An Uncommon Awareness of Self: The Papers of George Washington

By W. W. Abbot

p6aWhen writing to George Washington on January 20, 1787, to advise him not to attend the convention at Philadelphia in May, David Humphreys made this point: “I know your personal influence & character, is, justly considered, the last stake which America has to play. Should you not reserve yourself for the united call of a Continent entire?” 1 Although Washington in the end rejected Humphreys’ advice and went to Philadelphia, no one knew better in 1787 than he that his “character,” his reputation, his hard-won Fame, could well become crucial in a “last dying essay” to avoid there being “an end put to Fœderal Government” in America. 2 In a letter to Humphreys that he wrote on December 26, 1786, before deciding to go to the convention and in another that he directed to Edmund Randolph on April 9, 1787, after deciding to attend, Washington expressed his fears that the convention might fail, and then, in effect, acknowledged the force of Humphreys’ words, first to Humphreys: “This would be a disagreeable predicament for any of them [the delegates] to be in, but more particularly so for a person in my situation”; and then to Randolph: “under the peculiar circumstances of my case, [this] would place me in a more disagreeable situation than any other member would stand in.”

p8aAn attentive reader of the letters that George Washington wrote beginning with those to Governor Robert Dinwiddie in 1756 and continuing to, for instance, his letter to Dr. James Craik of October 25, 1784, has to be struck by the man’s uncommon awareness of self: his strong sense that what he decided and what he did, and how others perceived his decisions and deeds, always mattered. These things mattered to Washington so intensely not because he had any grand sense of destiny as many have surmised, or that he had a nasty itch for power as others might suspect, but because he saw life as something a person must make something of. More than most, Washington’s biography is the story of a man constructing himself. Even the increasing care with which he guarded his words after 1776 so as not to reveal more of the inner man than he intended shows Washington at work on Washington.

p9aFor a while in the 1750s the young Washington was determined to make his reputation in the British Army; he hoped to find honor and perhaps even glory as a military man. What reputation he earned as a colonel of the Virginia troops in Britain’s war against the French and their Indian allies was not enough to secure for him a place in Britain’s army, but it was enough fifteen years later to gain for him command of the forces fighting the British in a war for American independence. As commander in chief of the Continental Army for more than eight years, he won abundant honor and glory. Then, the war over, in December 1783 he gave up his command to become a private citizen at Mount Vernon, and in an instant also attained the immortality that fame bestows. And he knew it. He knew too that at any time an unworthy or ill-considered act of his could diminish his stature and tarnish his fame. The speed and decisiveness with which he as president of the Society of the Cincinnati moved in 1784 to eliminate the unpopular features of the society’s constitution is only one of the earliest and most public occasions when Washington acted to protect his reputation as hero of the Revolution–and so to defend the Revolution for which the hero had fought.

p10aThat Washington ardently sought fame, “the spur that the clear spirit cloth raise . . . To scorn delights, and live laborious dayes” (John Milton, “Lycidas”)–and also that once it was his he was ever after at pains to preserve it–have often been noted and can be demonstrated over and over by his own words. At no time is he more explicit than in the fall of 1788 and in early 1789 when he writes to friends of the possibility, and then of the certainty, of his becoming President. In a letter to Henry Lee on September 22, 1788, in response to Lee’s insistence upon the inevitability of his friend’s election to the presidency, Washington wrote: “Should the contingency you suggest take place, and (for argument sake alone let me say it) should my unfeigned reluctance to accept the Office be overcome by a deference for the reasons and opinions of my friends; might I not after the Declarations I have made (and Heaven knows they were made in the sincerity of my heart) in the judgment of the impartial World and of Posterity, be chargable with levity and inconsistency; if not with rashness & ambition?” After continuing in this vein for some space, he then wrote: “And certain I am, Whensoever I shall be convinced the good of my country requires my reputation to be put at issue; regard for my own fame will not come in competition with an object of so much magnitude.” To go beyond his words for confirmation that Washington valued and sought to safeguard his fame after 1783, we have only to look at the record of his willingness to sit for any artist who wished to paint his portrait, to correspond with any French, German, English, Dutch, Irish, Italian, Swedish, or American man or woman who wrote him a letter, and to open the doors of his house to any stranger, foreign or domestic, who came to pay homage or only to have a look.

