The Washington Post, 17 February 1998
For Presidents’ Day, the Library of Congress posted on the World Wide Web 8,000 letters written by George Washington, including one to his mother about a hairbreadth escape from death in battle.
“I luckily escaped without a wound, tho’ I had four bullets through my Coat, and two Horses shot under me,” he wrote nine days after a disastrous engagement in the French and Indian War. fit was a bad sped for the Father of the Country:
“I was not half recovered from a violent illness,” he wrote, “that confined me to my Bed, and a Waggon, for above ten Days.”
Despite the defeat at Fort Duquesne, now Pittsburgh, Washington’s bravery in the battle was soon to have him named a colonel at age 23. Twenty years later he took command of American forces in the Revolution.
In Washington’s time, bad roads and other hazards made mail delivery uncertain. So people often kept copies of their letters in a “letterbook,” as Washington did from the age of 9 until the last year of his life.
Now it’s e-mail that sometimes disappears, swallowed by a computer glitch. Guy Lamolinara, who publicizes material the Library of Congress posts on the Web, said he thinks people who send letters by e-mail should keep printouts–otherwise future historians may be out of luck.
“We probably won’t have correspondence as complete as some we have from earlier times,” he said.
On Feb. 4-eight days before Abraham Lincoln’s actual birth anniversary–four of more than 26,000 papers in the library’s Lincoln collections went online. Among them is a first draft in his own hand of the Emancipation Proclamation, written more than five months before he issued it Sept. 22, 1862.
Lincoln had let the idea fizzle out for a while when Secretary of State William H. Seward suggested the proclamation could bring anarchy in the South and intervention from abroad.
“I, as Commander in Chief of the Army and Navy of the United States,” Lincoln wrote, “do order and declare that on the first of January in the year of our Lord one thousand, eight hundred and sixtythree, all persons held as slaves within any state or states, wherein the constitutional authority of the United States shall not then be practically recognized, submitted to and maintained, shall then, thenceforward, and forever, be free.”
A batch of Lincolniana that the library put online earlier had a picture of the items found in the 16th president’s pockets after he was assassinated. The artifacts include two pairs of spectacles and a penknife.
The new Lincoln material will he made available with a gift of $1 million from the Jones Family Foundation of Fond du Lac, Wis. Washington’s letters are being financed with a $1 million gift from the Reuters news agency. Later, letters from Thomas Jefferson and other presidents will be put online.
They can be found at http://memory.loc.gov/ammem/gwhtml/gwhome.html
© 1998 The Washington Post Company