Bringing order to sources is the essence of bibliography, and it cannot be stressed enough how much editors appreciate any person who achieves that end. In the world of documentary scholarship on George Washington, a genuine star in this regard is Appleton Prentiss Clark Griffin (1852‒1926), who compiled A Catalogue of the Washington Collection in the Boston Athenæum (Cambridge, Mass., 1897).
Unlike George Washington, Francis Hopkinson seems to have craved attention, enjoying both the public eye—and ear. From his days as a student at the College of Philadelphia through an impressive career as lawyer, statesman, judge, scientist, and inventor, Hopkinson often spoke publicly and wrote extensively. What few realize about him, though, is that he was intimately involved in shaping Americans’ opinions before, during and after the Revolutionary War—through song lyrics.
Information on George Washington and slavery rose to a new level with the publication of Mary V. Thompson’s “The Only Unavoidable Subject of Regret”: George Washington, Slavery, and the Enslaved Community at Mount Vernon (University of Virginia Press: Charlottesville, Va., 2019). Unsurprisingly, Thompson frequently refers to William “Billy” Lee, arguably the most famous slave whom Washington owned because of Lee’s service as the general’s valet during the full course of the Revolutionary War. Lee also was the only slave whom Washington freed outright in his will at the time of his death. Research on the discovery and aftermath of Maj. Gen. Benedict Arnold’s treachery for volume 28 in The Papers of George Washington, Revolutionary War Series, revealed an overlooked observation about Billy Lee.
When you work at The Washington Papers, you read plenty of fawning 18th-century letters and news articles about George Washington—which is why Rev. Jonathan Boucher’s dismissive description, written in his memoirs in 1786, struck me as something interesting. The description made some waves in the late 1800s when Boucher’s memoirs were finally published, an era in which many U.S. history classes upheld Washington as the definition of greatness. So, who was this man who found Washington so unimpressive?
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.
In my opinion, one of the most interesting stories that began in an earlier volume of the Papers of George Washington is the career of Samuel Birch, a British officer who first appears in volume 20 of the Revolutionary War Series. Birch’s effort to capture Washington was certainly one of the more colorful episodes of the Revolutionary War, but I am also interested in Birch because his career vividly illustrates the many ironies of that complicated conflict.
Martha Washington shared the more personal facets of her life in letters to only a handful of close family members—often in one long run-on sentence. In 1794, Martha had no surviving children and corresponded with her niece Frances “Fanny” Bassett Washington often with news, advice, demands (disguised as advice), and opinions. These letters between Martha and Fanny are a treasure trove of historical tidbits, perfect for additional research.
Massachusetts congressman Fisher Ames performed an important political service for President George Washington on April 28, 1796. On that date, Ames gave a speech that impelled a divided House of Representatives to enact, by a 51–48 vote on April 30, the provisions necessary to implement the contentious Jay Treaty.
Most famous for comic literature and fictional tales such as “Rip Van Winkle” and “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” Washington Irving (1783-1859) undertook his Washington biography at the end of his distinguished career. Irving demonstrated commendable care and diligence in his research.
By working on the Martha Washington volume, I’ve stumbled upon the underrepresented voices of some fascinating 18th-century women. So, I’d like to now introduce (or re-introduce) you to Janet Livingston Montgomery.