Topic: William M. Ferraro

Rehabilitating Mary Ball Washington’s Importance as George Washington’s Mother

by William M. Ferraro, Managing Editor
November 17, 2017

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. There is little basis to claim that she played a central role in George’s accomplishments and fame. The absence of such evidence gives greater salience to Mary’s carping in her old age about lack of money and support from her children.   George’s frustration over these complaints prompted harsh portrayals of his mother in subsequent historical analysis.

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Interrogating the Text; How to Annotate a George Washington Document

by William M. Ferraro, Managing Editor
August 17, 2o17

Moderating a panel on public engagement at the 2017 meeting of the Association for Documentary Editing, Washington Papers communications specialist Katie Lebert observed that content that explores the basic practices of documentary editing is often received favorably by and connects with a wide audience. Taking the cue from Katie, I devote this blog post to annotating documents that appear in The Papers of George Washington.

An editor working on elucidating a document for readers approaches this task by “interrogating the text” in order to determine which information is needed to comprehend it. The process begins by asking questions from the perspective of a reader. Who is mentioned? What is the purpose of the document? Are place references obscure? Does this document result in some action, especially an action involving Washington?

To identify research directions and establish the contours of the eventual annotation, the editor first must determine whether the people, places, and facts in the document already have been covered editorially. People identifications and places mentioned in The Washington Papers’ Revolutionary War and Presidential Series can be located quickly through searchable authoritative files found on the “Washington Papers Resources” webpage, an internal online database through which editors and staff share resources and information. The Papers of George Washington Digital Edition‘s cumulative index and conversations with colleagues also help at this stage. Ascertaining what already is known and has been presented avoids redundant research and suggests potential cross-references.

Sources most useful in annotation are those closest to the document being edited. Thus, the most relevant and dynamic pieces of annotation are texts directly linked to the document. These can be enclosed letters or extracts from letters, intelligence reports, legislative resolutions, or military returns regarding troops, provisions, or equipment. Replies, particularly shorter replies that simply address the document, frequently function better as notes to the document that prompted their creation than as separate and distinct entries.

Work then moves outward to the large universe of primary sources that might shed light on the content of the document. The Papers of George Washington offices in the University of Virginia’s Alderman Library hold hundreds of these sources, including contemporary letters (manuscripts on microfilm and printed editions), diaries, journals, and governmental proceedings. Vast amounts of similar material can now be accessed through ancestry.com and fold3.com. Searchable newspaper and bibliographic databases offer ready access to an astounding amount of printed information from Washington’s lifetime. It is a challenge to avoid getting lost in this forest of source material! Contemporary writings and publications can suggest a rich array of research directions, but these can also lead editors far afield of the document. Editors must always keep the text in mind and maintain focus on answering the questions it raises.

A similar discipline must be practiced when writing annotation. Except for the occasional figure or place of relative obscurity or exceptional importance, people and places are identified in thumbnail sketches of two or three sentences that explain or suggest why they appear in that document. Quotes from manuscript documents or other primary sources are limited to the pertinent portions and introduced as plainly as possible (“In a dispatch written at New York City on 8 Nov., Hessian major Carl Leopold Baurmeister reported:”).1 Cross references further direct readers to pertinent information elsewhere in the volume or edition. (“For the instigation behind this general order, see Anthony Wayne to GW, 18 December.”)2 Rarely is it desirable to repeat information at any length.

Just as editors must resist the temptation to follow wide-ranging but not strictly pertinent research directions, we must limit—and generally avoid—free-ranging prose in the numbered notes tagged to a document. Such prose commentary can add bulk without value, cluttering the presentation and confusing readers. If research turns up sources—primary or secondary—with interesting content beyond the needs of establishing basic context, it might be included as a “see also” reference. The list of sources used while editing a volume is compiled in the “Short Title List” and becomes an enduring scholarly contribution.

As a documentary editor with more than 28 years of experience, I have condensed what I consider the ideal approach to annotation into a phrase: deploying bibliography to contextualize texts. The editor filters and structures sources—especially primary sources—to illuminate each document. Rather than interpret or narrate, the editor places, points, reports, and guides. In our case, the repetitive cycle of work is engrossing because it centers on an endlessly fascinating subject—George Washington.

