Washington’s Quill Blog

Interrogating the Text; How to Annotate a George Washington Document

by William M. Ferraro, Managing Editor
August 17, 2o17

Moderating a panel on public engagement at the 2017 meeting of the Association for Documentary Editing, Washington Papers communications specialist Katie Lebert observed that content that explores the basic practices of documentary editing is often received favorably by and connects with a wide audience. Taking the cue from Katie, I devote this blog post to annotating documents that appear in The Papers of George Washington.

An editor working on elucidating a document for readers approaches this task by “interrogating the text” in order to determine which information is needed to comprehend it. The process begins by asking questions from the perspective of a reader. Who is mentioned? What is the purpose of the document? Are place references obscure? Does this document result in some action, especially an action involving Washington?

To identify research directions and establish the contours of the eventual annotation, the editor first must determine whether the people, places, and facts in the document already have been covered editorially. People identifications and places mentioned in The Washington Papers’ Revolutionary War and Presidential Series can be located quickly through searchable authoritative files found on the “Washington Papers Resources” webpage, an internal online database through which editors and staff share resources and information. The Papers of George Washington Digital Edition‘s cumulative index and conversations with colleagues also help at this stage. Ascertaining what already is known and has been presented avoids redundant research and suggests potential cross-references.

Sources most useful in annotation are those closest to the document being edited. Thus, the most relevant and dynamic pieces of annotation are texts directly linked to the document. These can be enclosed letters or extracts from letters, intelligence reports, legislative resolutions, or military returns regarding troops, provisions, or equipment. Replies, particularly shorter replies that simply address the document, frequently function better as notes to the document that prompted their creation than as separate and distinct entries.

Work then moves outward to the large universe of primary sources that might shed light on the content of the document. The Papers of George Washington offices in the University of Virginia’s Alderman Library hold hundreds of these sources, including contemporary letters (manuscripts on microfilm and printed editions), diaries, journals, and governmental proceedings. Vast amounts of similar material can now be accessed through ancestry.com and fold3.com. Searchable newspaper and bibliographic databases offer ready access to an astounding amount of printed information from Washington’s lifetime. It is a challenge to avoid getting lost in this forest of source material! Contemporary writings and publications can suggest a rich array of research directions, but these can also lead editors far afield of the document. Editors must always keep the text in mind and maintain focus on answering the questions it raises.

A similar discipline must be practiced when writing annotation. Except for the occasional figure or place of relative obscurity or exceptional importance, people and places are identified in thumbnail sketches of two or three sentences that explain or suggest why they appear in that document. Quotes from manuscript documents or other primary sources are limited to the pertinent portions and introduced as plainly as possible (“In a dispatch written at New York City on 8 Nov., Hessian major Carl Leopold Baurmeister reported:”).1 Cross references further direct readers to pertinent information elsewhere in the volume or edition. (“For the instigation behind this general order, see Anthony Wayne to GW, 18 December.”)2 Rarely is it desirable to repeat information at any length.

Just as editors must resist the temptation to follow wide-ranging but not strictly pertinent research directions, we must limit—and generally avoid—free-ranging prose in the numbered notes tagged to a document. Such prose commentary can add bulk without value, cluttering the presentation and confusing readers. If research turns up sources—primary or secondary—with interesting content beyond the needs of establishing basic context, it might be included as a “see also” reference. The list of sources used while editing a volume is compiled in the “Short Title List” and becomes an enduring scholarly contribution.

As a documentary editor with more than 28 years of experience, I have condensed what I consider the ideal approach to annotation into a phrase: deploying bibliography to contextualize texts. The editor filters and structures sources—especially primary sources—to illuminate each document. Rather than interpret or narrate, the editor places, points, reports, and guides. In our case, the repetitive cycle of work is engrossing because it centers on an endlessly fascinating subject—George Washington.

Brig. Gen. Peter Muhlenberg

An excellent example of the annotation practices discussed here is the letter from Brig. Gen. Peter Muhlenberg to Washington, written at Fredericksburg, Va., on May 8, 1780. It appears in volume 25 of the Revolutionary War Series, which will be published soon by the University of Virginia Press.

One note offers brief quotes from his father’s diary on the travails of Muhlenberg’s family on the journey from Philadelphia to Virginia (travails which Muhlenberg kept from Washington). Several notes present lengthy quotations from enclosures Muhlenberg sent with his letter. A short note identifies Rocky Ridge, a place later named Manchester and eventually annexed to Richmond. Muhlenberg mentions to Washington that he has advertised for officers to assemble, and a note includes the text of his advertisement from an issue of The Virginia Gazette (Williamsburg). A passing allusion to “Parson Hurt at Charleston” triggered a note to identify John Hurt, who served as a chaplain for the Virginia troops. Most of that note points to a 19th-century book with a sermon he preached in 1777, a letter Hurt wrote Washington during his presidency, and a biographical sketch published in a little-known modern journal.

The 14 notes attached to this document are more than the usual number, but the complexity and length of Muhlenberg’s letter justifies such handling. Please look at it yourself when the volume appears in print and let me know if you agree!



  1. See Silvanus Seely to GW, 4 Nov. 1779, n.2, in The Papers of George Washington: Revolutionary War Series (Charlottesville, Va., 2015), 23:150-51.
  2. See General Orders, 20 Dec. 1779, n.1, in Papers, Revolutionary War Series, 23:656.

“More Dangerous to the United States than the Late Treachery at West-Point”: Ethan Allen, Vermont’s Benedict Arnold

By Jeff Zvengrowski, Assistant Editor
August 11, 2017

An engraving of a statue of Ethan Allen. Courtesy of New York Public Library.

Treason is a central theme in volume 28 of The Washington Papers’ Revolutionary War Series. In a letter dated Sept. 26, 1780, George Washington informed Lieutenant General Rochambeau, who led the French forces at Rhode Island that “General Arnold, who has sullied his former glory by the blackest treason, has escaped to the enemy. This is an event that occasions me equal regret and mortification; but traitors are the growth of every country, and . . . it is more to be wondered at, that the catalogue is so small, than that there have been found a few.”1 Washington expected to add the renowned Vermont militia commander Ethan Allen to that catalog, however, when he told Gov. George Clinton of New York in early November “that I have given discretionary powers to seize and secure a certain person, should it appear upon further investigation necessary.”2

Fort Ticonderoga had famously fallen in May 1775 to Allen and Benedict Arnold. By the late 1770s, Allen, like Arnold, had become dissatisfied with Congress due to New York’s continued claim to Vermont, which was still commonly called the New Hampshire Grants. In mid-October 1780, British forces stationed in Quebec invaded the northern frontiers of New York and Vermont. The Vermont Republic still had not been admitted to the United States despite having declared independence in 1777. Congressman Philip Schuyler, Col. William Malcom, and other prominent New Yorkers recalled how Allen’s Green Mountain Boys militia had forcibly resisted New York’s authority from 1770 to 1775. They now suspected a grand scheme on Britain’s part to sever New England from New York through the treachery of Allen and Arnold. As Clinton informed Washington in an Oct. 14 letter: “It is a little remarkable that we had not the least Intelligence from the Grants of the approach of the Enemy tho’ they passed their settlements in Boats on the way. . . . This Enterprize of the Enemy is probably the effects of arnolds Treason. . . .”3 And Washington concurred in his reply of Oct. 16 that “I do not think it at all improbable that the movements of the Enemy, at this advanced season of the year, may have been upon a plan concerted to take advantage of the success of arnolds treachery.”4

A commemorative plaque at Fort Ticonderoga.

