The Financial Papers Project Visits the Library of Congress

By Erica Cavanaugh

Erica is a Research Assistant for the Financial Papers Project.

The Financial Papers Project at the Papers of George Washington focuses on GW’s numerous account books, which illustrate the financial aspects of his everyday life. We have primarily worked with scanned digital images from the Library of Congress website when doing transcriptions, and have been trying to gain a better understanding of Washington himself. Recently however, I was given the opportunity to visit the Library Congress with Senior Editor Jennifer Stertzer, in order to actually see, touch, and use the original financial documents housed there.

Upon arrival, we were able to walk through the closed stacks, seeing the vast number of volumes and documents, which are no longer open to the public. The documents covered a variety of topics, including a number of the presidents. Many of the documents have been microfilmed and are also available online for public use. After seeing the closed stacks, we made our way to the reading room for the manuscript archives. We were assigned a locker where our bags, jackets, and anything other than a phone or laptop were stored, and were then provided with paper and pencils. Once settled, a cart with the financial volumes we requested was brought out and we were able to begin.

Each of the financial documents and books were in different physical conditions. Some of the account books were in their original bindings and relatively easy to manage considering their age, while others were extremely fragile and delicate. Additionally, there were a few books that had been repaired and rebound by the conservation department at the Library of Congress. Due to the fact that a number of the books were in the original binding and were fragile we needed to take certain precautions. These precautions included the use of cradles to view a number of the materials. The cradles stopped the books from opening too far, preventing any additional cracking of the pages or spine of the books.

While viewing the original material and handwriting was interesting and allowed us to fully comprehend the various sizes of the account books, the purpose of our visit was to verify the order of the material online, which we were using for our transcriptions. Jennifer and I went through a number of the volumes page by page in order to make sure we hadn’t missed anything. By doing this, we realized that some of the material had been difficult to scan due to its fragile state. Because of this, numbers or text written towards the center of the book did not always show in the digital image. By using the original documents, we were able to update the transcriptions in the database with the previously unknown text.

Our final goal of visiting the Library of Congress was to gain some deeper insight into the material by conversing with Julie Miller, an Early American Historian at the Library of Congress who is also currently working on this material. By conversing with one another, we were able to see what we each thought about particular documents and account books. A number of questions were asked, some of which were as simple as “what is this,” and “why is it here.” Some questions we were able to answer for one another and others still remain unanswered.

Overall, our visit to the Library of Congress was both fascinating and insightful. We were able to handle the original documents, and update and correct some of our transcriptions. Additionally, we gained a better understanding of the numerous account books George Washington kept, how they may have been related to one another, and at times the purpose of particular books. As the project progresses, I hope we are able to visit again.

Asserting the “Chief Magistrate’s” Prerogatives: Washington, Hamilton, and the Development of the President’s Discretionary Powers

By Kate Brown

Kate is a Research Assistant for the Revolutionary War series, a Mount Vernon fellow, and a Ph.D. candidate in the history department at the University of Virginia. Her dissertation is called “Alexander Hamilton and the Development of American Law.”

When George Washington swore the oath of office as the nation’s first president, the sovereign people of the United States bestowed upon him the somewhat vague, but potentially expansive, constitutional powers of a republican executive. At that moment, according to his former aide and soon-to-be Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton, Washington became not a king, but instead, America’s “Chief Magistrate.”[1]

What did it mean, to Washington and to Hamilton, for the American president to be the nation’s chief magistrate? While Article II of the U.S. Constitution (the definitive legal source of federal executive power) does not use the term “magistrate” to describe the president’s powers, Americans were familiar with the magisterial office from the inherited English legal traditions that still comprised much of the new nation’s substantive law and legal procedure. English as well as colonial magistrates (called justices of the peace, or JPs) served at the pleasure of the king, and exercised both executive and judicial powers. When acting as the king’s administrators, local JPs levied and collected taxes, for example, and then used the funds for such purposes as maintaining or erecting new community infrastructure. When acting in their judicial capacities, JPs heard and determined cases that included misdemeanors and even some felonies. While these magistrates enjoyed significant autonomy to act as local governors and judges, the king—England’s chief magistrate—and his superior common-law courts oversaw local JPs to be sure that their actions comported with English law.

