Review of The Papers
of George Washington:
Colonial Series, Volumes 1 - 2
The Journal of Southern History
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Reviewed by Charles Royster
Late in August 1862 when a Confederate force under Thomas J. (Stonewall)
Jackson seemed to threaten the safety of Washington, D.C., Edward Everett
took alarm. He wanted to prevent the Confederates "from acquiring
the prestige of possessing the archives of the government"
and suggested to Postmaster General Montgomery Blair that "a few
suitable boxes" be prepared for the removal of the most important
documents, especially "General George Washington's papers."
Everett's earlier orations on George Washington had facilitated the preservation
of Mount Vernon in the custody of The Mount Vernon Ladies' Association
of the Union, the organization that still controls the estate today and,
with the University of Virginia, sponsors the present edition of Washington's
papers. Everett concluded his warning to Blair: "I attach greater
value to Washington's papers than to anything else at the seat of government."
Everett probably intended no sarcasm at the expense of the current government's
importance. More fundamental, however, were Washington's papers--the relics
and the intellectual legacy of the country's preeminent founder--which
partially embodied American nationality. They must not pass into the hands
of the Confederates, who had the audacity to claim Washington for themselves
and to place his likeness on their Great Seal. Perhaps the many multivolume
editorial projects now under way--preserving and disseminating authoritative
texts written by a wide array of Americans--share some lingering sympathy
with Everett's concern for Washington's papers. The care with which the
texts are reconstructed and annotated implies that they will enable future
scholars to explain the American past more satisfactorily. The present
generation may sometimes question the worth of its own history-writing,
as Edward Everett did the safety of symbols of American nationality. But,
with hope for the future, someone can at least rescue the original documents.
These volumes are the first installments in one of the three concurrently
published series planned for The Papers of George Washington. The
Colonial Series will take Washington to 1775. The other series
will cover his years as commander in chief of the Continental Army and
as President of the United States. In presenting documents up to April
15, 1756, W.W. Abbot and his colleagues have exercised scrupulous care.
The published versions faithfully transcribe both the words and almost
all of the idiosyncrasies of the originals. Variant texts have been meticulously
compared, and the identities of unnamed correspondents convincingly deduced.
Because of the exceptional scrutiny that Washington manuscripts have
long attracted and because of historians' long-standing interest in the
Seven Years' War in America, comparatively few of these documents will
be new to specialists. However, the society and politics of eighteenth-century
land transactions or military operations--both of which preoccupied Washington
for most of his life--will be impressed, if not awed, by the editors'
ability to collate diverse, fugitive pieces of information for the better
comprehension of the documents. The notes further provide useful cross-references
among the printed papers. Thus, supplementary information and the relation
of one document to others are the basic purposes of the annotation. While
the editors provide a bibliography of major secondary works, they refrain
from citing or discussing scholarly interpretations in their notes. Each
volume has its own thorough index.
For insight into Washington's character these volumes have much to offer.
Of course they reprint the well-known examples of the youthful ardor that
he curbed in later years: his references to a "former Passion for
your Low Land Beauty" (I, 41) and his cocky dispatch from Pennsylvania,
"I heard Bullets whistle and believe me there was something charming
in the sound" (I, 118). They reveal his military ambition: "My
inclinations are strongly bent to arms" (I, 226). Perhaps most interesting--and
unique to this edition--is the reproduction, with cancellations and interlineations,
of the revisions that Washington, late in life, made in the wording of
some of his early letters. The father of his country, correcting the writings
of his youth, did not so much try to suppress or change the records of
events as to make his prose more genteel and discreet. A "Great Misfortune"
becomes a "Serious inconvenience" (I, 324); "selfish, and
sinister views" becomes "selfish, considertns" (I, 243);
"Dear Jack" becomes "Dear Brother" (I, 266). Few cases
of the relationship between individual personality and major events can
be more interesting than that of the making of the mature George Washington,
as it bore on the creation of the United States and the American presidency.
The revelations in these volumes are subtle but, for such an inquiry,
The scholar who is less concerned with Washington than with imperial
rivalries in America, the recruiting and supply of colonial and British
forces, the relations between colonists and Indians, or the failure of
Edward Braddock's campaign will turn to this edition with much more profit
than to the editions by John C. Fitzpatrick or Stanislaus Murray Hamilton.
The first two volumes of the Colonial Series--along with the recently
published Diaries of George Washington--auspiciously introduce
an undertaking whose great value will extend well beyond the study of
one man. It is an undertaking worthy of wide circulation and continued
And, fortunately for any present or future Edward Everetts, the nation's
historical identity--though we may be less clear than Everett in saying
what it consists of--is being safely dispersed and stored in letterpress
editions, microform, and data banks.
Louisiana State University
Royster, Charles. Review of The Papers of George Washington:
Colonial Series, Volumes 1-2 in The Journal of Southern History,
volume 50, number 1 (February 1984), 108-110.