Charles Royster, Review of Colonial Series, Volumes 7-10

Review of The Papers of George Washington: Colonial Series, Volumes 7 – 10
The Journal of Southern History

Reviewed by Charles Royster

These four volumes bring to a close the Colonial Series of The Papers of George Washington. Ten meticulously edited and annotated volumes in twelve years would be an impressive achievement even if the same editorial project were not simultaneously producing volumes in other series.

Originally, the Papers were to appear in three series: Colonial, Revolutionary War, and Presidential. Subsequently, a Confederation series for the years 1784-1788 has begun, and a Retirement series will cover Washington’s last three years. This design of concurrent publication has proven successful. It has rescued an immense undertaking from the appearance of being trapped in Zeno’s Paradox–a fate that has afflicted some other editorial projects.

Volume Seven finds Washington in the early years of his marriage to Martha Dandridge Custis Washington and of his service in the Virginia House of Burgesses. Volume Ten ends fourteen and one-half years later, as Washington was about to be chosen commander-in-chief of the Continental Army. Historians’ interest in these years has varied in emphasis. Scholars concerned with the hunger for land and the vision of wealth that seized Washington and other leading Virginians have used some of these documents to good effect throughout the twentieth century. The subjects of the trans-Appalachian West and political liberty were not sharply segregated in Washington’s mind, but a researcher will find much more about the former than about the latter in these volumes. Other scholars have stressed the political story of colonists’ resistance to centralization–or systematization–of the governance of the British empire. The narrative of Virginia’s movement toward revolution is much more an account of men like Washington than of men like Patrick Henry or Thomas Jefferson. And the difference between Washington’s views and those of Henry or Jefferson was less important than the similarity.

Some historians of African Americans have taken special interest in the slaves belonging to Washington. The editors of these volumes have made the available information about them in Washington’s papers accessible, enabling a researcher to trace individual slaves–their skills, families, and activities–and Washington’s treatment of them.

Historians of material culture, consumption, luxury, and social practices will find Washington’s indulgences itemized, with prices. Much to his irritation, he found that, despite having married a rich widow, he was running into debt. Wherever he turned–to slaves, overseers, debtors, British merchants, tenants on his western lands–he concluded that people were cheating him.

Environmental historians and historians of agriculture can find much material in Washington’s career before the Revolutionary War. He relished every detail of farming and animal husbandry. He always stood ready to try something new or abandon a failure (as he abandoned the cultivation of tobacco). He wanted to extract profits from the land. He wanted to extend that extraction continentally and to channel the resulting commerce along rivers running through Virginia.

Of course, these ten volumes of the Colonial Series never would have been published if George Washington had not become commander of the Continental Army and first president of the United States. Indeed, even with Washington’s subsequent achievements, these volumes might have been published without the ingenuity, expertise, and efficiency of W.W. Abbot, Dorothy Twohig, and their colleagues. The merit of these publications, however, does not solely depend upon such important subjects as the making of George Washington or the coming of the Revolution. The documents and notes form an intricate weaving–part of a much larger, still more intricate tapestry–in which the threads depicting George Washington are tightly woven with myriad other strands representing many people, places, and things. When we look at tapestry hanging along a wall, we are struck by the image of the central figure or figures. But, after closer scrutiny, we notice and vividly remember the craft and patience and skill of the artisans who made it.

Charles Royster
Louisiana State University


Royster, Charles. Review of The Papers of George Washington: Colonial Series, Volumes 7-10 in The Journal of Southern History, volume 62, number 4 (November 1996), 795-96.

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