Having reported in an Oct. 18 letter to GW that “There has [been] but very little assisstance derived from the Grants on this Occassion—which cannot at present be accounted for,” Malcom wrote Washington again on the 29th that “I am Suspicious that there will be bad news from the north-parts of the State—towards the Grants <ere> long—my information although pretty good are not sufficent to accuse.”5  Clinton soon wrote Washington a letter in which he cited “the very extraordinary Conduct of Colo. allen and the Jealousies it has occasioned” in accepting a ceasefire with the British on Vermont’s behalf in order to negotiate prisoner exchanges.6  Schuyler had also sent Washington a copy of a letter he had received from Col. Alexander Webster of the New York militia. In the letter, Webster questioned Allen’s motives in asking the British to extend a similar offer to New York.  Suspecting that Allen’s overture was a feint to help disguise his treason, Webster stated: “I make no doubt but at first sight It will appear that the Grants have left us to ourselves either to stand or fall.”7  And Washington instructed Brig. Gen. James Clinton, the governor’s brother, on Nov. 6 as follows: “From some circumstances there is reason to apprehend Treachery in the Northern Quarter. . . . upon a further investigation if it should appear necessary to secure a certain person, you are to concert measures for having him apprehended suddenly and sent down the Country under a proper guard. You need not be cautioned against lisping the most distant hint of this business.”8

Allen would not be arrested upon further investigation, even though his Vermont political foe Joseph Marsh had warned Washington that “a negociation is on foot for a separate peace for the new State, which we have heard has been threatned if Congress should not acknowledge the independence of Vermont and admit them to union.” Marsh had added that “the consequences of such negotiation may be speedily fatal to the settlements contiguous to Connecticut river and more dangerous to the united States than the late treachery at West-point.”9 Allen actually was engaged in secret negotiations with Frederick Haldimand, the British commander in Quebec, to make Vermont a British province if rebuffed by Congress.10 The negotiations, however, came to naught in 1783, and Allen did not live to see Vermont become the 14th state in 1791 under President Washington.



1. GW to Rochambeau, 26 Sept. 1780 (LS, CtY-BR: Rochambeau Papers and Rochambeau Family Cartographic Archive).

2. GW to George Clinton, 6 Nov. 1780 (LS, N-Ar: George Clinton Papers).

3. George Clinton to GW, 14 Oct. 1780 (LS, DLC:GW).

4. GW to George Clinton, 16 Oct. 1780 (LS, CSmH). See GW to Thomas Jefferson, 10 Oct. 1780 (Df, DLC:G); and GW to Samuel Huntington, 21 Oct. 1780 (Df, DLC:GW).

5. William Malcom to GW, 18 Oct. 1780 (ALS, DLC:GW); and William Malcom to GW, 29 Oct. 1780 (ALS, DLC:GW).

6. George Clinton to GW, 3 Nov. 1780 (LS, DLC:GW).

7. Alexander Webster to Philip Schuyler, c.31 Oct. 1780, enclosed in Schuyler to GW, 31 Oct. 1780.  See Webster to John Williams, c.31 Oct. 1780, also enclosed in Schuyler to GW, 31 Oct. 1780.

8. GW to James Clinton, 6 Nov. 1780 (LS, NHi: George and Martha Washington Papers).

9. Joseph Marsh to GW, 3 Nov. 1780 (ALS, DLC:GW).

10. See John J. Duffy and H. Nicholas Muller III, Inventing Ethan Allen (Hanover and London: University Press of New England, 2014), 167-68.

Visualizing George Washington’s Voyage to Barbados

by Erica Cavanaugh, Research Editor
August 3, 2017

In anticipation of the upcoming edition of the diary George Washington kept during his trip to Barbados, I worked with editors Lynn A. Price and Alicia K. Anderson to create an interactive map of Washington’s voyage. The map not only illustrates the ship’s progress and landing but also describes the weather encountered and the food eaten during the journey. Such details are revealed by selecting from the various elements included on the map. Users can customize the display by toggling the selection of these elements on the legend or by zooming in and out on the map.

Washington’s voyage began prior to September 28, 1751, in the Chesapeake Bay (indicated by a red circle on the map). From there, a green line maps the latitude and longitude as recorded in Washington’s ship log from September 28 to October 30. At the end of the journey’s first leg, 19-year-old George Washington’s calculations placed the ship to the east of Barbados by about 450 nautical miles, as illustrated on the map, but the ship was actually about 10 miles west of the island. An icon in the shape of a pineapple marks his final destination. When selected, a map of the island is displayed, indicating where Washington’s ship landed.

Along the green line are four ship icons that reference notable points of Washington’s passage. When clicked, each ship icon displays an excerpt from the diary, highlighting common themes of his voyage. For example, the entry from October 6, 1751, discusses the food consumed on the journey. Throughout the diary, Washington was interested in the various types of fish he saw, at times detailing how they were caught, brought aboard the ship, and dressed. Another entry, dated October 19, 1751, discusses the stormy weather and a nearby hurricane.

The map also includes illustrations of the Bermuda Triangle and the North Equatorial Current. While it is unlikely that Washington’s voyage took him through the Bermuda Triangle, his brother Lawrence probably sailed through it when he traveled from Barbados to Bermuda, searching for relief from his illness. It is likely, however, that the North Equatorial Current and trade winds (not illustrated) would have impacted the brothers’ journeys to and from Barbados.

Developed with help from the Center for Digital Editing, this interactive map was created using Leaflet, an open-source JavaScript library for mobile-friendly interactive maps, and MapBox, an open-source mapping tool for creating custom-designed maps. To plot the points from George Washington’s ship log, the latitude and longitude were converted from degrees, minutes, and seconds to decimal points. A map from the Department of Geography at Hunter College was referenced to plot the North Equatorial Current. Public domain images were used for the ship and pineapple icons. The map of Barbados is courtesy of the John Carter Brown Library, Map Collection.

You can view and explore the interactive map of Barbados here.



George Washington and the Storming of the Bastille (Part II)

by Katie Lebert, Communications Specialist
July 28, 2017

Gouverneur Morris, engraving by Alonzo Chappel (1863). Courtesy of the New York Public Library.

In the fall of 1789, George Washington was inundated with information regarding the storming of the Bastille. He received five letters about a revolution occurring in France; most of these letters enclosed articles from international papers. He also received official intelligence through the U.S. minister to France, Thomas Jefferson. And American newspapers began publishing information about the event as early as Sept. 25.1 By early October, Washington likely knew a good deal about the outbreak of the French Revolution.

Washington’s first order of business concerning France, however, was responding to Louis XVI’s news that his eldest son had died.2 On Oct. 9, the same day he wrote his condolences to the French king, Washington noted in his diary the news that the comte de Moustier, French minister to the United States, would return to France for reasons of health and private business. The diary entry additionally included the minister’s announcement, as ordered by the French court, “[t]hat his Majesty was pleased at the Alteration which had taken place in our Government and congratulated this Country on the choice they had made of a Presidt.”3 For Washington, it seemed, matters with France were business as usual.