When Washington and Hamilton considered the president as America’s chief magistrate, they, too, thought of federal executive power as comprised partly of administrative energy and decisive action, and partly of judicial-like discretion. To be sure, both Washington and his Treasury Secretary expected most executive actions to be reviewable in federal court. Yet, just as the British king possessed mighty prerogatives that allowed him to do as he pleased, without any oversight, so too did the American president. During the first years of Washington’s administration, Washington and Hamilton helped to assert and to defend these presidential prerogatives, and in doing so, they set crucial precedents about the nature and scope of the president’s discretionary authority.

In his Federalist essays, Hamilton gave considerable discussion to two of the president’s Article II prerogative powers—pardoning and treaty-making—that Washington would exercise, sometimes controversially, while in office. Hamilton referred to the president’s judge-like pardoning power as a “benign prerogative” required by “humanity and good policy,” and instituted primarily “for the mitigation of the rigor of the law”—especially “in seasons of insurrection.”[2] Hamilton was particularly prescient here, as President Washington made shrewd political use of his pardoning power in the aftermath of the 1794 Whiskey Insurrection. After the Pennsylvania Circuit Court tried, convicted, and sentenced rebel leaders Philip Vigol and John Mitchell to hang, Washington issued stays of execution and then pardons to spare the convicts’ lives.[3] Washington strategically employed his pardoning prerogative to demonstrate the fair-mindedness and mercy of the national government after he enforced the legitimacy of federal law.[4]

Hamilton also detailed the executive’s treaty-making powers, a discretionary authority unto itself, as the president made the decision to enter into a contract with another sovereign. After the parties involved drew up their agreement, only then would the Senate ratify the contract. However, like judges did when interpreting statutory law, the president would also have to interpret the terms of existing treaties, and act on his conclusions. This discretionary authority to interpret law and to act accordingly has become an integral part of executive power, and yet it sparked fierce public outcry during the 1793 neutrality crisis. In defense of Washington’s Neutrality Proclamation, Secretary Hamilton became the first and foremost expounder of Washington’s discretion to interpret the law.

In the first of his four Pacificus essays, Hamilton defended Washington’s issuance of the Neutrality Proclamation by demonstrating that inherent in the president’s power to execute the law is the necessary authority to interpret it. Washington sought to faithfully execute his obligation to keep the nation at peace (until Congress declared war on either the French or the British), and so “in fulfilling that duty, [the executive] must necessarily possess a right of judging what is the nature of the obligations which the treaties of the Country impose on the Government.”[5] In this case, Washington and his cabinet adjudged that American neutrality did not violate the existing provisions of the 1778 Franco-American Treaty of Amity and Commerce.

In addition, the Treasury Secretary concluded his exposition by forcefully articulating the discretionary authority inherent in American executive power, and exercised properly by President Washington. Hamilton declared:

The President is the constitutional EXECUTOR of the laws. Our Treaties and the laws of Nations form a part of the law of the land. He who is to execute the laws must first judge for himself of their meaning. In order to the observance of that conduct…it was necessary for the President to judge for himself whether there was any thing in our treaties incompatible with an adherence to neutrality. Having judged that there was not….it was [Washington’s] duty, as Executor of the laws, to proclaim the neutrality of the Nation…”[6]

Because Washington acted boldly by unilaterally interpreting the terms of the existing treaty with France and by issuing the Neutrality Proclamation in response, he set a precedent for decisive executive action in foreign-policy matters. And by supplying a well-crafted legal argument to support Washington’s discretionary authority, Hamilton provided a definitive statement of the contours of the executive’s prerogative to interpret the law that persists to this day, influencing our modern understanding of executive authority.[7]