pincover-thBut Washington reveals perhaps most clearly, if indirectly, the sense he came to have of the importance that his life held for history, for posterity, in his attitude toward his papers. Writing from Cambridge outside Boston on August 20, 1775, he told his cousin Lund Washington, who managed affairs at Mount Vernon for the general during his eight-year absence in the war: “I can hardly think that Lord Dunmore can act so low, & unmanly a part, as to think of siezing Mrs Washington by way of revenge upon me”; but I “desire you will if there is any sort of reason to suspect a thing of this kind provide a Kitchen for her in Alexandria, or some other place of safety elsewhere for her and my Papers.” The papers that Washington was speaking of–those that he left at Mount Vernon when he went off to war–included detailed records of his extensive farming, trading, and land interests and activities, and also the voluminous letter books that he had kept in the 1750s while he was the wartime commander of the Virginia Regiment. Although the papers in the end, like the house at Mount Vernon, escaped the British torch, the general and the estate manager agitated the matter of their safety for the next year or so, and at one point Mrs. Washington even gathered them together and crammed them into a trunk for removal. 3

p13aTo value the safety of one’s papers second only to the safety of one’s wife at a juncture such as this perhaps was no more than any prudent man of affairs would have done; yet the range and sheer volume of Washington’s pre-Revolutionary War papers bespeak something more than the successful Virginia planter. They are the archives of someone who derived great satisfaction from organizing, setting down, and preserving the detailed record of his own existence. Washington’s diary entries recording who came and went each day at Mount Vernon and what the weather was; his careful annual records of when, where, and how individual crops were planted, cultivated, harvested, and disposed of; his elaborate account books recording the financial dealings involving his own and the dower property as well as that of his wife’s two children; the orders to and the invoices from British merchants, usually running to hundreds of items, which he either wrote out or copied himself, and then often recopied in his account books; list after list, of slaves, of books; the great sheaves of extracts taken from treatises on agriculture; the separate accounts for his grist mill, fishery, and weaving operation; and finally the voluminous letter books that he kept as commander of the Virginia forces during the French and Indian War, all testify in the first instance to an appetite for paperwork unrivaled by any Virginian of his generation, perhaps including even Thomas Jefferson. As one today follows Washington’s trail through the surviving portion of what originally was a far more extensive record of his pre-Revolutionary activities, he is left with the impression of a man driven to master every aspect of his life and to make the most of what life offered.

After the Revolution, Washington returned to these early papers and sought to prepare some of them for future perusal by others; but even as he fretted about the safety of his private papers in Virginia, he was being caught up in the management of the rapidly multiplying papers of the commander in chief. In July 1776, in anticipation of Lord Howe’s attack on New York, Washington sent the papers relating to his recent Boston campaign from New York to the Congress in Philadelphia for safekeeping. He soon discovered that he and his staff often had need of these documents and asked that they be returned. Thereafter until 1781 his practice was to have his guards transport the whole body of his papers wherever the demands of war took him. 4

In the spring of 1781 Washington showed that his concern for his military papers extended far beyond their immediate usefulness. He wrote the president of Congress on April 4, 1781, from his headquarters at New Windsor outside Newburgh, New York, expressing dissatisfaction that so many of his “valuable documents which may be of equal public utility and private satisfaction remain in loose Sheets; and in the rough manner in which they were first drawn.” In order “to preserve from injury & loss such valuable papers,” it was his wish to have “a set of writers” hired “for the sole purpose of recording them.” The work, to “be performed in some quiet retreat” near headquarters, should “be done under the Inspection of a Man of character in whom entire confidence can be placed.”

p14aCongress promptly gave its approval, and on May 25, 1781, Washington appointed a New York lawyer, Capt. Richard Varick, to supervise the undertaking. He presented Varick with detailed and precise instructions for sorting into six classes, ordering, registering, and filing all of his official letters, orders, and instructions as well as letters written to him. Varick was to hire “Clerks who write a fair hand, and correctly,” to copy, under his supervision, Washington’s letters, orders, and instructions and the proceedings of his councils of war, but not the letters written to him. If there could be any doubt about what Washington intended in this undertaking, which occupied Varick and two or three clerks full time for over two years, it is removed by Washington’s admonitions: “. . . that there may be a similarity and Beauty in the whole execution, all the writing is to be upon black lines equidistant. All the Books to have the same Margin, and to be indexed in so Clear and intelligent a manner, that there may be no difficulty in the references.” Varick was to return to Washington the original documents, properly docketed and arranged, and although belonging to him, both the originals and the transcripts he would look upon, Washington asserted in 1782, “as species of Public property, sacred in my hands.” 5