Brig. Gen. Peter Muhlenberg

An excellent example of the annotation practices discussed here is the letter from Brig. Gen. Peter Muhlenberg to Washington, written at Fredericksburg, Va., on May 8, 1780. It appears in volume 25 of the Revolutionary War Series, which will be published soon by the University of Virginia Press.

One note offers brief quotes from his father’s diary on the travails of Muhlenberg’s family on the journey from Philadelphia to Virginia (travails which Muhlenberg kept from Washington). Several notes present lengthy quotations from enclosures Muhlenberg sent with his letter. A short note identifies Rocky Ridge, a place later named Manchester and eventually annexed to Richmond. Muhlenberg mentions to Washington that he has advertised for officers to assemble, and a note includes the text of his advertisement from an issue of The Virginia Gazette (Williamsburg). A passing allusion to “Parson Hurt at Charleston” triggered a note to identify John Hurt, who served as a chaplain for the Virginia troops. Most of that note points to a 19th-century book with a sermon he preached in 1777, a letter Hurt wrote Washington during his presidency, and a biographical sketch published in a little-known modern journal.

The 14 notes attached to this document are more than the usual number, but the complexity and length of Muhlenberg’s letter justifies such handling. Please look at it yourself when the volume appears in print and let me know if you agree!

 

Notes

  1. See Silvanus Seely to GW, 4 Nov. 1779, n.2, in The Papers of George Washington: Revolutionary War Series (Charlottesville, Va., 2015), 23:150-51.
  2. See General Orders, 20 Dec. 1779, n.1, in Papers, Revolutionary War Series, 23:656.

My Set of John Marshall’s The Life of George Washington: A Research Puzzle

by William M. Ferraro, Research Associate Professor and Acting Editor in Chief
June 16, 2016

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.

The maps proved to be wonderfully detailed and helpful, but the real find came as a complete surprise. The map volume listed all the subscribers who financed publication of Marshall’s multivolume biography.1 The names of individuals and institutions appeared under towns, cities, and counties grouped by state. Groupings also existed for the District of Columbia and foreign countries. Arranged in six columns per page, the subscribers numbered about 9,000. If properly cataloged and researched, this subscribers list could help scholars, and such work is a long-term aspiration of The Washington Papers. Nevertheless, even in its raw state, the list provides a wealth of information and intellectual opportunities.

I used some of that potential in a class I taught during the Fall 2016 semester. For a writing assignment, I asked each student to choose one-to-three subscribers from his or her hometown or the nearest place on the list. The student then prepared a research paper describing that locality and its people, and suggesting why a subscriber might have been interested in George Washington. An unanticipated problem arose for students from Florida, Colorado, and other places outside the settled or jurisdictional boundaries of the United States in the early nineteenth century. Unable to select a subscriber from their hometowns, these students identified listed localities associated with parents or grandparents. A particularly interesting paper emerged when a student from Denver discovered that her research subject, from Newburyport, Mass., was a distant relative!

The success of this assignment increased my desire to own a set of the Marshall biography volumes, a foundational work in both George Washington biography and U. S. historiography. Marshall wrote the books at the behest of Bushrod Washington, George’s nephew and Marshall’s U.S. Supreme Court colleague. Bushrod made available the vast collection of his uncle’s papers in his possession and encouraged Marshall to write on a scale commensurate with the achievements of its towering subject. While Marshall can be chided for borrowing heavily from other sources (in that period’s customary manner), his volumes captured the nationalist spirit that animated contemporary Federalists and unflinchingly positioned George Washington as the crucial figure in the founding of the United States.2

Since the original volumes of the first American edition are both scarce and expensive, you may imagine my delight this past winter when a full set (minus the map volume, which is very rare and expensive) landed on the shelf of Daedalus Used Books—a landmark shop for bibliophiles in Charlottesville—for only $125. According to Sandy McAdams, the sociable proprietor, the books “had walked through the door” only a day or two earlier. He further explained that the modest price was due to the fourth volume missing its end boards, or being “hurt,” in his more colloquial parlance. The other four volumes, however, looked fabulous. I happily carted the set home with thoughts that its subscriber probably had lived in central Virginia, because Daedalus primarily obtains stock from the surrounding area.