Another four to five days would pass before he turned his attention to the storming of the Bastille.4 As mentioned in part one of this blog post series, three of Washington’s letters repeated the same noncommittal sentiment regarding the revolutionary event.5 In a letter to close friend Lafayette, discussion of the Bastille was just as brief and unrevealing:

The revolution, which has taken place with you, is of such magnitude and of so momentous a nature that we hardly yet dare to form a conjecture about it. We however trust, and fervently pray that its consequences may prove happy to a nation, in whose fate we have so much cause to be interested and that its influence may be felt with pleasure by future generations.6

Washington remained tight-lipped on the matter until Oct. 13, when he wrote to Gouverneur Morris, who was in France on private business.7  While allowing that the fledgling revolution was “of so wonderful a nature that the mind can hardly realise the fact,” Washington continued to employ the diplomatic equivocation he illustrated in other letters on the subject. He cautioned that the revolution likely was far from over and that more bloodshed and drama would come: “I fear though [France] has gone triumphantly through the first paroxysm, it is not the last it has to encounter before matters are finally settled.” In fact, he believed more bloodshed and drama were yet to come:

In a word the revolution is of too great magnitude to be effected in so short a space, and with the loss of so little blood—The mortification of the King, the intrigues of the Queen, and the discontents of the Princes, and the Noblesse will foment divisions, if possible, in the national assembly, and avail themselves of every faux pas in the formation of the constitution if they do not give a more open, active opposition.

Having led a revolution himself, Washington had firsthand experience with political upheaval. Given French involvement in that effort, Washington likely drew connections between the budding revolution in France and the one he had led in fathering America.  And so, like a parent with his child, Washington used that insight to advise rather than criticize:

To these the licentiousness of the People on one hand and sanguinary punishments on the other will alarm the best disposed friends to the measure, and contribute not a little to the overthrow of their object—Great temperance, firmness, and foresight are necessary in the movements of that Body. To forbear running from one extreme to another is no easy matter, and should this be the case, rocks and shelves not visible at present may wreck the vessel.

On that note, he concluded his response. In the space of three short paragraphs, Washington had settled his thoughts on the outbreak of the French Revolution. Indeed, while his post-script acknowledges receipt of Morris’s foreboding letter of July 31, which had only just come to hand, Washington did not amend his letter or elaborate on his thoughts further.

Because Washington was known for being a judicious leader, his limited response to the storming of the Bastille feels unsatisfying. As the man who led one revolution with the help of a nation now undergoing one, these were the only thoughts he had to spare? After seeing how sensitively aware he was of the revolution’s impending outbreak, it felt like there should be more to the story.

Washington swearing the oath of office, still image. Courtesy of New York Public Library.

On the other hand, Washington had a lot on his mind in October 1789 besides the changing nature of a government more than 2,000 miles away. Having been inaugurated only six months earlier, he was still setting up his administration. In fact, on the same day that he penned the above letter to Morris, he wrote to Thomas Jefferson offering the post of secretary of state.8 And aside from trying to fill a variety of positions, Washington had to remain alert to other matters, such as tensions erupting on the frontier.9

In addition to the demands of his job, Washington was recovering from an illness that had left him largely incapacitated for the first few months of his presidency.10 He also was planning to leave on Oct. 15 for a tour of the northern states.11 So, perhaps to him, five letters on one topic unrelated to these domestic issues seemed five too many.

Washington scholars offer additional explanations for his controlled response. Biographer Ron Chernow proposes that the unfolding revolution did not concern Americans because they not only expected it, they welcomed it.12 Louis Martin Sears, author of George Washington and the French Revolution, offers (and strangely so, in my opinion) that besides a preoccupation with his presidential duties, Washington was unconcerned by the “depravity” described, due to a distaste for the French:

Certainly Washington was not the man to defend the French against Morris’ asseverations. His affections for Lafayette, Rochambeau, and numerous other individual Frenchmen never erased entirely his youthful hatred for the victors at Monongahela and the instigators of massacres uncounted along America’s wilderness frontier.13

In contrast to Sears, Chernow suggests that Morris’s logical perspective led Washington to act dispassionately. Doing so would allow him to avoid a snap judgment about what was likely to be a turbulent revolution.14 Sears instead proposes that it was Rochambeau’s “soldierly account” that probably tempered Washington’s judgment.15 At any rate, both historians conclude that Washington’s network of informants advocated objectivity.

I think it most likely, however, that it was a combination of Washington’s presidential duties and his natural inclination to judicious leadership that resulted in his cool response. His reaction only foreshadowed his future approach to foreign diplomacy. As Sears concisely writes, “That Washington received rather than gave goes almost without saying. His [preference] not to compromise relations with ‘our good Friends and Very Great and Good Allies.’ Decorum utterly forbade, and Washington was [a] perfect master of punctilio.”16



  1. To George Washington from Richard Claiborne, 23 July 1789,” “To George Washington from John Brown Cutting, 25 July 1789,” “To George Washington from Edward Newenham, 24-27 July 1789,” and “To George Washington from John Mason, 4 August 1789.” All letters are also available in print: The Papers of George Washington, Presidential Series, vol. 3; “Siege of the Bastille” Herald of Freedom (published as The Herald of Freedom, and the Federal Advertiser), Sept. 25, 1789.
  2. “From George Washington to Louis XVI, 9 October 1789,” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified June 29, 2017, http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/05-04-02-0105. Also available in print: The Papers of George Washington, Presidential Series, vol. 4.
  3. “[Diary entry: 9 October 1789],” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified June 29, 2017, http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/01-05-02-0005-0002-0009. Also available in print: The Diaries of George Washington, vol. 5.
  4. See part one of the blog series, “Washington and the Storming of the Bastille (I),” n. 1.
  5. See part one of the blog series, “Washington and the Storming of the Bastille (I).”
  6. From George Washington to Lafayette, 14 October 1789,” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified June 29, 2017, http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/05-04-02-0129. Also available in print: The Papers of George Washington, Presidential Series, vol. 4.
  7. “From George Washington to Gouverneur Morris, 13 October 1789,” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified June 29, 2017, http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/05-04-02-0125. Also available in print: The Papers of George Washington, Presidential Series, vol. 4.
  8. “From George Washington to Thomas Jefferson, 13 October 1789,” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified June 29, 2017, http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/05-04-02-0123. Also available in print: The Papers of George Washington, Presidential Series, vol. 4.
  9. See correspondence between Washington and Henry Knox during the summer of 1789 for information about the conflict among the Georgians, the Creek, and the Choctaw.
  10. For instance, in a letter to Bushrod Washington on July 27, 1789, George Washington wrote, “Among the first acts of recommencing business (after lying six weeks on my right side) is that of writing you this letter. . . .” “From George Washington to Bushrod Washington, 27 July 1789,” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified June 29, 2017, http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/05-03-02-0189. For more information, see James McHenry to George Washington, June 28, 1789, n.1.
  11. “[Diary entry: 15 October 1789],” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified June 29, 2017, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/01-05-02-0005-0002-0015. Also available in print: The Diaries of George Washington, vol. 5.
  12. Ron Chernow, Washington: A Life (New York, 2010), 658-9.
  13. “Washington to Morris, 13 October 1789;” Louis Martin Sears, George Washington and the French Revolution (Detroit, 1960), 49.
  14. Chernow, Washington, 659.
  15. Sears, Washington and the French Revolution, 45, 47.
  16. Sears, Washington and the French Revolution, 56.

George Washington and the Storming of the Bastille (Part I)

By Katie Lebert, Communications Specialist
July 14, 2017

The Storming of the Bastille. Image from Wikimedia Commons.