p15aBefore Washington left Newburgh for the march south that culminated in the siege at Yorktown and the surrender of Lord Cornwallis on October 19, 1781, Varick transported the papers from Newburgh upriver to Poughkeepsie, where on July 7 he found “Quarters at Doctor Peter Tappen’s an honest Patriot” and began “numbering and digesting into Classes the Copies of Letters & Orders in 1775 & 1776.” It took the rest of the summer for him “to indorse, arrange & digest them in proper order,” but by September he had three clerks hard at work transcribing the sorted documents at Tappen’s house. 6 During his brief stopover at Mount Vernon after the Yorktown campaign, Washington found time on November 15 to write Varick approving the procedures he was following and agreeing that “8 Hours constant successive Writing per Day is as much as almost any Person is able to bear.”

p15abIn the months that followed, Washington and Varick remained in close touch, and Varick wrote often about the progress he was making. 7 In August 1783, two years after the work began, Varick and his three clerks brought the transcripts up to date, and Varick delivered to Washington twenty-eight completed volumes: six volumes of his letters to Congress, fourteen of letters and orders to his officers, four of letters to civil officials, one of letters to foreigners, two volumes of councils of war, and, finally, one volume of his private correspondence, which Varick and Washington had decided should be transcribed. Varick retained a volume partially filled with transcripts of Washington’s letters to the enemy and also the partially filled final volumes of the other six classes of letters. 8 The general and his aides continued to send Varick packets of letters to be sorted and copied, 9 until in December 1783, Varick “bid a happy Adieu to public Services and return[ed] to the pleasant, tho fatiguing, Amusement of a City Lawyer.” 10 Washington immediately left New York for Philadelphia, Annapolis, and Mount Vernon. Upon departing from New York, Washington sent home all of his remaining “public and other papers . . . and the Books [in] which they had been recorded,” for safety’s sake by land instead of by water. They arrived at Mount Vernon in a “Trunk, and two boxes or cases” before the end of the year. 11

With his treasured war papers, properly sorted and elegantly copied, now “safe to hand” at Mount Vernon, Washington resumed the management of his plantation and found after nearly nine years of absence his private papers in distressing disarray. Despite his best efforts, and the efforts of a series of clerks, Washington never quite succeeded in getting all of his papers in the systematic order that he and Varick achieved with the war papers. The most intriguing and perhaps the most convincing bit of evidence of Washington’s belief that the record of his life, his hard-won fame, would be of lasting value to the new nation arises from his efforts in the 1780s to do something about his early papers.

In the French and Indian War, from late 1754 to the end of 1758, during most of which time he was colonel of the Virginia Regiment, Washington entered in a series of letter books copies of the letters, orders, and reports that he wrote. At some point after his return to Mount Vernon, probably in 1786, he went through these very extensive letter books. Finding them marred by awkward constructions, faulty grammar, and misspellings, the hero` of the Revolution proceeded to correct what the young Washington had written more than a quarter of a century before. Later, almost certainly after his presidency, Washington went through the same writings of his youth and again made deletions, insertions, and substitutions. That done, he had a clerk copy the corrected letter books. 12

Although all but two of what must have been twenty or more original letter books in Washington’s hand have since disappeared, the two surviving ones allow us to learn how Washington sought to prepare his French and Indian War papers for the sort of treatment that his Revolutionary War papers had received at the hands of Varick. A study of the words Washington added, took away, or substituted in the two original letter books (and a comparison of the letters in the other letter books with a few receivers’ copies of letters that have survived) makes clear that the mature man wished only for his younger self to write with greater clarity and correctness. Whatever Washington’s intentions, however, his changes in wording occasionally resulted in changes in meaning. More often the new wording produced at worst a shift in emphasis or a change in tone.

Although Washington’s tinkering creates problems for the editors of his letter books and for the historians using them, it also provides a valuable indication of his sense of himself in history. An important element in Washington’s leadership both as a military commander and as President was his dignified, even forbidding, demeanor, his aloofness, the distance he consciously set and maintained between himself and nearly all the rest of the world. The record of his leadership in his carefully preserved papers was, as he saw it, a part of his legacy to his countrymen. Signs of youthful ignorance and crudity in his early papers might lessen the value of that legacy by allowing future generations to see the father of their country up too close, thereby inviting the sort of familiarity that Washington was at pains to avoid in his lifetime. And so the old man discreetly and circumspectly polished the young man’s prose. The impulse perhaps was not much different from that of Jared Sparks, an early editor of Washington’s papers, who confessed: “On some occasions the writer himself [i.e. Washington], through haste or inadvertence, may have fallen into an awkward use of words, faults of grammar, or inaccuracies of style, and when such occur from this source, I have equally felt bound to correct them.” 13

