Founded in 1968 as a collaborative project between the Mount Vernon Ladies' Association of the Union and the University of Virginia, The Papers of George Washington (PGW) editing project documents the life and times of this founding father and the public events in which he participated.
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George Washington's Papers
George Washington realized the importance of his role in the American Revolution from the time he became Commander-in-Chief. He produced and received a large body of correspondence and reports and worried that if anything happened to him his papers might fall into enemy hands. Washington wrote to John Hancock on 13 August 1776 shortly before the Battle of Long Island: "I have thought It advisable to remove All the papers in my hands respecting the Affairs of the States from this place…. They are all contained in a large Box nailed up … to be delivered to Congress, In whose Custody I would beg leave to deposit them, untill our Affairs shall be so circumstanced as to admit of their return." Congress returned his papers a few months later, but over the next five years his cache of documents became increasingly disorganized as the materials were alternately packed and unpacked every time he moved his headquarters. In 1781 he asked Congress to provide him with an assistant to both organize and transcribe his papers. Richard Varick, a young lawyer from New York, was chosen for the position. Varick and a group of transcribers took Washington's papers to Poughkeepsie, New York, where they arranged them into the series suggested by Washington and then began transcribing the backlog of materials. Washington was pleased with Varick's work, writing to him on 1 January 1784 regarding "the satisfaction I feel in having my Papers so properly arranged, & so correctly recorded ... I am fully convinced that neither the present age or posterity will consider the time and labour which have been employed in accomplishing it, unprofitable spent." At the end of the Revolutionary War Washington's papers were sent to Mount Vernon for safekeeping. When George Washington stepped down after his eight years as president, he had his secretaries remove any materials John Adams might need and had the rest of his papers sent home. One of the tasks Washington hoped to accomplish during his retirement was organizing his papers. On 3 April 1797, a month after he left the presidency, he wrote to his former Secretary of War James McHenry: "I have not houses to build (except one, which I must erect for the accomodation & security of my Military, Civil & private Papers, which are voluminous and may be interesting)." However, Washington died before he was able to construct this library.
In his will George Washington bequeathed his papers to his nephew, U.S. Supreme Court justice Bushrod Washington. It may have been in the months following Washington’s death that Martha Washington removed and burned her correspondence with her husband. Soon after acquiring the papers Bushrod Washington allowed John Marshall to take some of the materials to Richmond while Marshall worked on his five-volume biography of the first president. When Marshall was at home he took good care of Washington's papers, but when he was out riding circuit court the materials were moved to his attic where some of them were “mutilated by rats and otherwise injured by damp."
In 1827 Bushrod Washington gave Jared Sparks permission to take some of the papers to Massachusetts as he worked on his documentary edition of Washington's writings. Between 1834 and 1837 Sparks published his 12-volume set of The Writings of George Washington. Sparks, however, only included outgoing correspondence in his edition and edited Washington’s words heavily, changing spelling, grammar, phrasing, and even entire sentences. Unfortunately he was also free with giving away samples of Washington’s handwriting from the letters he had in his possession.
When Bushrod Washington died in 1829 he left George Washington's papers to his nephew George Corbin Washington, a Maryland congressman, who in 1833 agreed to sell the public papers to the State Department; in 1849 he sold the private papers as well. The Washington papers remained at the State Department until 1904, when they were transferred to the Library of Congress. In 1964 the Library of Congress microfilmed the papers, and in 1998 it digitized images from the microfilm on its web site.
As a part of the United States George Washington Bicentennial Commission, John C. Fitzpatrick prepared a 39-volume set of The Writings of George Washington From the Original Manuscript Sources, 1745-1799 (1931-1944). This edition surpassed the earlier work by Sparks, but Fitzpatrick only utilized manuscripts housed in major repositories like the Library of Congress and predominantly included documents Washington had written. In leaving out the correspondence that Washington had received, both Sparks' and Fitzpatrick's works presented only one half of the story.
No comprehensive or fully annotated version of Washington's papers was attempted until the creation of the PGW project. At a time when the papers of Benjamin Franklin, Alexander Hamilton, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison were all being edited, George Washington, arguably the central figure in colonial America and the early republic, was noticeably absent. In 1968, the Mount Vernon Ladies' Association of the Union and the University of Virginia launched a new effort to publish the papers of George Washington.
The project is charged with the task of preparing for publication a comprehensive and authoritative edition of Washington documents. It is currently headquartered in Alderman Library on the University of Virginia campus in Charlottesville.
The project determined to be the most comprehensive compilation yet and include both outgoing and incoming correspondence. In addition, rather than only utilize documents that resided in major repositories, the PGW project commenced a search to locate materials in libraries, historical societies, and public collections across the globe. The project has collected copies of more than 140,000 documents including correspondence, letter-books, diaries, account books, and farm reports. The Washington Library owns approximately 1,000 documents written or received by George and Martha Washington, which can be accessed through the library's catalog.