Unlike some book collectors, I like old books with the names of previous owners and marginalia that show past intellectual engagement. I eagerly paged through my Marshall volumes looking for clues about their history. A few turned-down page corners indicated prior reading, but pressed leaves and flowers in the first two volumes were the most prevalent evidence of former handling.

No volume contained writing, but the first volume did have a printed label pasted inside the back cover with useful information: “RARE, SCARCE, and OUT OF PRINT BOOKS, DOCUMENTS, Etc. For Sale By WALTER M. MURDIE, 134 Radcliffe Ave, PROVIDENCE, R.I.” Poking around the internet revealed that Walter M. Murdie was active in the Rhode Island capital during the 1920s and 1930s. The address was and is situated in a largely residential neighborhood, so he apparently operated his business out of his home.

Murdie’s pasted label dismissed my initial thoughts that the subscriber had lived in central Virginia and focused my attention on Providence and nearby jurisdictions. Having written my dissertation on town-meeting government in Rhode Island, I was quite familiar with the politics and prominent figures of the state.3 Subscriber listings in the map volume show 67 names under Providence, including Eliza Nightingale (1780–1863), a woman who never married. Another six can be found between nearly adjacent Cumberland and Warwick. The Providence subscribers include many people of note: Samuel G. Arnold, historian; Jabez Bowen, the state’s lieutenant governor during the Revolutionary War who corresponded regularly with Washington; John Brown, businessman and benefactor of Brown University; Theodore Foster, one of the state’s first U. S. senators; and Thomas P. Ives, merchant.

It will take an inordinate amount of research and extreme serendipity to confirm the subscriber who owned my set of Marshall’s books. Until that unlikely conjunction of circumstances, I will take pleasure in using the contents for my study and teaching, all the while thinking about the volumes’ distinguished Rhode Island owner and their largely mute past.

All photos courtesy of author.

 

Endnotes

  1. The Life of George Washington: Maps and Subscriber’s Names (Philadelphia, 1807).
  2. For an overview of Marshall’s authorship of his The Life of George Washington, see the “Editorial Note” in Charles Hobson et al., eds., The Papers of John Marshall: Volume VI, Correspondence, Papers, and Selected Judicial Opinions, November 1800–March 1807 (Chapel Hill, N.C., 1990), 219–30. For an examination of Marshall’s use of sources that stops just short of calling him a plagiarist, see William A. Foran, “John Marshall as a Historian,” in American Historical Review 43 (1937-38): 51-64.
  3. See William M. Ferraro, “Lives of Quiet Desperation: Community and Polity in New England over Four Centuries: The Cases of Portsmouth and Foster, Rhode Island,” PhD diss., Brown University, 1991.

Standing on the Shoulders of Giants (III): Louise Phelps Kellogg (1862-1942)

by William M. Ferraro, Managing Editor
March 31, 2017

No former editor has eased my research burdens more than Louise Phelps Kellogg, who built a remarkable career as a historian during the first decades of the twentieth century. Her work informs some of the most consistently challenging letters sent to George Washington: those from Colonel Daniel Brodhead, who commanded the western department from Fort Pitt during the Revolutionary War’s middle years. What makes Brodhead’s missives so problematic is that they cover a vast swath of frontier that ranges west across present-day Ohio to the upper Mississippi River Valley, north to Detroit, and east to the Appalachians, extending south into what is now West Virginia. Kellogg’s annotations in four documentary volumes cover an astounding percentage of obscure geographic and event references in Brodhead’s correspondence.1

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The Simplicities and Intricacies of Indexing

By William M. Ferraro, Managing Editor
February 2, 2017

Bill's blog postDocumentary editors strive to make their products as accessible as possible. Systematic transcription facilitates reading by converting handwritten manuscripts into printed pages. Numbered notes explain obscure references or allusions in the texts. Introductions and editorial essays draw larger connections or present rich background information. The index, however, arguably stands as the most important feature of a documentary work as far as providing access. Even users with no interest in the principal historical figure easily can find new, potentially useful items on people, places, and subjects.

