The American public has been fascinated with George Washington ever since his appointment as commander in chief of the Continental army in 1775. His subsequent election as the first president of the United States only increased public interest. Americans have never lost their veneration for the "Father" of their country, and the approaching bicentennial of Washington's death in 1999 inspired the Mount Vernon Ladies' Association of the Union in 1998 to invite other groups to help commemorate this two-hundredth anniversary by participating in its Bicentennial Community Program. By organizing and hosting four community-based activities, and promoting at least one of them, any public entity could qualify as an official George Washington Bicentennial Organization. This project provided a wonderful opportunity for the Papers of George Washington because the staff was searching for ways to expand its public programming and for appropriate avenues to commemorate Washington's death. Thus, we organized a series of public events, each drawing on the numerous, often unseen, talents of the Papers' staff.
The first and most visible component of our bicentennial commemoration was the pair of exhibits I designed and installed: A Concert of Mourning: The Death of George Washington in the Stettinius Gallery of the University of Virginia Special Collections at Alderman Library and In His Own Hand: Editing the Papers of George Washington in the Dome Room of the University Rotunda.
For A Concert of Mourning, George Riser, Exhibitions Coordinator, and Kathryn Morgan, Head of Collections Services, for the Alderman Library, as well as the curatorial staffs at the Virginia Historical Society, The Library Company of Philadelphia, and the Kenmore Association, assisted with the content and design of the exhibit. Letters, manuscripts, and works of art from all four archives were gathered and arranged to illustrate the public's immediate response to Washington's death and its long-term effect on American culture.
While A Concert of Mourning was in its planning stages, Terry Belanger, director of the Book Arts Press in Alderman Library, approached the Papers about a possible companion exhibition that would highlight the life of George Washington through his writings. Soon this suggestion evolved into our first sustained attempt to illuminate the process of editing historical documents and the history of the Papers of George Washington. Displayed in the University's historic Dome Room, the show offered a detailed exploration of the activities of the Papers' staff and included material explaining how the current editors proceed: assembling copies of original documents and supplementary information, interpreting maps, plats, and other graphic materials, detecting forgeries, and preparing the edited text for printed publication. Special thanks go to Terry Belanger and the University of Virginia Press for their assistance with this display. Phil Chase, Frank Grizzard, Christine Patrick, and other members of the staff of the Papers furnished additional expertise and support.
Both exhibitions received extensive coverage in local print, television, and radio media. A capacity crowd attended the opening of the exhibits on the evening of February 11, 1999, and heard Editor Emeritus W. W. Abbot's presentation on "The Young George Washington and His Papers." After an opportunity to peruse the In His Own Hand exhibit in the Dome Room, participants attended a reception in the Special Collections department of Alderman Library and viewed the Concert of Mourning display. The Papers' staff provided a tour of the project's offices and offered further explanations of the historical editing process.
The Papers of George Washington also brought the bicentennial commemoration into the general community. During the week prior to Washington's Birthday, assistant editor Mark Mastromarino read The Joke's on George, by Michael O. Tunnell with pictures by Kathy Osborn, to students at B. F. Yancey Elementary School in Esmont, Virginia. Each child received a bicentennial bookmark and was encouraged to read other books about Washington. The Papers donated books about Washington to the school library.
Editor in Chief Philander Chase later hosted two presentations for the Charlottesville community. The first was a special screening on February 19 of George Washington, Founding Father, from the Arts and Entertainment Network's Biography Series, followed by a question and answer period. On March 26 he presented a slide show and lecture with William Rasmussen, director of the Virginia Historical Society and author of George Washington: The Man Behind the Myths, as part of the Fifth Annual Virginia Festival of the Book.
In honor of this bicentennial year, the staff of the Papers issued a promotional brochure and published three special pamphlets, beginning with W. W. Abbot's lecture from the bicentennial exhibitions' opening and continuing with this pamphlet and its companion, the catalog for A Concert of Mourning. Other initiatives this year include a newsletter and the transfer of the Papers' manuscript catalog from index cards to an electronic database that will be accessible on the website for the Papers of George Washington.
We hope that this pamphlet will educate its readers about the historical editing process, particularly as it applies to the Papers of George Washington, and will serve as a reflection on the project's past as it approaches the halfway point to completion.
Mary Anne Andrei