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.
George Washington’s interest in books has attracted increasing scholarly attention. It has taken time for this scholarship to come forward because George Washington’s impressive library scattered after his death, and it was not his habit to muse about or ponder his reading in his diaries or correspondence. Sustained effort has been necessary to overcome the inaccurate perception that Washington had little curiosity and limited literary ability.
In a blog post from February 2016, I reviewed interpretations of George Washington’s mother, Mary Ball Washington, and found them to fall into two camps: either simplistically laudatory or bitingly critical. Moreover, neither side found evidence of a close relationship between mother and son. For sure, the documentary record contains few letters between Mary and George, and references to Mary in her famous son’s voluminous surviving correspondence are exceedingly scattered.
Moderating a panel on public engagement at the 2017 meeting of the Association for Documentary Editing, Washington Papers communications specialist Katie Lebert observed that content that explores the basic practices of documentary editing is often received favorably by and connects with a wide audience. Taking the cue from Katie, I devote this blog post to annotating documents that appear in The Papers of George Washington.
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.
No former editor has eased my research burdens more than Louise Phelps Kellogg, who built a remarkable career as a historian during the first decades of the twentieth century. Her work informs some of the most consistently challenging letters sent to George Washington: those from Colonel Daniel Brodhead, who commanded the western department from Fort Pitt during the Revolutionary War’s middle years.
To check the seemingly inexorable growth of indexes and furnish a structure for more-uniform indexes, the Revolutionary War Series editors devised a template to guide future indexes in that series.
George Washington’s composure under duress and remarkable memory for facts and pertinent details provided the basic tools of successful leadership, the managing editor of The Papers of George Washington told an audience in Savannah, Ga., recently.
If Harry Potter’s Hogwarts had been seeking a wizard of history rather than an instructor for the history of wizardry, the school probably would have been pleased with Dawson. He loved to probe arcane and forgotten sources—the more, the better—in his relentless search for truth, and his endeavors led him to accumulate an impressive collection of historical materials.
Modern documentary editors benefit enormously from ready access to electronic databases that allow nearly instantaneous immersion into an ocean of primary and secondary sources. Much of what we find and exploit was the work of our scholarly forebears, many of whom were not professional historians. I wish to honor some of these easily overlooked and unfortunately forgotten individuals in a series of contributions to Washington’s Quill over the next year or so. A person’s influence on current editing at the Washington Papers will be my major selection principle.