Washington’s altered sense of self as the hero of the Revolution is reflected in another aspect of his management of his papers. Before the Revolution, he made copies of letters that he wrote and kept letters that he received only if they concerned his business or military affairs. In 1784, soon after his return to Mount Vernon from the army, he hired a private secretary and began to retain copies even of his personal letters and to preserve all letters written to him. As a consequence, far more of his personal correspondence from the post-Revolutionary years has survived, though the reticence of the great man tends to make these letters less revealing than the unguarded texts of the rare survivals from earlier years.

p17aWhen the time came for Washington to give up the presidency in 1797 and return home, he had his clerks set aside the papers that the new President would need and packed the rest for their removal to Mount Vernon. During the next, and last, thirty months of his life, Washington gave a great deal of thought to his voluminous “Military, Civil and private papers,” including his presidential papers, and talked of putting up a building at Mount Vernon for their accommodation and security. His papers were on his mind even on the day he died. In his account of Washington’s death on December 14, 1799, his secretary Tobias Lear wrote: “I returned to his bed side, and took his hand. He said to me, ‘I find I am going, my breath can not last long. I believed from the first that the disorder would prove fatal. Do you arrange and record all of my late military letters and papers. Arrange my accounts and settle my books, as you know more about them than any one else, and let Mr. Rawlins finish recording my other letters which he has begun.'” 14 He died six hours later.

What happened to the papers that Washington preserved for posterity, from the time of his death until 1904 when most of them were deposited in the Library of Congress where they now are, is told in masterful fashion by Dorothy Eaton in the Index to the George Washington Papers (Washington, 1964). For students of history and admirers of Washington, successive editions of Washington’s writings appeared, beginning with Jared Sparks’s in the 1830s and extending through that of John C. Fitzpatrick in the 1930s. In the late 1960s, at the urging of a group of historians, the University of Virginia decided to sponsor a modern edition of Washington’s papers on the scale of the editions under way of the papers of Thomas Jefferson, Alexander Hamilton, John Adams, James Madison, and Benjamin Franklin. After the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association agreed to join the university in sponsoring the project and both the National Endowment for the Humanities and the National Historical Publications Commission gave the undertaking their blessing and promised their support, editorial offices were opened in Charlottesville in 1968 under the direction of Donald Jackson, editor, and Dorothy Twohig, associate editor. Initial efforts were directed largely to the search for letters to and from Washington and to acquiring and cataloguing photocopies of manuscripts. A worldwide search, during which staff members spent months working in hundreds of manuscript collections in such places as the Massachusetts and Pennsylvania historical societies in addition to the National Archives and the Library of Congress, uncovered over 100,000 documents from three hundred repositories in the United States and another seventy abroad. Although the process was essentially complete before the first two volumes of Washington’s Diaries were published late in 1976, a steady trickle of copies of Washington documents, five or six a month, including an occasional hitherto unknown autograph letter of Washington’s, still come in from owners of manuscripts, particularly from dealers and collectors.

p18aThe editing with extensive annotation of the six-volume edition of The Diaries of George Washington (Charlottesville, 1976-79) and of The Journal of the Proceedings of the President, 1793-1797 (1981) helped prepare the editors of The Papers of George Washington for the daunting task of dealing with Washington’s massive correspondence. As it happens, Washington’s life, and hence his papers, falls into several distinct segments. These different segments also happened to fit neatly the particular interests and competence of the several historians who were to edit the letters and other papers. It seemed clear that the people awaiting publication of the papers would be as well, or better, served if the editors got on with the publishing of the papers of General Washington and President Washington at the same time they were editing and publishing the papers of Colonel Washington and Squire Washington, and so the decision was made to publish the Papers in several chronological series simultaneously, with a single editor having primary responsibility for the volumes in each series.

The first two volumes of the Colonial Series, a series that will cover in ten volumes the years before Washington’s departure for Boston in 1775 at the age of forty-three, appeared in 1982. Four more volumes in the series have since been published, and another two will be out in 1989, leaving the final two volumes covering the years 1771-75 still to be done. Three volumes of the Revolutionary War Series and three volumes of the Presidential Series are also now in print. Present plans call for the issuing of a preliminary edition on a laser disk of the papers that will appear in the eight-volume Confederation Series (1783-88) before the first two volumes of that series will be ready for the printer early in 1990. Every volume of the Papers includes an index, and there will be a cumulative index for each series.

