One of the most important skills for a transcriber to master is how generously to read misspellings. For example, if an 18th-century writer did not differentiate between their “i’s” and “e’s” very well, then the question of spelling must be decided by the transcriber. Do you transcribe every letter without a dot above it as an “e,” even if that results in a misspelled word? Or do you trust that the author meant to spell the word correctly and just didn’t dot the “i”?
In a previous blog post, my colleague Lynn Price described the contradiction of Bushrod Washington (nephew to George Washington, and the owner of Mount Vernon in the early 19th century) owning slaves and at the same time serving as the first president of the American Colonization Society. For a man to lead a purportedly “antislavery” organization while holding people in bondage seemed, to many, hypocritical. Abolitionists in Washington’s time who pointed out this contradiction did not always do so politely.
The American Colonization Society (ACS), founded in 1816, supported the mission of removing free African Americans and freed enslaved individuals from the United States. The concept of colonizing a portion of the national population was founded upon the belief that America could not exist as a multi-racial society. Between 1822, when the colony of Liberia was founded on the western coast of Africa, and Liberia’s independence in 1847, the ACS facilitated the emigration of more than 11,000 black Americans to Africa. The federal government gave no funds to the venture.
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.
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.
If it were not for Martha’s handwritten statement of medical costs for the summer of 1757, we would know little about the state of her household leading up to and immediately following her first husband’s death. Financial papers—that general term for documents such as bills and pay orders, receipts and receipted bills, invoices and inventories, statements of account, bills of lading and exchange, accounts of sales, memoranda, and estate settlement papers—are rich with detailed information. Almost one-third of the 600 Martha Washington documents that The Washington Family Papers project has assembled since its inception in 2015 are financial in nature, whether authored by, addressed to, or written about her.
Established in 2015 and funded by Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association, the Martha Washington Papers and Washington Family Papers projects present a more inclusive view than what’s often shown in history textbooks. My fellow project editors and I hope we can contribute to the study of women’s history and of 18th- and 19th-century history in general.
An exceptional benefit of editing the Papers of George Washington is exposure to so many sources on early American history. A notable one that I encountered not long after starting with the project in June 2006 was John Marshall’s The Life of George Washington (5 vols.; Philadelphia, 1804-7). I discovered that the American edition’s sixth volume included maps of the Revolutionary War. I decided to visit the University of Virginia’s Harrison-Small Special Collections Library, just steps from my office, in order to examine the maps for my editing of Revolutionary War letters.