While Washington and Hamilton collaborated frequently, and successfully, throughout much of their professional lives, their precedent-setting efforts to assert, develop, and define Article II executive power remains one of their most significant achievements. Although the U.S. Constitution enumerates presidential powers, Washington and Hamilton gave practical and legal meaning to this text, inseparably mixing executive action and judicial-like discretion in the tradition of the English magistrate. In doing so, neither Washington nor Hamilton sought to put the president above or beyond the law; instead, they aimed to set a precedent for the vigorous exercise of executive prerogative power first by asserting those constitutional prerogatives and then by defining and defending them through reasonable, though expansive, interpretations of Article II’s text. Through their efforts, George Washington and Alexander Hamilton asserted inherited, English legal traditions within the secure confines of a republican constitutional framework; in doing so, they adapted the discretionary authority of a “Chief Magistrate” to the office of the President of the United States.


[1] Hamilton refers to the President as the “Chief Magistrate” through his Federalist essays on executive power and in his administrative correspondence as Treasury Secretary.

[2] Federalist No. 74.

[3] See “Philip Vigol Stay of Execution” (June 16, 1795), The Papers of George Washington, Presidential Series, 18 (forthcoming) as well as Washington’s stay of execution for John Mitchell in DNA: RG 59, Copies of Presidential Pardons and Remissions, 1794–1893. Washington’s pardons for Mitchell and Vigol can be found at DNA: RG 59, Copies of Presidential Pardons and Remissions, 1794–1893.

[4] Washington had no doubt that he, as chief magistrate, had a constitutional duty to prevent western Pennsylvanian tax payers from dodging the federal tax on spirits that incited the so-called Whiskey Insurrection. In 1792, Washington wrote to Hamilton about a draft presidential proclamation to discourage opposition to the federal excise and affirmed:  “When…lenient & temporizing means have been used, and serve only to increase the disorder, longer forbearance would become unjustifiable remissness, and a neglect of that duty which is enjoined to the President. I can have no hesitation, therefore, under this view of the case to adopt such legal measures to check the disorderly opposition which is given to the executive of the Laws laying a duty on distilled spirits, as the Constitution has invested the Executive with; and however painful the measure would be, if the Proclamation should fail to produce the effect desired, ulterior arrangements must be made to support the Laws, & to prevent the prostration of Government.” (Washington to Hamilton (September 17, 1792 [first letter]), The Papers of George Washington, Presidential Series, 11: 125.) Washington published the final draft of his proclamation on August 7, 1794 (See “Proclamation,” in The Papers of George Washington, Presidential Series, 16: 531-37).

[5] Pacificus No. 1 (June 29, 1793), in Harold C. Syrett, ed., The Papers of Alexander Hamilton, vol. 15 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1969), 40.  Emphasis added.

[6] Ibid, 43. Emphasis added.

[7] When reflecting on Hamilton’s contributions to constitutional law, legal scholar William R. Casto carefully combed through Pacificus’ “careful and lucid argument…grounded in the a structure and actual words of the Constitution,” and concluded: “Simply put, Pacificus No. 1 is one of the best essays ever written on a specific issue of constitutional law.” (See Foreign Affairs and the Constitution in the Age of Fighting Sail (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2006), 82.)


Transcription: Looking Back 200 Years

By Prajeeth Koyada

Prajeeth is a first year chemistry major at the University of Virginia. He currently transcribes documents for the Financial Papers Project.

Transcribing documents for the Papers of George Washington has been both an enlightening and mystifying experience. For every “Caleb Gibbs” I uncover, a multitude of questions arise– “who was this person?”, “why was he important”, “what are his greatest achievements, and failures?”, among others–and occupy my thoughts until I move on to the next line and my thoughts are now focused on a new individual, maybe a “Josiah Hall” this time. The entire time, from the moment I open the papers to the instant I shut off the computer, I don’t exist in that large room on grounds – I’m reading, thinking of, and most importantly, experiencing a minuscule part of the life of George Washington and his correspondents.