On July 14, 1789, French commoners took to the streets of Paris. They had recently raided the Hôtel des Invalides for weapons and were now turning to find ammunition, a large store of which had just been delivered to the Bastille, a prison that housed political dissidents. Quickly, they swarmed it, demanding admittance. By midday, the attackers, who had steadily grown in number, became impatient and stormed the fortress. Gunfire erupted, resulting in the deaths of 98 attackers and one defender. Overwhelmed by the mob, the facility’s military governor, Bernard-René Jordan de Launay, was forced to surrender. The gate was opened, and the few prisoners inside were released. Launay was captured and taken to the Hôtel de Ville to be tried, but was later murdered. In a final effort to seal its newfound power, the mob erected Launay’s head on a stick.

Thousands of miles away sat George Washington, only a month and a half into his presidency. He would not learn of the events in France until September, and he would not acknowledge them until October 13/14.1 When he finally did, Washington only briefly discussed the revolutionary activity. His first responses are limited to five letters, three of which recycle the same uninterested reaction:

The Revolution, announced by the intelligence from France, must be interesting to the Nations of the World in general, and is certainly of the greatest importance to the Country in which it has happened. I am persuaded I express the sentiments of my fellow-citizens, when I offer an earnest prayer that it may terminate in the permanent honor and happiness of your Government and People.2

In the only letter in which he addressed the topic with more than one paragraph, his conclusion remained calm and measured: “I declared to you in the beginning that I had little to say. I have got beyond the second page, and find I have a good deal to add; but that no time or paper may be wasted in a useless preface I will come to the point.”3

So, why did Washington appear unconcerned by the violent outburst that occurred in the capital of America’s greatest ally, France? In order to answer that question, this first part of a two-part series will look at Washington’s knowledge and sense of the French political spirit leading up to the revolutionary outbreak on July 14, 1789.

Nearly a decade before, Washington had predicted that France’s financial involvement in the American Revolution would result in a higher taxes, “which the People in France are not in a condition to endure for any duration.”4 He continued, “When this necessity commences, France makes war on Ruinous terms.”5

Years later, on October 9, 1787, the Marquis de Lafayette, Washington’s good friend and protégé, confirmed Washington’s prediction. Onerous taxes, combined with the republican ideals learned from participation in the American Revolution, had precipitated restlessness in the masses: “The affairs of france are still in an Unsettled Situation—a large deficiency is to be filled up with taxes, and the Nation are tired to pay what they Have not Voted. The ideas of liberty Have Been, since the American Revolution, spreading very fast.”6

“View of the Bastile before its destruction in July 1789.” Image courtesy of the New York Public Library.

A year later, Washington reiterated his prediction in a now-famous letter to James Madison. Often quoted for its poetic introduction (“Liberty when it begins to take root is a plant of rapid growth”), the letter includes Washington’s assertion that “[t]he checks [the king] endeavors to give it … will, more than probably, kindle a flame which may not easily be extinguished; tho’ for a while it may be smothered by the Armies at his command.”7

While Washington believed revolution in France was inevitable, he could not anticipate when exactly it would break out. As early as January 1789, Rochambeau wrote Washington with evidence of unrestrained discontent in France. In his letter, he warned Washington that conversations among the three estates of France—the nobles, clergy, and general public—were becoming worrisome, foretelling drama yet to come: “We come out, my Dear General, of an assembly of chief men Where We treated the Wearisome preface of a Drama Which is to become of a great concern and of Which We must Expect a fine unravelling.”8

Gouverneur Morris, who was then in France on business, gave more detailed reports. On April 29, 1789, he sent a lengthy assessment of the French revolutionaries’ supposed predilection toward corruption and immorality:

A hundred Anecdotes and an hundred thousand Examples are required to shew the extreme Rottenness of every Member. … It is however from such crumbling Matter that the great Edifice of Freedom is to be erected here. Perhaps like the Stratum of Rock which is spread under the whole Surface of their Country, it may harden when exposed to the Air; but it seems quite as likely that it will fall and crush the Builders. I own to you that I am not without such Apprehensions, for there is one fatal Principle which pervades all Ranks: It is a perfect Indifference to the Violation of Engagements. Inconstancy is so mingled in the Blood, Marrow, and very Essence of this People, that when a Man of high Rank and Importance laughs to Day at what he seriously asserted Yesterday, it is considered as in the natural order of things. Consistency is the Phenomenon. Judge then what would be the Value of an Association, should such a thing be proposed and even adopted.9

Despite his “apprehensions,” Morris did not repudiate the French revolutionaries. Indeed, before describing these cultural difficulties, he extolled the significance of the French Revolution to American interests and the general cause of liberty:

We have I think every Reason to wish that the Patriots may be successful. The generous Wish which a free People must form to disseminate Freedom, the grateful Emotion which rejoices in the Happiness of a Benefactor, and a strong personal Interest as well in the Liberty as in the Power of this Country, all conspire to make us far from indifferent Spectators. I say that we have an Interest in the Liberty of France. The Leaders here are our Friends, many of them have imbibed their Principles in America, and all have been fired by our Example. Their Opponents are by no Means rejoiced at the Success of our Revolution, and many of them are disposed to form Connections of the strictest Kind with Great Britain.10

Morris wrote his next letter on July 31, two weeks after the storming of the Bastille. Skipping over the event that bore out his earlier assessment of the French revolutionaries’ capriciousness, he discussed its consequences. He reported that the country was so much in the hands of the common masses that the French monarch was considering abdicating his seat and fleeing to Spain.11 Believing the revolutionaries were moving much too quickly, and with little political experience or judgment, he was concerned about the form the new constitution would take: “I tremble for the Constitution. They have all that romantic Spirit, & all those romantic Ideas of Government, which happily for America, we were cured of before it was too late.”12

These are only a few of the many letters circulating within Washington’s social network that reveal the perspectives of the political climate in France. They excite the reader with promise of violence and imminent upheaval. But Washington’s responses to the events unfolding were few in number and unhurried in their reply. So, what could have contributed to such a reaction? We’ll discuss in the next part of this blog series.



  1. Washington’s letters to Armand, D’Estaing, Morris, and Rochambeau are dated October 13; his diary entry for October 14, however, notes that he “[w]rote several Letters to France” that day. “[Diary entry: 14 October 1789],” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified June 29, 2017, http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/01-05-02-0005-0002-0014. Also available in print: The Diaries of George Washington, vol. 5.
  2. “From George Washington to Armand, 13 October 1789,” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified June 29, 2017, http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/05-04-02-0124; “From George Washington to D’Estaing, 13 October 1789,” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified June 29, 2017, http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/05-04-02-0119; “From George Washington to Rochambeau, 13 October 1789,” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified June 29, 2017, http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/05-04-02-0127. Also available in print: The Papers of George Washington, Presidential Series, vol. 4.
  3. “From George Washington to Gouverneur Morris, 13 October 1789,” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified June 29, 2017, http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/05-04-02-0125. Also available in print: The Papers of George Washington, Presidential Series, vol. 4.
  4. “From George Washington to Joseph Jones, 22 July 1780,” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified June 29, 2017, http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/99-01-02-02623. To be published: Papers of George Washington Revolutionary War Series, vol. 27.
  5. Ibid.
  6. “To George Washington from Lafayette, 9 October 1787,” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified June 29, 2017, http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/04-05-02-0332. Also available in print: The Papers of George Washington, Confederation Series, vol. 5.
  7. “From George Washington to James Madison, 2 March 1788,” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified June 29, 2017, http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/04-06-02-0115 . Also available in print: The Papers of George Washington, Confederation Series, vol. 6.
  8. “To George Washington from Rochambeau, 31 January 1789,” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified June 29, 2017, http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/05-01-02-0202. Also available in print: The Papers of George Washington, Presidential Series, vol. 1.
  9. “To George Washington from Gouverneur Morris, 29 April 1789,” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified June 29, 2017, http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/05-02-02-0125. Also available in print: The Papers of George Washington, Presidential Series, vol. 2.
  10. Ibid.
  11. “To George Washington from Gouverneur Morris, 31 July 1789,” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified June 29, 2017, http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/05-03-02-0206. Also available in print: The Papers of George Washington, Presidential Series, vol. 3.
  12. Ibid.