But something like the modern book index appeared only in the late seventeenth century, and it was not until the later nineteenth century that an alphabetical index became a customary addition to any substantial publication.1 As with so much else over the past few decades, technology has eased the process of creating an index. Gone are boxes of cards and painful hours hunched over while recording, sorting, and alphabetizing the entries. Inputting data remains a tedious task, but the purely clerical dimensions of the endeavor now take seconds rather than days or weeks.

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Georgia Meets the Papers of George Washington

November 2, 2016

George Washington’s composure under duress and remarkable memory for facts and pertinent details provided the basic tools of successful leadership, the managing editor of The Papers of George Washington told an audience in Savannah, Ga., recently.

Dr. William Ferraro was responding to a question posed by Stan Deaton, senior historian of the Georgia Historical Society, before a crowd of more than 350 at an event titled “George Washington, Leadership and Global Revolution.”  The event, held at Savannah’s historic First Baptist Church in late September, was sponsored by the historical society and the UVA Club of Savannah.

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Standing on the Shoulders of Giants, Part II: Henry Barton Dawson (1821-1889)

By William M. Ferraro, Managing Editor
July 15, 2016

Title page of the catalogue.

Title page of the catalogue.

Award-winning journalist and World War II historian Rick Atkinson visited the Washington Papers near the start of his research for a trilogy examining the Revolutionary War. He sought insights into Washington from the editors and obscure sources that might shed light on overlooked or shadowy aspects of the conflict. The editors shared plenty of thoughts and anecdotes, and Atkinson nosed around our extensive holdings of microfilm and reference works. What I enjoyed most, however, was bringing to his attention an item from my personal collection: the auction catalogue for dispersing Henry B. Dawson’s library produced by the New York City house Bangs and Co. and titled Catalogue of the Large Historical Library of the Late Henry B. Dawson, LL.D., an Extensive and Valuable Collections of Books, Pamphlets and Periodicals . . . . I told Atkinson that if he were starting a major Revolutionary War work in the later nineteenth century and sought insights and obscure sources, he would have visited Dawson rather than a documentary editing project like the Washington Papers.

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Standing on the Shoulders of Giants: William Spohn Baker (1824-1897)

By William M. Ferraro, Associate Editor
May 6, 2016

Modern documentary editors benefit enormously from ready access to electronic databases that allow nearly instantaneous immersion into an ocean of primary and secondary sources. Much of what we find and exploit was the work of our scholarly forebears, many of whom were not professional historians. I wish to honor some of these easily overlooked and unfortunately forgotten individuals in a series of contributions to Washington’s Quill over the next year or so. A person’s influence on current editing at the Washington Papers will be my major selection principle.

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Dutiful or Loving Son?: Reflecting on George Washington’s Relationship with His Mother, Mary Ball Washington

By William M. Ferraro, Associate Editor
February 11, 2016

MBWcorner

A corner view of Mary Ball Washington’s final home.

My trip to Fredericksburg, Virginia, in November 2015 to see George Washington’s boyhood home at what is now known as Ferry Farm also allowed me to visit the house in town where George Washington’s mother, Mary Ball Washington, lived the final 17 years of her life. Born in 1708, married to the widower Augustine Washington in 1731, and widowed in 1743, Mary Washington never remarried. Until pressured to change by her children (sons George, Sam, John, and Charles, and daughter, Betty, who had married the prosperous Fredericksburg merchant Fielding Lewis), Mary Washington managed Ferry Farm on her own with the help of slaves. Apparently reluctant to move from the farm, she grudgingly agreed only at George’s insistence.

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Three-Dimensional Insights at George Washington’s Boyhood Home

HistMarker

The historical marker for Ferry’s Farm

By William M. Ferraro, Associate Editor
November 20, 2015

Having shepherded “George Washington, Day-By-Day, 22 February 1732-14 December 1799” into existence as a website featuring information on Washington’s daily whereabouts and activities, and eager to learn more about his early life when documentary evidence is scant at best, I very much looked forward to visiting Washington’s childhood home bordering the Rappahannock River directly across from Fredericksburg, Virginia. This visit finally occurred on Monday, November 9, as a prelude to my attendance at a lecture on James Monroe as a military commander that evening (the immediate reason for my trip from Charlottesville). Continue reading