Review of The Papers of George Washington: Colonial Series, Volumes 1 – 2
The Journal of Southern History
Reviewed by Charles Royster
Late in August 1862 when a Confederate force under Thomas J. (Stonewall) Jackson seemed to threaten the safety of Washington, D.C., Edward Everett took alarm. He wanted to prevent the Confederates “from acquiring the prestige of possessing the archives of the government” and suggested to Postmaster General Montgomery Blair that “a few suitable boxes” be prepared for the removal of the most important documents, especially “General George Washington’s papers.” Everett’s earlier orations on George Washington had facilitated the preservation of Mount Vernon in the custody of The Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association of the Union, the organization that still controls the estate today and, with the University of Virginia, sponsors the present edition of Washington’s papers. Everett concluded his warning to Blair: “I attach greater value to Washington’s papers than to anything else at the seat of government.”
Everett probably intended no sarcasm at the expense of the current government’s importance. More fundamental, however, were Washington’s papers–the relics and the intellectual legacy of the country’s preeminent founder–which partially embodied American nationality. They must not pass into the hands of the Confederates, who had the audacity to claim Washington for themselves and to place his likeness on their Great Seal. Perhaps the many multivolume editorial projects now under way–preserving and disseminating authoritative texts written by a wide array of Americans–share some lingering sympathy with Everett’s concern for Washington’s papers. The care with which the texts are reconstructed and annotated implies that they will enable future scholars to explain the American past more satisfactorily. The present generation may sometimes question the worth of its own history-writing, as Edward Everett did the safety of symbols of American nationality. But, with hope for the future, someone can at least rescue the original documents.
These volumes are the first installments in one of the three concurrently published series planned for The Papers of George Washington. The Colonial Series will take Washington to 1775. The other series will cover his years as commander in chief of the Continental Army and as President of the United States. In presenting documents up to April 15, 1756, W.W. Abbot and his colleagues have exercised scrupulous care. The published versions faithfully transcribe both the words and almost all of the idiosyncrasies of the originals. Variant texts have been meticulously compared, and the identities of unnamed correspondents convincingly deduced.
Because of the exceptional scrutiny that Washington manuscripts have long attracted and because of historians’ long-standing interest in the Seven Years’ War in America, comparatively few of these documents will be new to specialists. However, the society and politics of eighteenth-century land transactions or military operations–both of which preoccupied Washington for most of his life–will be impressed, if not awed, by the editors’ ability to collate diverse, fugitive pieces of information for the better comprehension of the documents. The notes further provide useful cross-references among the printed papers. Thus, supplementary information and the relation of one document to others are the basic purposes of the annotation. While the editors provide a bibliography of major secondary works, they refrain from citing or discussing scholarly interpretations in their notes. Each volume has its own thorough index.
For insight into Washington’s character these volumes have much to offer. Of course they reprint the well-known examples of the youthful ardor that he curbed in later years: his references to a “former Passion for your Low Land Beauty” (I, 41) and his cocky dispatch from Pennsylvania, “I heard Bullets whistle and believe me there was something charming in the sound” (I, 118). They reveal his military ambition: “My inclinations are strongly bent to arms” (I, 226). Perhaps most interesting–and unique to this edition–is the reproduction, with cancellations and interlineations, of the revisions that Washington, late in life, made in the wording of some of his early letters. The father of his country, correcting the writings of his youth, did not so much try to suppress or change the records of events as to make his prose more genteel and discreet. A “Great Misfortune” becomes a “Serious inconvenience” (I, 324); “selfish, and sinister views” becomes “selfish, considertns” (I, 243); “Dear Jack” becomes “Dear Brother” (I, 266). Few cases of the relationship between individual personality and major events can be more interesting than that of the making of the mature George Washington, as it bore on the creation of the United States and the American presidency. The revelations in these volumes are subtle but, for such an inquiry, indispensable.
The scholar who is less concerned with Washington than with imperial rivalries in America, the recruiting and supply of colonial and British forces, the relations between colonists and Indians, or the failure of Edward Braddock’s campaign will turn to this edition with much more profit than to the editions by John C. Fitzpatrick or Stanislaus Murray Hamilton.
The first two volumes of the Colonial Series–along with the recently published Diaries of George Washington–auspiciously introduce an undertaking whose great value will extend well beyond the study of one man. It is an undertaking worthy of wide circulation and continued support.
And, fortunately for any present or future Edward Everetts, the nation’s historical identity–though we may be less clear than Everett in saying what it consists of–is being safely dispersed and stored in letterpress editions, microform, and data banks.
Louisiana State University
Royster, Charles. Review of The Papers of George Washington: Colonial Series, Volumes 1-2 in The Journal of Southern History, volume 50, number 1 (February 1984), 108-110.