Review of The Papers
of George Washington
Retirement Series, volumes 1 - 4
The Journal of Southern History
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Reviewed by Charles Royster
These four volumes of The Papers of George Washington cover the two
years and nine months of Washington's retirement. Soon after leaving the
presidency, Washington said that he did not expect ever again to go more
than twenty miles from his home at Mount Vernon. His role in the expansion
of the army of the United States in 1798 during conflict with France--and
in factional struggles within the Federalist party--interrupted his search
for "rest, & composure" (Vol. 4, p. 276). Washington's sudden
death on December 14, 1799, cut short the "Agricultural and rural pursuits"
to which he had intended to devote himself (Vol. 1, p. 142). The fourth
volume closes with two accounts of Washington's last illness and death written
by his secretary Tobias Lear. It is characteristic of his lifetime of self-control
that Washington's last action was to take his own pulse (Vol. 4, p. 545).
Washington was not a man of great wealth, as he is sometimes portrayed.
Worries about money and about the deterioration of his house at Mount
Vernon preoccupied him. He and his wife owned more slaves than they could
put to work farming, as many as 317 (Vol. 4, p. 494, note 2). His extensive
landholdings did not yield much in sales or rents, and for years he tried
to convert them into cash in order to derive an income from interest.
The last year of his presidency coincided with the collapse of America's
speculative land boom, and sales were even more difficult. He had thought
that real estate in the nation's new capital would be a lucrative investment,
but the District of Columbia took shape very slowly. On the value of these
city lots, he wrote: "it is a question of very equivocal solution"
(Vol. 3, p. 57).
The twenty-seven pages explicating Washington's last will and testament
and its accompanying schedule of property is one of the most impressive
pieces of editorial annotation yet accomplished by The Papers of George
Washington. The editorial notes for the will and schedule offer a
brief retrospective of Washington's whole career as a planter, investor,
husband, kinsman, and slaveholder. Washington's will may be best known
for stipulations freeing his slaves upon his widow's death. It also provided
for support of the old and infirm, with tenancy or apprenticeship for
the rest. The will's provisions revealed that Washington had thought much
about both the value and the disposition of his property. W.W. Abbot,
the editor emeritus of The Papers of George Washington who has
spent part of his own retirement editing these volumes, rightly says that
the will yields "insight into the workings of his mind and the impulses
of his heart" (Vol. 4, p. 478).
Three of the series of The Papers of George Washington are now
complete. Perhaps another twenty-five volumes--covering the last six years
of the Revolutionary War and the last five years of Washington's presidency--are
lying ahead. The clarity, economy, and precision of the series make this
project a monument worthy of the man.
Louisiana State University
Royster, Charles. Review
of The Papers of George Washington: Retirement Series, Volumes 1-4
in The Journal of Southern History, volume 66, 855-56.