Three Degrees to Washington: How “I Came, I Saw, I Conquered” Working at The Washington Papers

By Kim Curtis, Research Editor
July 7, 2017

Caesar Crossing the Rubicon, an illumination on vellum by Jean Fouquet (c. 15th century).

“Veni, vidi, vici.” Roman emperor Julius Caesar supposedly proclaimed this famous Latin phrase after a military victory. For centuries, young students of Latin have learned this quotation, which translates to “I came, I saw, I conquered.” Their history lessons presented another well-known general who crossed a river (Julius Caesar crossed the Rubicon in 49 BC, and George Washington crossed the Delaware in 1776).1 But as one of those junior scholars of Latin, I didn’t think  I would explore the connections between these two worlds much further. I had never imagined I would grow up to be a research editor at The Washington Papers and use my background in classics every day on the job. 

I started learning Latin to satisfy my eighth-grade foreign language requirement. At the time, I wanted to be a pediatrician and thought Latin would help me with complicated medical terms. My teacher, a seemingly mild-mannered older woman, gave my class a list of common curse words in Latin, which unsurprisingly helped further stoke my interest. I took to learning the language fairly easily and continued studying it in high school (where I won sixth place on the Virginia Junior Classical League’s mythology test) and in the University of Virginia (UVA)’s Classics Department. At UVA, I also took a required year of ancient Greek (which I didn’t like as well as Latin) and classes in Greek and Roman culture, history, and mythology. I earned my BA in Classics in 2000.

Washington Crossing the Delaware, painted by Emmanuel Leutze (1851). Courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

At The Washington Papers, one of the more obvious benefits of a classics degree is that when I’m conducting research, I understand classical references that I may come across. For example, George Washington’s favorite play was Cato, a Tragedy, written by Joseph Addison in 1712.2 Cato tells the story of Roman senator Marcus Porcius Cato (95­–46 BC), who stood up to the tyranny of a dictator and believed passionately in republican ideals.3 Sound familiar? Inspired by Cato’s stand against Julius Caesar, Washington requested that Cato be performed for American troops at Valley Forge.4  It’s exciting when my worlds connect like that!

I’ve also used my knowledge of Latin to figure out unfamiliar words while proofreading document transcriptions for an upcoming volume of The Papers of George Washington: Presidential Series. In one instance, the volume editor had transcribed a word from a Washington letter as “supernumeracy.” I had never heard of that word. As I looked more closely at the word in the original document, I could see that the “c” was actually an “r,” and so the word was “supernumerary.”  I had never heard of this word either, but thanks to Latin, I now had some clues. In Latin, “super” means “above,” and “numerus” means “number” (as you probably guessed). So, put those two parts together, and you have literally “above the number.” I looked up “supernumerary” on the Oxford English Dictionary (OED)’s website, and sure enough, “supernumerary” meant “beyond or in excess of a usual, regular, stated, or prescribed number or amount; additional, extra, or left over.” According to the OED, the Latin word origin is “supernumerarius,” a military term, meaning “appointed to a legion after it is complete.” The letter’s context backed up this reading of “supernumerary.” In this case, my Classics degree helped me solve this word puzzle and prevent a mistake in the printed volume.5

This blog post is the first of a three-part series, “Three Degrees to Washington,” about how my humanities majors help me at The Washington Papers. Part two will be about my psychology degree, and part three will explore my educational background in film.



1. Michael Gagarin, ed. The Oxford Encyclopedia of Ancient Greece and Rome (New York, 2010), 4:155; “To John Cadwalader from George Washington, Dec. 25, 1776,” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified March 30, 2017, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/03-07-02-0343. Also available in print: The Papers of George Washington, Revolutionary War Series 7:439.

2. Henry C. Montgomery. “Addison’s Cato and George Washington.” The Classical Journal 55 (1960), 210.

3. Gagarin, Ancient Greece and Rome, 2:62.

4. Montgomery, “Cato and Washington,” 210.

5. Because of the large number of documents to proofread for this volume, I’m unable to go into too much detail in the blog post about this letter. However, I look forward to readers seeing evidence of my proofreading work on this and other letters in the upcoming volume, Presidential Series volume 20.

Friends in Grief: Martha Washington and Elizabeth Willing Powel

by Alicia K. Anderson, Assistant Editor
July 5, 2017

Mourning embroidery, 1827. Courtesy of the Smithsonian Museum of American History.

Martha Washington knew loss.

As Martha Dandridge Custis (1731–1802), she lost her first child, a son, in 1754, only four years into her marriage. Daniel Parke Custis, her husband, died in 1757, leaving her a widow with a large estate to settle. That same year, their second child, a daughter, died. Martha married George Washington in 1759, but no new children would be born to them. Her remaining two children by Custis, barely adults, would predecease her in 1773 and 1781. The deaths of her parents and several Dandridge siblings were intermittent.

One of Martha’s longest correspondences was with Elizabeth Willing Powel (1743–1830), the keen Philadelphia intellectual who was well-read, politically engaged, and a conversationalist par excellence. She would not be considered a natural pairing with the more modest, less educated Martha, but the experiences of marriage and motherhood bound them. From their first known surviving letter in 1780 to Elizabeth’s letter of grief on George Washington’s death in 1799, the two women maintained a friendship for at least two decades. They shared in common a sad reality: death had taken, and would continue to take, their closest family members one by one.

Bereavement was nothing new to Elizabeth. Between 1771 and 1775, her only children—two sons, both Samuels in honor of their father—died within a year of birth or less, cutting short the longed-for experience of motherhood. If she could find any comfort at all, it was in the hope of their heavenly reunion and the thought that her sons would never experience the suffering of this world, as she herself had. Elizabeth wrote of her firstborn, whose lock of hair she kept near,

From all the Chequer’d Ills below

Sammy secure shall sleep;

His little Heart no Pain shall know,

His Eyes no more shall weep.1

Nonetheless, the boys’ loss echoes throughout her correspondence, perhaps reflected in the depressions that plagued her over the years. To Ann Randolph Fitzhugh in 1783, she lamented,

Ah my dear Friend there are no Roses without Thorns. You wish me to be again a Mother, you know not what you wish. Indeed I am no longer what you once knew me Those fine Spirits, that I used to flatter myself wou’d never be broken, have at length yeilded to the too severe Trials that have assailed me. My Mind, habituated to Mortification & Disappointment, is become weaker, &, unfortunately, my Sensibilities stronger. A thousand Circumstances that formerly were Sources of Pleasure to me have now lost their Charm. Time does not lessen real Griefs. In some Instances it augments them by removing to a greater distance the Objects on which our Happiness depends. I fear I am doomed never to be happy in this World . . .