The sheer mass of Washington’s papers as commander in chief–more than one half of the 100,000 or so documents catalogued in the editorial offices of the Papers are dated between 1775 and 1783–make the editing of the Revolutionary War Series particularly complex; but of the four chronological series, it is the Presidential Series that presents the most intriguing problems. No editor has yet dealt with the full corpus of the presidential papers of a man who held office before the twentieth century, before the typewriter, carbon paper, and the telephone began to transform recordkeeping. The executive branch of government generated tens of thousands of documents between 1789 and 1797, and even with the strictest definition of what constitutes a Washington document, it will take some doing to print, or otherwise take note of, every one of these–i.e., to honor the commitment to produce a comprehensive edition of the man’s papers–without unduly straining the resources of the National Endowment for the Humanities and the University of Virginia to say nothing of the patience of fellow historians. For instance, letters written to Washington in 1788 and 1789 from men and women seeking offices for themselves or others would fill most of the papers in the first two volumes of the Presidential Series. Yet, not to print letters of application would be to ignore what was one of Washington’s main concerns as he went about the task of erecting a new government. Taken together, the letters show in the year that the new government of the United States was formed how an extraordinarily wide range of people, high and low, men and women, young and old, viewed themselves, their recent Revolution, their new federal republic, and how they saw Washington himself. There is nothing else anywhere quite like this outpouring of personal aspirations at the moment of the nation’s founding. The key letter relating to each application, usually the applicant’s letter, is being printed in the Papers, with related letters, such as letters of recommendation or acknowledgement, appearing in whole or in part, in footnotes. Even with such spacesaving devices, it will be difficult to get into each volume of six hundred pages more than three or four months of the Revolutionary War or presidential papers.

When the editor of a person’s papers talks of his project, he first speaks of the person, then of the person’s papers, and ends talking about himself. He loses his audience, even when with fellow editors, when he gets to his usual plaint that scholars out there do not attach proper value to the work he is doing. It is the documentary editor’s way of asking in moments of doubt for assurance that what he does is worth the doing. As for the editors of George Washington’s papers, they may take what comfort they can in the knowledge that the father of their country would think their undertaking worthwhile.



1. Unless otherwise noted, all of the letters to or from Washington that are cited or quoted are in the Washington Papers in the Library of Congress. [back]
2. The quoted words are from Washington’s letter to David Humphreys, Dec. 26, 1786, owned by Jagellion University, Cracow Poland. [back]
3. Lund Washington wrote on Oct. 29, 1775, to General Washington about his wife’s packing his papers. See also Washington to Lund Washington, Dec. 10-17, 1776. [back]
4. See particularly Washington to the president of Congress, Aug. 13, 18, Dec. 24, 1776, and to Caleb Gibbs, May 3, 1777. See also Introduction, Index to the George Washington Papers (1964). [back]
5. Washington to William Gordon, Oct. 23, 1782. [back]
6. Varick to Washington, July 19, 1781. [back]
7. Varick, for instance, wrote Washington five times in February 1782. [back]
8. Varick to Washington, Aug. 15, 22, 1783. [back]
9. See, for instance, Washington to Varick, Oct. 2, 1783. [back]
10. Varick to Washington, Nov. 18, 1783. [back]
11. Washington to Samuel Hogdon, Dec. 13, 1783; Washington to Varick, Jan. 1, 1784. [back]
12. For a full description of these letter books and for the text with corrections of the letter books that Washington kept during the Braddock campaign of 1755, see Abbot et al., eds., The Papers of George Washington, Colonial Series (1983), 1:236-364. For the text of all of Washington’s French and Indian War letter books, see volumes 1 through 6 of the Colonial Series of The Papers of George Washington. [back]
13. Jared Sparks, The Writings of George Washington, 2 vols. (1833). [back]
14. W. K. Bixby, Letters and Recollections of George Washington (1906), p. 133. [back]


Editorial Note

The following article originally appeared in the Spring 1989 issue of Prologue: Quarterly of the National Archives, pp. 6-19; copyright 1989 by W. W. Abbot, all rights reserved.


About the Author

W. W. Abbot, who is a former editor of the Journal of Southern History and the William and Mary Quarterly, is the James Madison Professor of History and the editor of the Papers of George Washington at the University of Virginia.

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