Fifty Years of The Washington Papers: A More Inclusive View

TOPICS: 50 Years of Editing, Washington or Custis Family, Women’s History

by Kim Curtis, Research Editor
October 26, 2018

Martha Custis Washington as a young woman, steel engraving by J. Cheney and J. G. Kellogg, 1843.

Established in 2015 and funded by Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association, the Martha Washington Papers and Washington Family Papers projects present a more inclusive view than what’s often shown in history textbooks. My fellow project editors and I hope we can contribute to the study of women’s history and of 18th- and 19th-century history in general.

The Martha Washington Papers and Washington Family Papers projects collect, transcribe, annotate, and publish the papers of Martha Washington and select members of George Washington’s family. These projects will eventually produce digital and print editions of all relevant correspondence and any other significant documents that might offer more context. George Washington’s Barbados Diary, 1751-52, which details the journey of young George and his older half-brother Lawrence, was published in July and is the first product of the Washington Family Papers project.

Scheduled to be published in spring 2020, the Martha Washington Papers project will include correspondence written by and to Martha Washington as well as other significant documents pertaining to her life. So far, we plan to publish around 400 documents, 80 of which have never been published before.

By sharing Martha’s papers with scholars and the general public, we hope that Martha will finally be seen as an important figure in her own right and not just as a side note to George Washington’s story. This edition will also be groundbreaking because it will contain documents from and information about Martha’s early life. Such primary sources and research about her childhood, first marriage, and first husband’s legal estate and financial papers haven’t gotten their proper due from previous editions and scholarship.

Bushrod Washington painting by Chester Harding, 1828, National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution; Gift of the Washington family, with thanks to the many Washingtons who valued this painting and preserved it for nearly two centuries.

We will also include the numerous condolence letters that Martha received after George’s death from figures such as Lafayette, Alexander Hamilton, and John and Abigail Adams. Many of these letters, including Martha’s replies, have never been published anywhere else. Countless people are very interested in the relationship between George and Martha. However, only three letters between the couple survive since Martha burned most of their correspondence after George’s death. Our edition will include these very important letters.

Accessibility is key to our Martha Washington volume, and so, we hope the volume will attract members of the general public, in addition to scholars. We plan to use maps, illustrations, family trees, and a detailed index to make our print edition easier to browse and understand. Materials will also be available on the University of Virginia Press’s digital imprint, Rotunda, about one year after the print volume’s publication. We also want to create digital interactive features, such as supplemental maps, timelines, and individual pages devoted to Martha’s fashion sense, her stays at the Revolutionary War winter encampments, her childhood, the condolence letters, and more.

The Martha Washington Papers project lays the groundwork for the Washington Family Papers project. After the release of the Martha Washington volume, two volumes of Bushrod Washington’s papers are scheduled to be published. George Washington’s nephew, Bushrod Washington (1762-1829), served as the executor of George’s will, the keeper of his papers, and the caretaker of Mount Vernon. Bushrod also sat on the U.S. Supreme Court as an associate justice for three decades. These volumes of Bushrod’s papers will include all correspondence to and from Bushrod as well as selected third-party correspondence that sheds light on Bushrod’s private and professional lives. At some point, we may publish Bushrod’s financial and legal documents, the majority of which are currently beyond the scope of these initial volumes. We hope that in addition to historians and the general public, legal scholars and practitioners will consider the publication of Bushrod’s papers to be a useful resource.

We will also publish at least one volume of the papers of the Washington family, which we currently define as George Washington’s parents, full- and half-siblings, select nephews and nieces, and children and grandchildren by Martha’s first marriage. Materials from the Bushrod Washington and Washington Family Papers print editions will be available on Rotunda about one year after the publication of each print volume.

 

Thank you to Mount Vernon for its ongoing financial support of the Martha Washington and Washington Family Papers projects.

The search for Bushrod Washington documents and other Washington Family documents is still ongoing. If you own or have any information about such documents, please contact Assistant Editor Alicia K. Anderson at aka5h@virginia.edu or 434.297.6454.

The Washington Family by Edward Savage, 1789-96, National Gallery of Art, Andrew W. Mellon Collection.