Sorry to sound overly Romantic, but the transcription of George Washington’s correspondence truly is an adventure in some respects. I uncover what his debts and obligations were, to whom they were entitled to, and what exactly he owed. A form of enlightenment, I gain a unique insight regarding the needs of the Continental Army during and after the Revolutionary War– something not provided in the history courses everyone has taken.

Henry Alexander Ogden’s 1897 depiction of uniforms and weapons used in the Revolutionary War

On the side, by reading some of the other transcribed diaries the Papers have produced, I follow the footsteps of Washington and his patriots; I do not just relive the same lessons taught in history class, but get to see what daily life looked like, in all of its small details. Most definitely, these papers have helped me to humanize these long-past figures, bastions of a far away age. When we think of George Washington and his soldiers, we usually see them as symbols of freedom, fighting an impossible battle for independence, which of course puts us in a certain perceptual mold. For me, reading these soldiers’ complaints about rations, stories told around the campfire, and images of their own personal lives reminds me that these soldiers were just like you and me, fighting for what they believe in. In other words, the Papers reminds me just who fought for the United States’ freedom and instills in me even more appreciation and respect for those same people.

Although I’ve made this work sound extremely serious, the truth is this work is remarkably fun and, at times, amusing! There are various stories that come to mind that these soldiers relate that would entertain even today, two centuries later. History is a great passion of mine, and being able to see a glimpse of what life was like during the birth of the United States for the people who helped achieve it is an amazing opportunity I’m grateful for.

Papers of George Washington, a.k.a., Hollywood

By Caitlin Conley

Caitlin is a Research Assistant for the Bibliography Project and is part of the Papers of George Washington social media team.

We hope that you’ve liked our videos so far, because we have more coming your way! In January and February we’ll be posting four new videos featuring George’s animals, specifically his sheep, cattle, hogs, and mules. While they’re aimed towards younger viewers and will hopefully be of use in elementary school classrooms, they’ll be interesting to anyone curious about George’s favorite job: being a farmer.

The videos will feature voiceovers from George’s letters, with our editors giving cameo readings of fellows such as the fiery Arthur Young and the jovial Gouverner Morris. As an additional treat, Mount Vernon kindly gave us permission to film their beautiful heritage animals, including their Hog Island Sheep, Milking Devon Cows, and Ossabaw Island Hogs. For more about Mount Vernon’s animals, see their page “Animals at Mount Vernon”.

I’d been having uncomfortable visions of shouting my lines as narrator over a howling gale, but luckily, it was a lovely day last Saturday, which was when we trooped up to Mount Vernon to get our footage. In addition to me as narrator and writer, we had Claire Romaine, a first year at U.Va. and a new member of our social media team, who recorded sound and directed; Eva Lucy Alvarado, a first year in the film club at U.Va., who set up shots and filmed; and Spencer Park, also a first year at U.Va., who helped with setting up equipment and keeping track of what scene we were on.

mt vernon

It was quite an adventure, and we had a great time exploring Mount Vernon to find places to film. Our biggest obstacle to getting the footage we wanted was planes flying overhead and ruining the sound. I would be halfway through my line about manure, thinking that I was sounding pretty awesome, and then Claire would sigh and say “Stop! Plane!”

The other obstacle was the sheep. The first time we tried to film them, they sauntered away over a hill, one by one, so that there weren’t any left in the shot. The second time, they sat so still that we might as well have been filming statues. Fortunately, some kids passing by volunteered to baaaaaa at them and the sheep at last looked at the camera.

