The Papers of George Washington

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Volumes from the Colonial, Revolutionary, Confederation, Presidential, and Retirement series
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George Washington

President of the United States

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President of the United States

The Papers of George Washington is a project dedicated to the publication of a comprehensive letterpress and digital edition of George Washington's papers. It was founded at the University of Virginia in 1968. This project should be distinguished from the archives of George Washington, part of which reside at the Library of Virginia.


  • Donald Jackson, 1969–1976
  • W.W. Abbot, 1976–1992
  • Dorothy Twohig, 1992–1998
  • Philander D. Chase, 1999–2004
  • Theodore J. Crackel, 2004–2010
  • Edward G. Lengel, 2010–present[1]

George Washington's papers[edit]

Gilbert Stuart Williamstown Portrait of George Washington

Upon his retirement from public service, George Washington made a deliberate effort to organize and preserve his personal papers. He was aware of the effect that his life and career would have on the documents' appeal and in 1797 he considered building a library to house them. Washington died in 1799 before any such library could be constructed and bequeathed the papers to his nephew, Bushrod Washington. He had been correct in assuming that people would take interest in his documents and in the next forty years both Chief Justice John Marshall and future Harvard president Jared Sparks borrowed the papers to write their respective works on the first president.[1]

Between 1833 and 1839 Sparks published 12 volumes of The Writings of George Washington. He was aware of the magnitude of Washington's document collection and therefore made a conscious effort to include only "the most valuable parts of Washington's writings." Sparks also modified the text of many of the letters. He felt it was his duty to polish the "awkward use of words, faults of grammar, or inaccuracies of style" that appeared in the papers so as to not dull the president's legacy. In one example Sparks changed Washington's "but a flea-bite" to the more refined, "totally inadequate." In another, where Washington had written a nickname ("Old Put"), Sparks replaced it with the individual's rank and surname, "General Putnam." The result, while more aesthetically pleasing, skewed Washington's words and presented an incomplete portrait of the man behind the papers.

Sparks' influence extended not only to editing Washington's words, but to the physical papers themselves. As he had carefully selected what papers were important enough to include in his volumes and which ones weren't, Sparks would occasionally give away some of the "unimportant" documents. As a result, many hundreds, if not thousands, of Washington's papers were scattered about the country and world, settling in private hands and small libraries. With so many of Washington's papers strewn about the globe, any future projects would be incomplete unless they undertook the massive endeavor to locate these documents.[2]

In an effort to correct Sparks' editorial changes in The Writings of George Washington, Worthington C. Ford, the future head of the Library of Congress's manuscript division, began his own editorial project. The product was a 14-volume series published from 1889 and 1893 also entitled, The Writings of George Washington, that barely utilized more documents than Sparks had.

Between 1931 and 1944, John C. Fitzpatrick, who had retired from the Manuscripts Division of the Library of Congress, published The Writings of George Washington from the Original Manuscript Sources, 1745-1799. This 39-volume set greatly eclipsed the earlier works by Sparks and Ford and was widely accepted and respected among the academic community. However, Fitzpatrick only utilized manuscripts housed in major repositories, such as the Library of Congress and New York Public Library, and, like the previous compilers of Washington's papers, predominantly included documents Washington had written. In leaving out letters that Washington had received, all of these works presented only one half of the story.[1]

Project history[edit]

In 1966 the Virginia state archivist, William J. Van Schreeven, proposed that the University of Virginia sponsor a new documentary editing project for Washington's papers. At a time when the papers of John Adams, John Quincy Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Alexander Hamilton, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison were all being edited, one individual, arguably the most central figure in the formative years of the republic, was noticeably absent. The University thereby agreed to give Washington his due and in 1968, the University of Virginia and the Mount Vernon Ladies' Association launched a new effort to publish the papers of George Washington. The new effort, titled the Papers of George Washington,[3] named Donald Jackson, formerly of the University of Illinois Press, Editor-in-Chief. Though it began almost 25 years after Fitzpatrick published his final volume, this project ambitiously sought to surpass all of the previous undertakings. Unlike Fitzpatrick, Ford, and Sparks, Jackson's Papers of George Washington determined to be the most comprehensive compilation yet and include not just letters Washington wrote, but those he received.[4] The project also sought to include all other documents attributable to Washington, including military orders, council of war minutes, intelligence reports, addresses, financial records, farm reports, and ledgers. In addition, rather than only utilize documents that resided in major repositories like the Library of Congress and the New York Public Library, the new Papers of George Washington commenced a massive search to locate documents in libraries, historical societies, and public collections across the globe. The search resulted in identifying and procuring copies of 140,000 documents, making the Papers of George Washington the largest such collection ever compiled.[1]

George Washington's Diaries: An Abridgement, ed. Dorothy Twohig (Charlottesville, VA: University Press of Virginia, 1999).