Elizabeth begged Mrs. Fitzhugh and her family to come visit her in Philadelphia. The Powel House, though the center of frequent entertaining, still felt empty: “I will most chearfully assign you my Chamber & the adjoining Nursery formerly the Habbitation of my beloved Angels.”2

Not only death occasioned the separation of loved ones, but also distance. Her favorite sister, Mary Willing Byrd, had removed from Philadelphia with her husband, Colonel William Byrd, to a James River plantation in Virginia. The sisters’ reunions were seldom, but when they did see each other, it seemed to elicit more pain than joy. On visiting Mary, now a widow, in Virginia in late 1787, Elizabeth and her husband Samuel took the opportunity to stay with their friends at Mount Vernon. On her return to Philadelphia, Elizabeth had to apologize to Martha for being such poor company:

I should have been happy to have prolonged our Visit had I not been sensible that the Depression of Spirits, under wh[ich] I then was, render’d me a totally unfit Companion for the chearfull & happy. My recent Separation from my favorite Sister, & her Family, with the probability of never seeing her again, & the Reflection of having left her encircled with Difficulties almost too great for a Man to cope with, unconnected & unprotected by any Friend, able or willing, to serve her, almost broke my Heart.3

Family sickness was another emotional battle. George Washington’s nephew, George Augustine Washington (1758–1793), was ill with tuberculosis. Martha was a relation not only through her marriage to George but also through her own niece Frances “Fanny” Bassett (1767–1796), who had married George Augustine in 1785. By 1792, Elizabeth Powel wrote to Martha and George with concern, enclosing an article about a possible medicinal treatment for the invalid nephew. She then went on to reflect on the freedom of Heaven:

But what is this Life that we should be so over studious to prolong the Respiration of that Breath which may with so much Ease be all breathed out at once as by so many successive Millions of Moments? For surely there are more exquisite Pains than Pleasures in Life, and it seems to me that it would be a greater Happiness at once to be freed forever from the former than by such an irksome Composition to protract the Enjoyment of the latter. We must all die, and, I believe there is no Terror in Death but what is created by the Magic of Opinion, nor probably any greater Pain than attended our Birth. As I suppose at our Dissolution every Particle of which we are compounded returns to its proper original Element and that which is divine in us returns to that which is divine in the Universe.4

George Augustine held out for another year, passing away at the beginning of February 1793. On Feb. 21, George and Martha wrote Elizabeth from Philadelphia that they were unable to attend her party that evening because of the “late event which has happened in [our] family.”5 The sadness of that event would only be compounded when, three years later, Martha’s dear niece Fanny died, as well.

Elizabeth’s own life was about to be turned upside-down. As yellow fever snuck into Philadelphia in the summer of 1793, she was resigned to loss though unaware of how personal a toll it would take. “Death has robbed me of many Friends,” she wrote to her confidant, George Washington, at the beginning of September, who on leaving the city had invited her to join him and Martha to Mount Vernon, an escape from the contagion. Samuel Powel did not believe flight necessary, and she would not leave him behind. In only three weeks, however, it was Elizabeth who would be left behind: the epidemic claimed her husband in a bitter blow. Their silver wedding anniversary was less than a year away.6

Perhaps the greatest loss that bound Martha and Elizabeth together was the death of “the General” on Dec. 14, 1799. Ten days after the “late melancholy Event,” Elizabeth assured his grieving widow that “tho’ the Season is far advanced, and the Roads bad, I would most certainly pay a Visit to your House of Mourning, could I afford to you the smallest consolation under this seemingly hard dispensation of Pro[v]idence; but I too well know that no Consolation can be effected by human Agency.” She concluded her letter soberly, “I have lost a much valued Friend.”7 Here the documentary record ends. It is unknown whether the women’s correspondence continued up until Martha’s death in 1802. Elizabeth, in turn, would go on to outlive her by another three decades, dying at the ripe age of eighty-six.



1. Quoted in David W. Maxey, “A Portrait of Elizabeth Willing Powel (1743–1830),” in Transactions of the American Philosophical Society, new ser., 96.4 (2006): 24.

2. Elizabeth Willing Powel to Ann Randolph Fitzhugh, Dec. 24, 1783, Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association of the Union.

3. Elizabeth Willing Powel to Martha Washington, Nov. 30, 1787, Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association of the Union.

4. “To George Washington from Elizabeth Willing Powel, 9 January, 1792,” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified March 30, 2017, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/05-09-02-0248. Also available in print: The Papers of George Washington, Presidential Series 9:419–20.

5. “George and Martha Washington to Elizabeth Willing Powel, 21 February 1793,” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified March 30, 2017, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/05-12-02-0142. Also available in print: The Papers of George Washington, Presidential Series 12:198.

6. See “To George Washington from Elizabeth Willing Powel, 9 September 1793,” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified March 30, 2017, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/05-14-02-0041. Also available in print: The Papers of George Washington, Presidential Series 14:54–55.

7. Elizabeth Willing Powel to Martha Washington, Dec. 24, 1799, Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association of the Union.

History Has Its Eyes on Hamilton

by Lynn Price, Assistant Editor and Elisa Shields, Research Specialist
June 27, 2017

New York City’s Times Square starkly contrasts the small, quiet town of Charlottesville, Va., where The Washington Papers is based. Throngs of tourists pack the streets, performers vie for attention, and video advertisements overwhelm the eyes. In the midst of this sensory overload, an escape to a side street is a relief. Choose the correct street, and the Richard Rodgers Theater, the home of Hamilton the musical, will quickly appear on your left. Before you know it, you may find yourself humming a tune about Thomas Jefferson or quietly reciting George Washington’s Farewell Address in a rhythmic fashion. A far-fetched scenario just a few years ago, Hamilton has catapulted revolutionary history into the stratosphere. In the words of one teenage fan, “This is, like, crazy cool.”1 And after recently attending a performance of the show, these documentary editors wholeheartedly agree.

Is Hamilton an academic, perfectly accurate historical interpretation? Of course not. But what it does do is use catchy tunes—and primary sources—to make history accessible and entertaining to a new generation of Americans. Washington’s 1796 Farewell Address is one such example. In “One Last Time,” Washington informs Hamilton that he will not be running for a third term as president because the nation is ready to move on. The president asks Hamilton to revise a draft of his address to the people in order to “teach them how to say goodbye” and to express his hopes for the new nation. In an impressive display of history reimagined, the resulting lyrics seldom deviate from the actual address. The following lyrics are drawn from the musical, with additional text from the historical address in brackets:

Assistant editor Lynn Price (left) and research specialist Elisa Shields (right) waiting in anticipation for the show.

Consigned to oblivion, as myself must soon be to the mansions of rest . . . I anticipate with pleasing expectation that retreat in which I promise myself to realize [, without alloy,] the sweet enjoyment of partaking, in the midst of my fellow-citizens, the benign influence of good laws under a free government, the ever-favorite object of my heart, and the happy reward, as I trust, of our mutual cares, labors, and dangers.2

Hamilton ushers spectators through a veritable maze of laughter, sadness, excitement, and political intrigue. Hamilton creator Lin-Manual Miranda originally portrayed the character of Alexander Hamilton in the musical. Before Miranda (who is of Puerto Rican descent) brought Hamilton the historical figure to Broadway, most Americans likely did not know that the first secretary of the treasury was born in the West Indies. He was, in other words, an immigrant. It is doubtful that Americans considered the Federalist Papers, co-written by Hamilton, a captivating read. And in the story of the infamous Burr-Hamilton duel, Aaron Burr was not liable to receive a sympathetic assessment. Today, however, both Hamilton and Burr are starting to receive the attention and recognition they deserve—the former for being the mastermind behind the nation’s financial, legal, and political systems, and the latter for being a more nuanced and multifaceted figure than most history books acknowledge (not to mention an essential player in Hamilton’s short but intense life). While Hamilton is the namesake and star of the show, Burr remains its central figure. Not only does he narrate almost every song (the Hamilton song “Dear Theodosia” best exemplifies the more humanistic view of Burr), but the events often spiral around him.3 Leaving the theater with a new appreciation for the maligned figure known principally for killing Alexander Hamilton was only one of many delightful effects of an exceptional and inimitable Broadway experience.

