Charles Royster, Review of Colonial Series, Volumes 5-6

Review of The Papers of George Washington: Colonial Series, Volumes 5 – 6
The Journal of Southern History

Reviewed by Charles Royster

The documents in these volumes deal with some of George Washington’s most eventful months, not to be surpassed until the American Revolution. He acquired the experience of command on which his military reputation rested in 1775 when he was made commander of the Continental Army. He was elected to the Virginia House of Burgesses. He married Martha Dandridge Custis and, in doing so, acquired more slaves and land than he had owned in his own right. He called himself “a person who would gladly be distinguished in some measure from the common run of provincial Officers” (Vol. 5, p. 117), and he attained that distinction despite the defeat of his ambition for “preferment in Military Life” (ibid., p. 102). Apart from two gushing letters to Sally Fairfax, the young Washington’s most effusive expressions during this period appear in his letter thanking James Wood for managing his successful election campaign. The rising gentleman had a “longing desire” (Vol. 6, p. 358) to see London but never fulfilled it.

As in this series’ other volumes, the editors have stayed near the literalist ends of the spectrum of policy on transcription and have, for the most part, stuck to a minimalist approach to annotation. Many of the footnotes consist mainly of quotations from contemporaneous sources. The criteria according to which these sometimes lengthy supplementary materials are included are not readily apparent. The quotations are always pertinent and informative, but their number could be greatly expanded or contracted with equal consistency. The survival of some recipients’ copies of Washington’s letters has enabled the editors to trace copyists’ slips in letterbook versions, which also reveal the older Washington’s tinkerings with his early prose. The complexities of wartime fighting, logistics, colonial politics, and Indian diplomacy present extraordinary challenges for the cross-referencing and annotating of documents that often are not self-explanatory and occasionally are fragmentary–challenges that the editors have surmounted impressively. Volume 6 contains more than one hundred pages of documents pertaining to the settling of the estate of Daniel Parke Custis, Martha Washington’s first husband. Presentation of these intricate affairs in a systematic, lucid arrangement is a remarkable achievement of editorial diligence and skill. The inventories and accounts of slaves, real property, finances, agricultural produce, implements, household possessions, and books constitute a detailed portrait of a Virginia planter’s manner of living. The goods that Washington ordered from the British mercantile house Robert Cary & Company give a glimpse of his aspirations, activities, and tastes. Though he called Virginia “an Infant Woody Country” (Vol. 6, p. 453), its most prosperous inhabitants set out to be–in the words of a title of one of Custis’s books–The gentleman instructed, in the conduct of a virtuous and happy life (ibid., p. 289).

Expeditiously yet meticulously, The Papers of George Washington as an editorial undertaking vindicates–even surpasses–its initial promise. In an army camp or at Mount Vernon, Washington was attentive to minute details. A concern with the concrete provided the structure for his life. In this quality he is being faithfully reflected and admirably served by his modern editors.

Charles Royster
Louisiana State University


Royster, Charles. Review of The Papers of George Washington: Colonial Series, Volumes 5-6 in The Journal of Southern History, volume 56, number 2 (May 1990), 333-35.

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