The sheep could have learned something from the cows, who were the opposite of camera shy. All four of us were enormously excited when some Mount Vernon staff members arrived in a red pickup truck to toss the cows their evening hay. We were probably quite a sight, jumping up and down and fumbling to set up the cameras while the cows peacefully munched away:

mt vernon f

The scenery at Mount Vernon is breathtaking, which is, of course, a major reason why Mount Vernon was built there in the first place. We filmed in front of barns, forests, and fields. Our last scenes of the day were in front of the Potomac River:

mt vernon fff


Eventually, we realized that we were filming these videos the day before George’s death, 215 years ago. It was a little spooky walking around his grounds the rest of that day, and it made our trip feel extra special.

We hope you’ll enjoy watching the videos as much as we’re enjoying making them for you!


Holiday Cooking with Washington

By Caitlin Conley

Caitlin is a Research Assistant for the Bibliography Project and is part of the Papers of George Washington social media team.

What’s the best thing about the holidays? The food, of course! In our 1999 inaugural newsletter, we celebrated holiday food by talking about one of George’s favorites: the Yorkshire Christmas pie.

Martha would have seen the recipe for the pie in her cookbook: Mrs. Hannah Glasse’s The Art of Cookery. It was published originally in England in 1747 and went through several editions, being one of the most popular cookbooks in both England and America. Take a look at Martha’s edition, which dates from the early 1770’s:


“Hannah Glasse, The art of cookery, made plain and easy: which far exceeds anything of the kind ever yet published,” in Martha Washington, Item #67, (accessed December 4, 2014).

And here’s the recipe that she would have used–do you think you could make this dish?

“To Make a Yorkshire Christmas Pie”

“FIRST make a good standing crust, let the wall and bottom be very thick; bone  turkey, a goose, a fowl, a partridge, and a pigeon. Season them all very well, take half an ounce of mace, half an ounce of nutmegs, a quarter of an ounce of cloves, and half an ounce of black pepper, all beat fine together, two large spoonfuls of salt, and then mix them together. Open the fowls all down the back, and bone them; first the pigeon, then the partridge, cover them; then the fowl, then the goose, and then the turkey, which must be large; season them all well first, and lay them in the curst, so as it will look only like a whole turkey; then have a hare ready cased, and wiped with a clean cloth. Cut it to pieces; that is, joint it; season it, and lay it as close as you can on one side; on the other side woodcocks, moor game, and what sort of wild fowl you can get. Season them well, and lay them close; put at least four pounds of butter into the pie, then lay on your lid, which must be a very thick one, and let it be well baked. It must have a very hot oven, and will take at least four hours.”

And we all think that a turducken is a lot of protein! The Yorkshire pie was a lot of food even for George. He wrote to his friend David Humphreys on the day after Christmas in 1786 about Humphreys not being able to spend the holiday at Mount Vernon: “Although I lament the effect, I am pleased at the cause which has deprived us of your aid in the attack of Christmas Pyes. We had one yesterday on which all the company (and pretty numerous it was) were hardly able to make an impression” (see the Confederation Series 4:477-81 of the Papers of George Washington).

Happy holidays!



New Financial Papers Project Video

Interested in learning more about the Financial Papers Project?  This video details the importance of studying George Washington and his detailed financial records, as well as the work happening now to create a digital resources for educators, students, historians, businesspeople, and those generally interested in the life of Washington. The Financial Papers Project is funded in part by a grant from the NHPRC.

You can watch the video on YouTube or Vimeo, or on our Videos page!

To learn more about the Financial Papers Project, see our Financial Papers Project page.


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‘Meet the Papers of George Washington’ Video

Documentary editing involves George Washington’s vast repository of rich documents, a deep understanding of history, and a keen determination to persevere through even the worst handwriting. But what are the challenges involved? What kinds of discoveries can be made? What is involved in the editing process? This introductory video will allow you to learn the answers to these questions, find out more about our far-reaching projects, and meet the editors who accomplish this work—and you might even meet Washington himself.  Ready to watch?  Click here!

Attending the Bibliography Project Presentation

By Caitlin Conley

Caitlin is a Research Assistant for the Bibliography Project and is part of the Papers of George Washington social media team.

