When he retired from public life, George Washington knew that his public and private papers would become an invaluable archive of the history of the American Revolution and the founding of the United States. Even in his lifetime, historians used his military and public papers to write the first chronicles of American independence. Yet at the time of his death, there was no plan in place to keep his papers safely together at Mount Vernon. Over the nineteenth century, large collections of his correspondence were scattered throughout the country, and around the world.
Recognizing the importance of retaining these papers and making them easily accessible, Mount Vernon took one of its first steps into the realm of serious scholarship nearly 50 years ago. In 1968, the estate joined forces with the University of Virginia to publish a definitive edition of his papers, properly collected, transcribed, annotated, and disseminated. This project, The Papers of George Washington, has produced some 67 volumes to date, with each volume averaging more than 600 pages.
Since the project’s beginning, the partnering organizations have made more than 135,000 Washington documents available to scholars, teachers, students and interested readers. Letterpress collections of The Papers can now be found in most university, college, and public libraries, while a digital version--available through the University of Virginia’s “Rotunda” digital publishing imprint—makes the papers accessible worldwide. Free access to the digital copy of The Papers is also available on mountvernon.org. To date, it is the only historical editing project to be honored with a National Humanities Medal.
This deep-dive into Washington’s correspondence and records has brought forth new insights on the General’s leadership, decision-making, and relationships with his fellow founders. To better understand George Washington, however, scholars have recognized that an examination of personal papers and family correspondence is essential. Earlier this year, the George Washington Presidential Library at Mount Vernon announced plans to support the expansion of the project to include papers from members of the General’s family as well.
“Washington did not exist in isolation; his personality and his sense of purpose were shaped by his parents, his siblings, his wife, and his step-children and step-grandchildren,” said Doug Bradburn, the Washington Library’s founding director. “To understand the real man, we need to understand these relationships.”
In order to develop The Washington Papers Comprehensive Family Edition (Family Papers), scholars will transcribe, annotate and publish the correspondence and related materials of Martha Washington, Mary and Augustine Washington, Lawrence Washington, Bushrod Washington (George’s nephew and a U.S. Supreme Court Associate Justice) and other selected family members.
The project will begin with the publication of the first transcribed and annotated definitive edition of George Washington’s Barbados Diary, tracing the future president’s 1751 voyage with his half-brother Lawrence. Later volumes will include work on Martha Washington’s correspondence and, ultimately, the previously unpublished papers of Bushrod Washington and other family members.
The project to research, write, and produce the Family Edition is expected to take five years, but the work will continue well past that date. “Even when the volumes are published, the work is not complete. Unknown Washington letters will turn up, transcription mistakes in past volumes will require correction, new research perspectives will emerge, and new technologies will give us different ways to disseminate this important knowledge,” added Bradburn.
The evolution of The Papers of George Washington is just one exciting change on the horizon for this ambitious undertaking. Within the next ten years, The Papers of George Washington project will close its Charlottesville offices and settle into a new permanent location at the Washington Library.
“Relocating the project to the Washington Library further cements our position as the foremost center for scholarship about the first president and the era in which he lived. History can’t be written without the primary sources—and particularly in today’s disposable internet world, trusted sources are crucial to writing good, accurate history,” explained Dr. Bradburn. “The papers project makes trusted sources available to help us better understand the most important person in the history of the American Founding. Documentary editing projects are some of the most important legacies we can leave as an institution as we foster scholarship on the Founding Era.”