In the development phase of his hit musical, Miranda extensively researched historical figures for context. This process included visiting the Hamilton Grange National Memorial, a journey that many of the show’s fans now repeat. If you were unaware that it was in the neighborhood, you would never guess that Hamilton’s estate, The Grange (his “sweet project” as he liked to call it), humbly stands a few blocks away from the campus of the City College of New York in Harlem.3 Other than a Hamilton Terrace street sign, there are no indications of the site’s presence as you stroll along West 141st Street. And yet, there it is: a charming yellow house, cozily surrounded by trees and what used to be bare land. Inside, the charm continues as visitors are encouraged to visit the house’s first floor, which consists of four rooms, most of which are incredibly luminous and welcoming. It is intriguing to visualize the house being moved—twice!—in the last 200 years in response to a growing city. Even as Hamilton’s old neighborhood becomes unrecognizable to his era, this piece of history remains.

It is difficult to dispute Hamilton‘s Schuyler sisters when they chant that New York is “the greatest city in the world.”4 One can only imagine how it must have felt for a young Alexander Hamilton, fresh off a ship from Nevis and arriving in a place of such excitement and opportunities. Perhaps some things don’t change over time. We arrived and left New York City with a “head full of fantasies” (and Hamilton songs on repeat).5

All photos courtesy of the authors.



1. Erica Milvy, “Hamilton’s teenage superfans: ‘This is, like, crazy cool’,” The Guardian, June 22, 2016, accessed June 14, 2017, https://www.theguardian.com/stage/2016/jun/22/hamilton-teenage-superfans-this-is-like-crazy-cool.

2. The Avalon Project: Documents in Law, History, and Diplomacy, “Washington’s Farewell Address 1796,” accessed June 14, 2017, http://avalon.law.yale.edu/18th_century/washing.asp; Hamilton (Original Broadway Cast Recording)—Act II Booklet, 14-15, accessed June 14, 2017, https://warnermusicgroup.app.box.com/s/98o13fgs1vrb2wxqe1zel2ugw7ppryv9/1/4712017338/38329308850/1.

3 Leslie Odom, Jr., and Lin-Manuel Miranda, “Dear Theodosia,” Hamilton (Original Broadway Cast Recording).

3. “From Alexander Hamilton to Elizabeth Hamilton, [19] November 1798,” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified March 30, 2017, http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Hamilton/01-22-02-0154. Also available in print: The Papers of Alexander Hamilton, vol. 22, July 1798 – March 1799.

4. Phillipa Soo, Renée Elise Goldsberry, Leslie Odom Jr., Jasmine Cephas Jones, “Schuyler Sisters,” Hamilton (Original Broadway Cast Recording).

5. Christopher Jackson, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Leslie Odom, Jr., “Right Hand Man,” Hamilton (Original Broadway Cast Recording).

My Set of John Marshall’s The Life of George Washington: A Research Puzzle

by William M. Ferraro, Research Associate Professor and Acting Editor in Chief
June 16, 2016

An exceptional benefit of editing the Papers of George Washington is exposure to so many sources on early American history. A notable one that I encountered not long after starting with the project in June 2006 was John Marshall’s The Life of George Washington (5 vols.; Philadelphia, 1804-7). I discovered that the American edition’s sixth volume included maps of the Revolutionary War. I decided to visit the University of Virginia’s Harrison-Small Special Collections Library, just steps from my office, in order to examine the maps for my editing of Revolutionary War letters.

The maps proved to be wonderfully detailed and helpful, but the real find came as a complete surprise. The map volume listed all the subscribers who financed publication of Marshall’s multivolume biography.1 The names of individuals and institutions appeared under towns, cities, and counties grouped by state. Groupings also existed for the District of Columbia and foreign countries. Arranged in six columns per page, the subscribers numbered about 9,000. If properly cataloged and researched, this subscribers list could help scholars, and such work is a long-term aspiration of The Washington Papers. Nevertheless, even in its raw state, the list provides a wealth of information and intellectual opportunities.

I used some of that potential in a class I taught during the Fall 2016 semester. For a writing assignment, I asked each student to choose one-to-three subscribers from his or her hometown or the nearest place on the list. The student then prepared a research paper describing that locality and its people, and suggesting why a subscriber might have been interested in George Washington. An unanticipated problem arose for students from Florida, Colorado, and other places outside the settled or jurisdictional boundaries of the United States in the early nineteenth century. Unable to select a subscriber from their hometowns, these students identified listed localities associated with parents or grandparents. A particularly interesting paper emerged when a student from Denver discovered that her research subject, from Newburyport, Mass., was a distant relative!

The success of this assignment increased my desire to own a set of the Marshall biography volumes, a foundational work in both George Washington biography and U. S. historiography. Marshall wrote the books at the behest of Bushrod Washington, George’s nephew and Marshall’s U.S. Supreme Court colleague. Bushrod made available the vast collection of his uncle’s papers in his possession and encouraged Marshall to write on a scale commensurate with the achievements of its towering subject. While Marshall can be chided for borrowing heavily from other sources (in that period’s customary manner), his volumes captured the nationalist spirit that animated contemporary Federalists and unflinchingly positioned George Washington as the crucial figure in the founding of the United States.2

Since the original volumes of the first American edition are both scarce and expensive, you may imagine my delight this past winter when a full set (minus the map volume, which is very rare and expensive) landed on the shelf of Daedalus Used Books—a landmark shop for bibliophiles in Charlottesville—for only $125. According to Sandy McAdams, the sociable proprietor, the books “had walked through the door” only a day or two earlier. He further explained that the modest price was due to the fourth volume missing its end boards, or being “hurt,” in his more colloquial parlance. The other four volumes, however, looked fabulous. I happily carted the set home with thoughts that its subscriber probably had lived in central Virginia, because Daedalus primarily obtains stock from the surrounding area.

Unlike some book collectors, I like old books with the names of previous owners and marginalia that show past intellectual engagement. I eagerly paged through my Marshall volumes looking for clues about their history. A few turned-down page corners indicated prior reading, but pressed leaves and flowers in the first two volumes were the most prevalent evidence of former handling.

No volume contained writing, but the first volume did have a printed label pasted inside the back cover with useful information: “RARE, SCARCE, and OUT OF PRINT BOOKS, DOCUMENTS, Etc. For Sale By WALTER M. MURDIE, 134 Radcliffe Ave, PROVIDENCE, R.I.” Poking around the internet revealed that Walter M. Murdie was active in the Rhode Island capital during the 1920s and 1930s. The address was and is situated in a largely residential neighborhood, so he apparently operated his business out of his home.

