Attached to a page in the first of nearly 300 red-leather-bound, near-atlas-sized folio volumes of the George Washington Papers at the Library of Congress (LOC) is a small manuscript that lays bare the foundation of 18th-century power and violence. Unfolded, the manuscript is approximately 7 ¼ by 9 ½ inches, but when folded into thirds, this lightweight rag paper presents as a neat 7- by 3-inch package. The LOC catalog describes the manuscript as a “Genealogy Chart” and dates it to 1753. But this manuscript should actually have three dates, and none of them is 1753. And this manuscript is much more than a “Genealogy Chart.”
The Association for Documentary Editing (ADE) held its annual meeting this year in Princeton, N.J., from June 20 to 22, with The Papers of Thomas Jefferson at Princeton University hosting the event. I was glad to attend because I had grown up only a short distance to the north but had not been to Princeton for more than 20 years. It was also an opportunity to see Jim McClure, managing editor of the Jefferson project, who 30 years ago trained me when we both worked at The Salmon P. Chase Papers at Claremont Graduate School in Claremont, California.
If it were not for Martha’s handwritten statement of medical costs for the summer of 1757, we would know little about the state of her household leading up to and immediately following her first husband’s death. Financial papers—that general term for documents such as bills and pay orders, receipts and receipted bills, invoices and inventories, statements of account, bills of lading and exchange, accounts of sales, memoranda, and estate settlement papers—are rich with detailed information. Almost one-third of the 600 Martha Washington documents that The Washington Family Papers project has assembled since its inception in 2015 are financial in nature, whether authored by, addressed to, or written about her.
When annotating, editors at the Papers of George Washington often consult and cite personal documents, such as diaries, for additional details about the events and people described in Washington’s correspondence. These personal documents are especially useful as they commonly provide uninhibited evaluations of those events and people.
One of [Martha’s] responsibilities as manager of the Mount Vernon estate was acting as primary caregiver to family members as well as to enslaved and non-enslaved workers. This emphasis on the physical wellbeing of herself and of those around her influenced Martha’s everyday decisions and interactions.
The zeroing in on the Washingtons’ lives that the financial papers provides is incredible; small details are captured and preserved, down to the exact day that sundries were purchased or that employees were paid. Even beyond the numbers, the language and phrasing of these documents provide a glimpse into the world of colonial Virginia.
When you work at The Washington Papers, you read plenty of fawning 18th-century letters and news articles about George Washington—which is why Rev. Jonathan Boucher’s dismissive description, written in his memoirs in 1786, struck me as something interesting. The description made some waves in the late 1800s when Boucher’s memoirs were finally published, an era in which many U.S. history classes upheld Washington as the definition of greatness. So, who was this man who found Washington so unimpressive?
The cry of “fake news” has become ubiquitous in the United States today, particularly with regard to politics. When a news story paints a negative view of a politician, a partisan belief, or a proposed law, the public’s response now often involves attacks on the press. However, the use of the press to spread misleading or outright false information, usually about a political opponent, is nothing new.
Stark’s work on Young Washington began with a satellite image of the eastern American seaboard. He had been looking for “blank spaces” in the United States—those areas without light, and thus without people—and found to his surprise a large swath of such space in western Pennsylvania. During preliminary research of the area, Stark was introduced to someone who had already explored that mountainous and thickly forested backcountry: “I kept running into young [George] Washington.”
The final five-and-a-half months of George Washington’s presidency, which will be chronicled in Presidential Series vol. 21 of the Papers of George Washington, were devoted to domestic and foreign relations issues that involved, among other things, Indian affairs, construction progress on the U.S. Capitol, heightened tensions between France and the United States, and diplomatic relations with the Barbary powers. Nevertheless, private letters to family and friends, containing moral and educational advice as well as words of comfort and empathy, still abounded in Washington’s correspondence as he approached the end of his political career.