"Truth will ultimately prevail where pains is taken to bring it to light."
—George Washington to Charles Mynn Thruston,10 August 1794
The editors of the Papers of George Washington spend much of their professional lives mentally in the eighteenth century, becoming intimately acquainted with Washington and hundreds of his contemporaries. They do this through the painstaking examination of the more than 135,000 photocopies of Washington documents that the project has collected since its establishment in 1968 by the University of Virginia and the Mount Vernon Ladies' Association of the Union. Metaphorically speaking, editors look at the trees rather than the forest. To extend that metaphor, they frequently spend hours looking at the roots, bark, and leaves of a single tree in order to determine how and why it grew, as well as when and where it did. In documentary terms, the proper reading of a punctuation mark or a smudged word can alter considerably one's understanding of historical events. Likewise, the correct reading of a person's words in context can cast his or her character into shadow or redeem it from unwarranted discredit.
Such a meticulous approach to the past, as useful and necessary as it is, can result in a form of intellectual myopia if pursued too single-mindedly. The editors of the Washington Papers, therefore, have maintained close contact with the larger community of scholars as well as with people from other walks of life who have a need or a desire to know more about their history and the history of others. Over the years the editors have endeavored to answer thousands of inquiries about Washington and his papers from biographers, novelists, filmmakers, manuscript dealers and collectors, local and family historians, and various other persons. As time and opportunities have permitted, various editors have written essays, articles, and reviews, participated in seminars and symposiums, given lectures and slide presentations, and prepared materials for the project's web site. The preparation of an exhibit dealing with the response of Washington's fellow citizens to his death in 1799 posed some new challenges for the Washington Papers staff. They now had to go beyond documents to deal with historical artifacts and had to shift their focus from Washington and his actions to the nation that felt the loss. Such an undertaking would not have been possible without the considerable skill, insight, and enthusiasm of research assistant Mary Anne Andrei, who conceived the idea of the exhibit and drew on her professional museum training and experience to prepare and mount it. Originally begun by Ms. Andrei as a class project for a public history course taught at the University of Virginia by Professor Phyllis K. Leffler, this exhibit "grew like Topsy" in size and significance as it attracted the interest and support of many other people, most notably the Associates of the University of Virginia Library.
Of the many Washington exhibits that have opened across the nation during the bicentennial of his death, this exhibit is unique in its focus on the public reaction to that momentous event. Given the relatively primitive state of technology and the public media at the end of the eighteenth century, it is easy in this time of media saturation to underestimate both the depth and scope of the nation's mourning for George Washington. When John F. Kennedy was assassinated in 1963, Americans mourned by television, gathering in their living rooms to watch the black-and-white images broadcast live from Dallas and Washington. When Abraham Lincoln died from an assassin's bullet in 1865, Americans mourned by means of the railroad, assembling in masses along the tracks as the funeral train passed on its slow journey from Washington to Springfield. When Washington died in 1799, Americans overcame the limitations of the time to establish a personal connection with the deceased father of their country by staging mock funerals. In city after city citizens gathered to watch somber funeral processions escort empty coffins representing Washington's casket through the streets, giving them a sense of intimate involvement with the events surrounding his distant death and burial at Mount Vernon. The carefully selected and presented objects in this exhibit reveal a national mourning period unmatched by any other in American history.
Philander D. Chase