Information on George Washington and slavery rose to a new level with the publication of Mary V. Thompson’s “The Only Unavoidable Subject of Regret”: George Washington, Slavery, and the Enslaved Community at Mount Vernon (University of Virginia Press: Charlottesville, Va., 2019). Unsurprisingly, Thompson frequently refers to William “Billy” Lee, arguably the most famous slave whom Washington owned because of Lee’s service as the general’s valet during the full course of the Revolutionary War. Lee also was the only slave whom Washington freed outright in his will at the time of his death. Research on the discovery and aftermath of Maj. Gen. Benedict Arnold’s treachery for volume 28 in The Papers of George Washington, Revolutionary War Series, revealed an overlooked observation about Billy Lee.
The Association for Documentary Editing (ADE) held its annual meeting this year in Princeton, N.J., from June 20 to 22, with The Papers of Thomas Jefferson at Princeton University hosting the event. I was glad to attend because I had grown up only a short distance to the north but had not been to Princeton for more than 20 years. It was also an opportunity to see Jim McClure, managing editor of the Jefferson project, who 30 years ago trained me when we both worked at The Salmon P. Chase Papers at Claremont Graduate School in Claremont, California.
Presenting documents for scholarly and public use is the primary purpose of The Papers of George Washington. Reviews further this purpose, and project members have found 169 such assessments published in traditional print as well as digital outlets between 1977 and 2018. Happily, the overwhelming consensus among reviewers is that the edition admirably serves its large intended audience.
In a proposal dated Oct. 18, 1966, Van Shreeven called for the publication of a comprehensive edition of the papers of George Washington. Not only was there a need for this sort of project (previous editions contained only Washington’s outgoing correspondence or selected incoming letters), but the American Revolutionary War Bicentennial promised interest and a favorable funding environment.
Massachusetts congressman Fisher Ames performed an important political service for President George Washington on April 28, 1796. On that date, Ames gave a speech that impelled a divided House of Representatives to enact, by a 51–48 vote on April 30, the provisions necessary to implement the contentious Jay Treaty.
Most famous for comic literature and fictional tales such as “Rip Van Winkle” and “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” Washington Irving (1783-1859) undertook his Washington biography at the end of his distinguished career. Irving demonstrated commendable care and diligence in his research.
George Washington’s interest in books has attracted increasing scholarly attention. It has taken time for this scholarship to come forward because George Washington’s impressive library scattered after his death, and it was not his habit to muse about or ponder his reading in his diaries or correspondence. Sustained effort has been necessary to overcome the inaccurate perception that Washington had little curiosity and limited literary ability.
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.
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 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.