papers in the former president's office. It may have been at that time that Martha Washington removed and burned her correspondence with her husband. Soon after Bushrod Washington allowed Chief Justice John Marshall to take many of the papers to Richmond while Marshall wrote a biography of the first president. Marshall, however, did not always take sufficient care of the papers. As Justice Washington later noted, “the papers sent to the Chief Justice . . . have been very extensively mutilated by rats and otherwise injured by damp."6
In addition to Marshall’s poor stewardship, Bushrod Washington allowed several people—including the Marquis de Lafayette and James Madison—to remove their correspondence with the late president. Justice Washington also passed out autographs and other favors from the papers as souvenirs to favor seekers. He allowed William Sprague, his nephews' tutor, to remove more than 1,500 letters on the stipulation that he leave copies in their place.
In January 1827, Bushrod Washington gave editor Jared Sparks permission to publish some of Washington's papers. During his work, Sparks moved many of the papers to Boston and he visited repositories in both the United States and Europe to search for letters and documents not represented in Washington's own papers. Unfortunately he was also free with giving favors of Washington’s handwriting.
When Bushrod Washington died in 1829, he left George Washington's papers to his nephew George Corbin Washington, a Maryland congressman. George Corbin Washington soon moved the papers that remained at Mount Vernon to his office in Georgetown. Governmental officers had often consulted Washington's papers, and in 1833 George Corbin Washington agreed to sell the papers to the State Department, excepting ones he considered to be private. In 1849 he sold the private papers as well. The Washington papers remained at the State Department until 1904, when they were turned over to the Library of Congress. Copies of Washington papers from other repositories and some originals have been added to the collection over the years since the library took possession. In 1964 the Library of Congress released a reproduction of the papers on microfilm, and in 1998 it posted digital images of the papers taken from the microfilm on its Web site.
Publishing the Papers
Jared Sparks' The Writings of George Washington was published in eleven volumes between 1833 and 1837. Sparks edited Washington’s words heavily, changing spelling, grammar, phrasing, and at times entire sentences. From 1889 to 1893, historian Worthington Chauncey Ford published a fourteen-volume set of The Writings of George Washington. Later, John C. Fitzpatrick prepared thirty-nine volumes of The Writings of George Washington From the Original Manuscript Sources (1931–1944) as a part of the United States George Washington Bicentennial Commission.
However, no comprehensive or fully annotated version of Washington's papers was attempted until the creation of the Papers of George Washington project in 1968. Sponsored by the University of Virginia and the Mount Vernon Ladies Association and supported by the National Endowment for the Humanities and the National Historical Publications and Records Commission, the editors and staff procured more than 135,000 copies of Washington documents from repositories worldwide. In their search they included not only letters written by George Washington, but also letters to him, documents, diaries, and financial papers. About half of those documents are from the Library of Congress' Washington Papers collection.
Early in the project the staff divided the work into a set of diaries and five chronological series of correspondence: Colonial, Revolutionary War, Confederation, Presidential, and Retirement, which have been published simultaneously (63 volumes to date). The two largest series, Revolutionary War and Presidential, are still in production, with an estimated twenty-four more volumes to go. The George Washington Papers Digital Edition, created by the Papers staff and University of Virginia's digital imprint, Rotunda, was launched in 2006.
Research Assistant, The Papers of George Washington
2. "George Washington to George William Fairfax, 27 February 1785," The Papers of George Washington, Confederation Series, 2:386.
3. "George Washington to James McHenry, 29 July 1798," The Papers of George Washington, Retirement Series, 2:473.
5. George Washington's Will, The Papers of George Washington, Retirement Series, 4:485.
W. W. Abbot, "An Uncommon Awareness of Self: The Papers of George Washington"