A Glimpse of William “Billy” Lee: George Washington’s Enslaved Manservant

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.

Polite Prohibition?: Bushrod Washington, Mount Vernon, and the Steamboat

After Theodore R. Davis, "Mount Vernon, 1874," hand-colored engraving, published in Harper's Weekly (Feb. 28, 1874).

An advertisement on Mount Vernon’s website states that “No method of transportation to Mount Vernon was more popular during the 19th century than riverboat cruises.” Even today, Spirit of Mount Vernon excursion vessels transport thousands of visitors to George Washington’s home each year. There was a time, however, when visiting Mount Vernon by water was not so welcome.

Wild and Wonderful George Washington

Map of the Washington Heritage Trail National Scenic Byway.

Last month, my husband, our 3-year-old daughter, and I took a road trip through sections of the Washington Heritage Trail, which goes through Berkeley, Jefferson, and Morgan counties in West Virginia’s Eastern Panhandle. This region is steeped in history not only related to the railroad, the Civil War, and John Brown’s raid but also (and more importantly to me) to the Washington family. The Washingtons, especially George and his younger brother Charles, seem to be everywhere, from family homes and gravesites to street names and tourist spots.

George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Militias in Republican Ideology

Image of letter from George Washington to Thomas Jefferson, Sept. 11, 1780.

Due to the British invasions of Virginia in 1781, only one of the five letters that Gen. George Washington wrote Virginia governor Thomas Jefferson during the period comprising volume 28 of the Papers of George Washington’s Revolutionary War Series (late August to late October 1780) has been found. Nevertheless, that letter and some of the drafts of the four missing letters reveal tension between pragmatists and purists among Patriot supporters of republican ideology, tension which became increasingly bitter and partisan after the American Revolution.

Refusing the Commander in Chief

Henry Lee, oil on canvas painting by Charles Willson Peale (ca. 1782).

At the end of March 1778, the general offered Virginia cavalry officer Henry Lee, Jr., a new assignment. The young captain had recently distinguished himself leading his troop of dragoons in a skirmish at Scott’s Farm near Valley Forge, Pa., as well as conducting foraging operations to supply the starving army at its Valley Forge winter encampment. Writing through his aide-de-camp Alexander Hamilton, George Washington made Lee the offer of joining his military family as an aide-de-camp. The proposition entailed a promotion to lieutenant colonel. Few officers, whatever their personal feelings, would have dared to turn down such an offer from the commander in chief, but that is exactly what Lee did.

Martha on Money: The History of the Martha Washington Silver Certificate

Image of the Martha Washington silver dollar.

The U.S. Department of the Treasury sparked controversy in 2016 when it announced plans to place Harriet Tubman on the front of the twenty-dollar bill in 2020. Earlier this summer, the department postponed the bill’s release to 2028.1 When the redesign finally takes place, Tubman will be the first woman on U.S. paper currency since 1886, when Martha Washington appeared on the one-dollar silver certificate. As an editor of the papers of Martha Washington, I was curious about the history of the Martha Washington dollar. Did her image inspire as much debate as Tubman’s?

The Fulcrum of the Revolution? George Washington Explores the Possibility of a Southern Campaign

The decisive and final major battle of the Revolutionary War was fought at Yorktown, Va., in September 1781. Just a year earlier, however, the prospect of a conclusive American victory in a southern state might have been deemed unthinkable. For one thing, most of the war’s major engagements had been contested in the mid-Atlantic states and New England; for another, the major military actions previously undertaken in the South—at Savannah, Charleston, and Camden—had ranked among the greatest American losses of the war. Also, George Washington and much of America’s political leadership remained focused on reclaiming New York City, which had served as British headquarters during most of the war. So, when and why did Washington begin to contemplate shifting his major operations to the southern theater?

Bushrod Washington: Distinguishing Natural Rights from Legal Rights

Bushrod Washington, painting by Chester Harding (1828).

Perhaps Bushrod’s most famous verdict was the one in which he defined the concept of natural rights as those rights conferred unto individuals by nature. His verdict also explored the difference between natural and constitutional, or legal, rights, which he maintained were bestowed upon individuals by their government. The debate regarding which rights are natural and which are legal, set in motion by Bushrod Washington’s 1823 judgment of Corfield v. Coryell, continues to this day.

Going Digital: The Process of Adding a New Volume to our Digital Edition

Image of the PGWDE's XML coding, which shows a segment of the numerous entries for "John Smith" in our cumulative index.

Every volume that The Washington Papers produces, we publish in print and digital formats. Our subscription-based digital edition, which is published by the University of Virginia Press’s electronic imprint Rotunda, is one of several online resources that result from our work. Used by thousands of people every year, the Papers of George Washington Digital Edition (PGWDE) is an especially valuable tool since it includes a cumulative index, which spans all volumes and series. The PGWDE also links readers directly to any document referenced in an annotation or editorial note, making it easy for users to discover other pertinent information. The nature of digital publication furthermore enables authors—or, in our case, documentary editors—to emend material after publication.

George Washington, Genealogist: Why Didn’t We Know?

Image of the manuscript header, which George Washington likely penned in the early 1790s.

Attached to a page in the first of nearly 300 red-leather-bound, near-atlas-sized folio volumes of the George Washington Papers at the Library of Congress (LOC) is a small manuscript that lays bare the foundation of 18th-century power and violence. Unfolded, the manuscript is approximately 7 ¼ by 9 ½ inches, but when folded into thirds, this lightweight rag paper presents as a neat 7- by 3-inch package.  The LOC catalog describes the manuscript as a “Genealogy Chart” and dates it to 1753. But this manuscript should actually have three dates, and none of them is 1753. And this manuscript is much more than a “Genealogy Chart.”