Murdie’s pasted label dismissed my initial thoughts that the subscriber had lived in central Virginia and focused my attention on Providence and nearby jurisdictions. Having written my dissertation on town-meeting government in Rhode Island, I was quite familiar with the politics and prominent figures of the state.3 Subscriber listings in the map volume show 67 names under Providence, including Eliza Nightingale (1780–1863), a woman who never married. Another six can be found between nearly adjacent Cumberland and Warwick. The Providence subscribers include many people of note: Samuel G. Arnold, historian; Jabez Bowen, the state’s lieutenant governor during the Revolutionary War who corresponded regularly with Washington; John Brown, businessman and benefactor of Brown University; Theodore Foster, one of the state’s first U. S. senators; and Thomas P. Ives, merchant.

It will take an inordinate amount of research and extreme serendipity to confirm the subscriber who owned my set of Marshall’s books. Until that unlikely conjunction of circumstances, I will take pleasure in using the contents for my study and teaching, all the while thinking about the volumes’ distinguished Rhode Island owner and their largely mute past.

All photos courtesy of author.



  1. The Life of George Washington: Maps and Subscriber’s Names (Philadelphia, 1807).
  2. For an overview of Marshall’s authorship of his The Life of George Washington, see the “Editorial Note” in Charles Hobson et al., eds., The Papers of John Marshall: Volume VI, Correspondence, Papers, and Selected Judicial Opinions, November 1800–March 1807 (Chapel Hill, N.C., 1990), 219–30. For an examination of Marshall’s use of sources that stops just short of calling him a plagiarist, see William A. Foran, “John Marshall as a Historian,” in American Historical Review 43 (1937-38): 51-64.
  3. See William M. Ferraro, “Lives of Quiet Desperation: Community and Polity in New England over Four Centuries: The Cases of Portsmouth and Foster, Rhode Island,” PhD diss., Brown University, 1991.

Book Review: Nathaniel Philbrick, Valiant Ambition: George Washington, Benedict Arnold, and the Fate of the American Revolution

by Jeffrey L. Zvengrowski, Assistant Editor
June 8, 2017

Nathaniel Philbrick’s Valiant Ambition: George Washington, Benedict Arnold, and the Fate of the American Revolution recently won the George Washington Prize. The author of numerous and highly readable books about American history, Philbrick contends that Benedict Arnold and George Washington were actually quite similar. Both were up-and-comers who craved fame and fortune.

According to Philbrick, Connecticut’s Arnold and Virginia’s Washington were highly ambitious men whose childhood experiences left them with chips on their shoulders. They coveted not just respect but renown, which they acquired by risking their lives in battle. But Philbrick also claims that Arnold was the superior military commander, contrasting Arnold’s supposedly decisive role in such Patriot successes as Valcour Bay and Saratoga to Washington’s loss of New York City in 1776 and Philadelphia in 1777. And Philbrick even suggests that Washington may well have ended up like Arnold if he had been robbed of credit for his victories as happened to Arnold after Saratoga. While Arnold (being his “usual daredevil self”) was crippled by two shots to his left leg in that 1777 battle, he was eclipsed by Horatio Gates.1 Consequently, Gates replaced Arnold as the favorite of a New England-based Continental Congress faction that distrusted landed Patriot grandees like Philip Schuyler, Henry Laurens, and Washington himself.

Philbrick claims Arnold actually aspired to join the landed gentry but felt—largely without cause—that he had been snubbed by wealthy Patriot landholders who had long since embraced Washington. While at newly liberated Philadelphia in 1778, moreover, Arnold came to be embraced by British-friendly merchant families as the city’s lenient military governor. Young Margaret Shippen, who belonged to one such family, had befriended the British adjutant general John André before the Patriots reclaimed the city. But she married Arnold in 1779, expecting him to meet her considerable expenses. As a result, Arnold’s erstwhile congressional supporters subjected him to a “merciless witch hunt” by accusing him of mostly false corruption charges.2 Washington was forced in 1780 to reprimand Arnold, who had faced a court martial even while British officers were praising him as the most formidable Patriot commander.3 And so Arnold resolved to collude with André in order to betray his new command of West Point to the British, whom he now regarded as his sole hope for wealth and military fame.

Philbrick paints a fascinating and even rather sympathetic portrait of Arnold’s “self-serving derring-do,” which might have enabled Arnold to “become one of the immortal heroes of the Revolution” had he been able to have, like Washington, “applied his talents to a pursuit that while fulfilling his desire to serve his country also lined his pockets . . . .”4 Yet while Philbrick allows that Washington mastered his emotions and developed a sense of grand strategy to a greater degree than Arnold during the war, he goes too far in depicting Arnold as an impressive general.  Philbrick therefore concludes that “Washington was not a good battlefield thinker” and consistently “out-generaled,” intimating that he was not among the “few officers in either the American or British army who possessed [Arnold’s] talent for almost instantly assessing the strengths and weaknesses of the enemy.”5  And Philbrick lauds Arnold’s costly Valcour Bay exploits in October 1776, for “while Washington’s army to the south continued to suffer setback after setback, Arnold had shown that it was possible to stand up and fight.”6

Philbrick, however, ends his comparison of Arnold and Washington right before the former entered British service in October 1780 to fight the Patriots in Virginia. And by February 1781, as General Nathanael Greene learned, Arnold had put himself in a position to be captured because Washington had sent troops under “the Marquis De la Fayette and made a proposal for a cooperation in Chesapeak Bay against Arnold, with the whole of the French fleet and a part of their land force.”7 Lafayette informed Washington on March 25 that he had “Directed that Arnold Be Circumscribed Within His works on Both Sides of the Dismal Swamp.” But he bemoaned a day later that “The Return of the British fleet with vessels that Must Be transports from New York is a Circumstance which destroys Every Prospect of an operation Against Arnold,” who would have been doomed if the French navy had managed to complete Washington’s projected encirclement.8

One can perhaps see, then, why Americans at the time had considerably less respect for Arnold’s character and competence than Philbrick has. As Benjamin Franklin wrote Lafayette from Paris in May 1781:

Your Friends have heard of your being gone against the Traitor Arnold, and are anxious to hear of your Success, and that you have brought him to Justice. Enclos’d is a Copy of a Letter from his Agent in England, by which the Price of his Treason may be nearly guess’d at. Judas sold only one Man, Arnold three Millions; Judas got for his one Man 30 Pieces of Silver, Arnold not a halfpenny a Head. A miserable Bargainer: Especially when one considers the Quantity of Infamy he has acquir’d to himself, & entail’d on his Family.9



1. Nathaniel Philbrick, Valiant Ambition: George Washington, Benedict Arnold, and the Fate of the American Revolution (New York: Viking, 2016), 97.

2. Ibid., 234.

3. See General Orders, 6 April 1780, in the forthcoming twenty-fifth volume of The Papers of George Washington: Revolutionary War Series.

4. Philbrick, Valiant Ambition, 52, 216, 68.

5. Ibid., 139.

6. Ibid., 165, 56.

7. “From George Washington to Nathanael Greene, 27 February 1781,” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified March 30, 2017, http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/99-01-02-05023.

8. “To George Washington from Marie-Joseph-Paul-Yves-Roch-Gilbert du Motier, marquis de Lafayette, 25 March 1781,” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified March 30, 2017, http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/99-01-02-05203; and “To George Washington from Marie-Joseph-Paul-Yves-Roch-Gilbert du Motier, marquis de Lafayette, 26 March 1781,” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified March 30, 2017, http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/99-01-02-05214.

9. “From Benjamin Franklin to the Marquis de Lafayette, 14 May 1781,” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified March 30, 2017, http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Franklin/01-35-02-0042.