George Washington has loomed large in my professional life, even though I only joined The Washington Papers’ full-time staff in 2017. This is because my work as an editorial assistant during graduate school on Presidential Series volumes 13 and 14 led me to my dissertation topic. One of Washington’s last great projects was founding the city named in his honor: the capital of the United States, Washington, D.C.
Last month, my family and I took a day trip to Virginia Beach. On the way home, we stopped by the American Revolution Museum at Yorktown. This visit to the museum (our first) was particularly special: we had the privilege of receiving a tour from Dr. Thomas E. Davidson, a senior curator, who retired from the museum at the end of July.
In late June, numerous textual-editing scholars will travel to Olympia, Washington, to attend the Association for Documentary Editing (ADE) Annual Meeting. This year, the ADE Seminar on Critical Issues will discuss the difficulties of digital publication of documentary editions, which can be exacerbated by limited financial and technological resources. As the moderator of this seminar panel, I have begun to consider what insights might result from this much-needed conversation.
The first thing people tend to comment on when hearing of my new position is that I am a woman. Now, the scholarly editing field is fairly advanced in terms of gender parity; there are many projects headed by and staffed by women. But for some reason, a female editor in chief of George Washington’s papers surprises people. I take pleasure in telling them that I am not the first. I was preceded by the very fine scholar and editor, Dorothy Twohig, who, as managing editor, was with the Papers beginning in 1969, first under Donald Jackson and then Bill Abbot.
The seemingly endless flow of books on George Washington easily submerges notable past treatments. Bringing these forgotten gems to the surface is a worthwhile endeavor. This contribution to “Washington’s Quill” highlights Henry Cabot Lodge’s George Washington, a two-volume biography published in 1890.
On December 4, 1783, an emotional George Washington, commander in chief of the Continental army, stood before his officers in the Long Room of Fraunces Tavern in New York. “With a heart full of love and gratitude I now take leave of you,” Washington toasted, as his eyes scanned the room. “I most devoutly wish that your latter days may be as prosperous and happy as your former ones have been glorious and honorable. I cannot come to each of you but shall feel obliged if each of you will come and take me by the hand.”
“What do you do with a film degree? Sit around and watch movies all day?” As a graduate of New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, where I earned an M.A. in cinema studies, I’ve heard my share of these questions from people I meet. They may have a point; although my cinema studies degree has helped me develop my research and writing skills, it’s hard to justify how this degree directly applies to my job at The Washington Papers. When I say I’m a documentary editor, I don’t mean that I edit documentary films! So, I’m going to approach this blog post from a different angle (with a little help from my psychology degree), and show how George Washington shares attributes with classic film star Cary Grant.
In a blog post from February 2016, I reviewed interpretations of George Washington’s mother, Mary Ball Washington, and found them to fall into two camps: either simplistically laudatory or bitingly critical. Moreover, neither side found evidence of a close relationship between mother and son. For sure, the documentary record contains few letters between Mary and George, and references to Mary in her famous son’s voluminous surviving correspondence are exceedingly scattered.
Is Hamilton an academic, perfectly accurate historical interpretation? Of course not. But what it does do is use catchy tunes—and primary sources—to make history accessible and entertaining to a new generation of Americans. And after recently attending a performance of the show, these documentary editors wholeheartedly agree.
An exceptional benefit of editing the Papers of George Washington is exposure to so many sources on early American history. A notable one that I encountered not long after starting with the project in June 2006 was John Marshall’s The Life of George Washington (5 vols.; Philadelphia, 1804-7). I discovered that the American edition’s sixth volume included maps of the Revolutionary War. I decided to visit the University of Virginia’s Harrison-Small Special Collections Library, just steps from my office, in order to examine the maps for my editing of Revolutionary War letters.