Since George Washington made lists of the people enslaved at Mount Vernon for his own benefit (and not for the benefit of future historians), he only recorded the information he needed to know. Still, historians can glean valuable information from these materials. With some effort, researchers can use a detached and dehumanizing resource such as a slave list to tell a human story. I recently learned this lesson while annotating a legal document (likely created in 1802) that divided Martha Washington’s slaves amongst her four heirs. I wanted to identify the people named in that list by more than just a first name and price, so I read through George Washington’s slave lists to learn as much as I could.
Every volume that The Washington Papers produces, we publish in print and digital formats. Our subscription-based digital edition, which is published by the University of Virginia Press’s electronic imprint Rotunda, is one of several online resources that result from our work. Used by thousands of people every year, the Papers of George Washington Digital Edition (PGWDE) is an especially valuable tool since it includes a cumulative index, which spans all volumes and series. The PGWDE also links readers directly to any document referenced in an annotation or editorial note, making it easy for users to discover other pertinent information. The nature of digital publication furthermore enables authors—or, in our case, documentary editors—to emend material after publication.
Attached to a page in the first of nearly 300 red-leather-bound, near-atlas-sized folio volumes of the George Washington Papers at the Library of Congress (LOC) is a small manuscript that lays bare the foundation of 18th-century power and violence. Unfolded, the manuscript is approximately 7 ¼ by 9 ½ inches, but when folded into thirds, this lightweight rag paper presents as a neat 7- by 3-inch package. The LOC catalog describes the manuscript as a “Genealogy Chart” and dates it to 1753. But this manuscript should actually have three dates, and none of them is 1753. And this manuscript is much more than a “Genealogy Chart.”
The Association for Documentary Editing (ADE) held its annual meeting this year in Princeton, N.J., from June 20 to 22, with The Papers of Thomas Jefferson at Princeton University hosting the event. I was glad to attend because I had grown up only a short distance to the north but had not been to Princeton for more than 20 years. It was also an opportunity to see Jim McClure, managing editor of the Jefferson project, who 30 years ago trained me when we both worked at The Salmon P. Chase Papers at Claremont Graduate School in Claremont, California.
When annotating, editors at the Papers of George Washington often consult and cite personal documents, such as diaries, for additional details about the events and people described in Washington’s correspondence. These personal documents are especially useful as they commonly provide uninhibited evaluations of those events and people.
These special materials, which we refer to as addendum and omitted materials, total in the hundreds. A large fraction concerns items intentionally omitted by editors, but others—nearly 100—are documents previously believed to be lost. We plan to publish all the addendum and omitted items in a separate volume on our digital edition in order to make the Papers of George Washington as comprehensive as possible.
Presenting documents for scholarly and public use is the primary purpose of The Papers of George Washington. Reviews further this purpose, and project members have found 169 such assessments published in traditional print as well as digital outlets between 1977 and 2018. Happily, the overwhelming consensus among reviewers is that the edition admirably serves its large intended audience.
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.
In a proposal dated Oct. 18, 1966, Van Shreeven called for the publication of a comprehensive edition of the papers of George Washington. Not only was there a need for this sort of project (previous editions contained only Washington’s outgoing correspondence or selected incoming letters), but the American Revolutionary War Bicentennial promised interest and a favorable funding environment.
Abraham Woodhull (alias Samuel Culper), a farmer and Patriot spy on British-controlled Long Island, wrote Maj. Benjamin Tallmadge (alias John Bolton) a letter from Setauket, N.Y., on August 16, 1780 that is in the Papers of George Washington at the Library of Congress. Although the editors at The Papers of George Washington do not know precisely when George Washington received that letter, we can make a reasoned guess.