An unfortunate understanding persists that George Washington achieved greatness through his magnificent character despite a marginal intellect. Contemporaries, such as Timothy Pickering, spread this notion by pointing to how Washington relied on aides and secretaries to write so many of his letters, particularly during the Revolutionary War, and plenty of subsequent biographers and commentators have picked up on the idea. It is ridiculous to demean Washington for requiring assistance while acting as commanding general of the Continental army because that position often demanded multiple letters a day, with many involving complex or highly sensitive matters. Moreover, Papers of George Washington editors have discovered documentary evidence that Washington involved himself directly in the drafting of all correspondence and confirmed their final form with his signature. Further supporting this evidence are the innumerable textual notes in the Revolutionary War Series where Washington in his own handwriting modified words, phrases, or sentences in drafts prepared initially by aides or secretaries.
Between military service, business activities, and political obligations, George Washington traveled extensively and slept away from home many nights. In fact, he slept in so many places, and those locations so loudly publicized these visits, that the claim “George Washington Slept Here” became humorous.
Very few documents survive with direct information on Mary Ball Washington. That reality has allowed latitude for analysis and conclusions. Arguably, the most important letter prompting a negative view of his mother was one George Washington wrote his friend and Virginia legislator Benjamin Harrison on March 21, 1781.
George Washington was known to have a temper as a young man, and his ability to master that flaw promoted his rise to leadership positions. That emotion, however, likely lurked beneath his typically composed exterior. Purportedly, it exploded in the sizzling heat of the battlefield at Monmouth, N.J., on June 28, 1778, when Washington saw troops under Maj. Gen. Charles Lee withdrawing contrary to orders. An observer later recalled that Washington’s wrathful bellowing shook the leaves on the trees. Legitimate doubt surrounds that recollection, but unquestionable documentary evidence can be advanced to support Washington’s capacity for anger.
From early in the Revolutionary War, George Washington argued that soldiers enlisted for the duration of the conflict were better for the army than those who joined for annual or shorter terms. Reforming and retraining regiments and companies each year consumed scarce resources of all sorts and prevented the army from reaching a high degree of effectiveness, and even from being ready to fight when necessary. Amid the challenges and frustrations of a war that had gone on for more than five years, it came as an encouraging sign that Congress reorganized the Continental army in fall 1780 in a manner that emphasized the recruitment of soldiers for the war.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.