We came to a halt in front of the black-barred gates that protect the brand new Fred W. Smith National Library for the Study of George Washington at Mount Vernon. Ed, who drove Bill Ferraro and I up from our Charlottesville headquarters, rolled down his window and leaned towards the intercom.

“Hi, I’m Ed Lengel, Editor-in-Chief of the Papers of George Washington, and we’re here to attend the Bibliography Project presentation.”

The congenial guard opened the gates and we drove up the winding road to the library.

The Bibliography Project is one of The Papers of George Washington’s many endeavors to expand scholarship on and awareness of George Washington. It seeks to find and annotate every English-language book written on Washington.

Yes, every book. You’ll be able to find entries for novels, histories, juvenile books, biographies, pamphlets…the list goes on. And, as we all know, our George is a pretty popular guy—there are, currently, around 10,000 books in the Bibliography Project database!

Last year, Lynn Price, a doctoral student at George Mason University and manager of the Bibliography Project, led the way to finding and annotating the children’s books about George Washington. This year, as we were about to hear, she would talk about the progress made on annotating adult books primarily about Washington, such as biographies.

Ed, Bill, and I joined the audience in the Rubenstein Leadership Hall for Lynn’s presentation. We loitered near the food, in my case near the sumptuous chocolate cake, talking and laughing. It was a great crowd, replete with interested Mount Vernon staff. Ed and Bill told me later how happy they were to have so many people there to learn more about the project.

Soon Lynn began her presentation.

“So, who is the targeted audience for this project?” she asked. “The answer is: everyone!”

And she did mean everyone: K-12 teachers and students, professors, college students, the general public, Senators, and pretty much anyone else you can think of can benefit from this resource.

Lynn went on to explain that each entry in the database includes both a very short 3-5 sentence summary concerning the book’s content, as well as basic data about the book, including its publishers, type of edition, author, year published, and number of pages.

And, another plus, any element of this information will be searchable.

“If you wanted to find all the books with black and white illustrations published in 1842, written for ages 10 and under, you could!” Lynn joked.

She also outlined the project’s future endeavors, explaining that the third phase, scheduled to be completed in August 2015, would examine books in which Washington is a strong presence, such as a book about American presidents.

At the end of the talk, everyone seemed to be excited about the project’s potential. One person suggested, for instance, that the project also cover images of George Washington. Another asked if the project would also document journal articles and chapters of books. Lynn excitedly told us that all of that, and more, was possible in the future.

As she answered questions, I reflected on the idea that this bibliography was going to, if you’ll pardon the pun, revolutionize the way George Washington is studied and thought of. How could this resource impact your research?

The Quest for Truth: editor Ed Lengel advises on a spurious Washington quote

By Stephanie Kingsley

Stephanie was a Research Assistant for the Bibliography Project and a member of the Papers of George Washington social media team. She now works at the American Historical Association.

As you know, here at the Papers of George Washington, as well as at Mount Vernon, we are dedicated to preserving Washington’s writings. What did he really say? By referring to his papers, we can often find the answers. Just last week, our editor-in-chief, Ed Lengel, was consulted by Columbian reporters on the veracity of the quote on the Bend veterans’ monument, located outside the Deschutes County Courthouse in Bend, Oregon. The monument reads:

The willingness with which our young people are likely to serve in any war, no matter how justified, shall be directly proportional as to how they perceive the veterans of earlier wars were treated and appreciated by their nation.

According to Lengel, there is no evidence Washington ever said these words.  What this means is that after reading thousands of Washington’s papers—many now searchable in the digital edition at Founders Online—these words have never appeared. Before quoting a figure such as Washington, researchers should always refer to the original documents when available; and researchers everywhere should know that in the case of Washington, these resources do indeed exist.

See the full article for Lengel’s comments on spurious Washington quotes and myths. We will also be starting a series of posts on quotations attributed to Washington, so stay tuned as we continue our quest for historical truth here at the Papers of George Washington.