Between 1976 and 1979, the Papers of George Washington published The Diaries of George Washington. This six-volume set contains all of Washington's diary entries from 1748 to December 13, 1799, the day before he died. In 1981, the Papers published a one-volume daybook from the later years of Washington's presidency, titled, The Journal of the Proceedings of the President.[1]

During this time, Donald Jackson's successor as Editor-in-Chief, W.W. Abbot, devised a new system through which to present Washington's papers. Abbot divided the documents into five series, with each section corresponding to a different period in Washington's life:

This system introduced a revolutionary new way to publish papers. In enabling the series to be published out of order, it allowed documents and writings from the subject's later years to be available earlier than they would have been otherwise. The success of Abbot's classification encouraged other Founding Fathers projects.

In 2004 the Papers of George Washington, under Editor-in-Chief Theodore Crackel, embarked upon a massive digitization project with Mount Vernon and the University of Virginia Press's digital database, Rotunda. It was the first of the major Founding Father documentary editing projects to do so. The result was the Papers of George Washington Digital Edition, an online publication of the 55 volumes that had been published up to that point. As a "living edition," the PGWDE enables the editors to correct known errors in the print volumes and compile and standardize references to people, topics, and sources that have appeared multiple times throughout the project's 40-year history. In addition, the PGWDE is updated regularly with revised and improved annotations, new documents, and the latest print volumes.[5]

Theodore Crackel, Christine Patrick, Philander Chase, John Pinheiro, and Bruce Cole with President George W. Bush in the Oval Office

On April 29, 2005, editor-in-chief Theodore Crackel, staff members Christine Patrick, Phil Chase, and John C. Pinheiro, as well as the chair of the National Endowment for the Humanities, Bruce Cole, presented President George W. Bush with what was then the latest volume of the Presidential Series. After a brief ceremony in the Oval Office, the editors donated a full set of the Papers of George Washington to the White House.[6] A few months later, on March 10, 2005, Dr. Crackel was back in the Oval Office to receive the National Humanities Medal on behalf of the Washington Papers. In 2008 the project launched a new effort to publish, digitally, Washington's financial papers – one of the most comprehensive set of such documents for that era.

Since its inception in 1968, the Papers of George Washington has published 63 of its projected 90 volumes and completed the Colonial, Confederation, and Retirement series. It remains on the schedule to finish the complete Papers in about 2023.[7] Upon completion of the project, the Papers of George Washington's 140,000 document copies will move to Mount Vernon where they will constitute an important part of the collection at the Fred W. Smith National Library for the Study of George Washington.

On October 12, 2010, the National Historical Publications and Records Commission and the University of Virginia Press announced plans to create a new web site to provide free access to the papers of the Founding Fathers. The project, entitled The Founders Online, launched in October 2011 and will include the 154 volumes that have been published by the current George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison documentary editing projects. It also includes the papers of Alexander Hamilton and Benjamin Franklin. The site includes all of the content from the print volumes, such as full transcriptions and annotations, and will be continuously updated to reflect new volumes and discoveries. It allows users to read, browse, and search the voluminous texts of the Founders in one place and will serve as much of a resource for educators as it will be for scholars.[8]

The Papers of George Washington project at the University of Virginia is different from the George Washington Papers American Memory database at the Library of Congress in two major ways. First, their goals and purposes are very different. In presenting transcriptions of documents that are heavily annotated, the Papers of George Washington seeks to serve as a vital informational resource for academic research on Washington. In contrast, American Memory's George Washington Papers displays images of documents, few transcriptions, and even fewer annotations, making it an excellent resource for accessing original manuscripts, not for thorough research. The second major difference is the size and scope of each of these collections. The American Memory collection primarily includes documents from the Library of Congress, whereas the Papers of George Washington includes copies of documents from small and large American repositories, private collectors, and international libraries.[9]

The George Washington Financial Papers Project[edit]

In 2008 the project launched a new effort to publish, digitally, Washington's financial papers -- one of the most comprehensive set of such documents for that era.

The George Washington Financial Papers Project (GWFPP) is a digital-only documentary edition of the Papers of George Washington, which will culminate in the creation of a free-access Internet database containing accurate transcriptions of Washington’s financial documents, including ledgers, account books, receipts and other items. Users will be able to read transcriptions of the financial documents; search those documents for people, places, commodities, and currencies; perform searches that trace and compare transactions by type, individual, and content over any time period; download data; follow links to related correspondence in a Washington Papers Digital Edition; and use a multitude of other functions.

Project Background

Making Washington’s financial papers accessible had been an early goal of the Project, but given their complexity, very little had been done. In the 1980s, several pages from Washington’s ledgers were published in the Colonial Series. Over the year, several excerpts from various financial documents have been included in annotation. Due to various limitations, including formatting and cost, as well as an inability to perform complex searches and data manipulations, print publication of the Financial Papers was not a viable option. Therefore, the Financial Papers Project as focused on creating an entirely digital transcription of Washington’s various financial documents in order to create a more user-friendly resources. In 2010, the Papers of George Washington began development with a team from DocTracker (DT) in order to create a customized system to fit the complex financial documents. In 2012, a partnership with the DocTracker development team and the Civil War Governors of Kentucky Digital Documentary edition developed in order to tackle various complications of these complex documentary materials. The National Historical Publications and Records Commission (NHPRC) provided funding for the development work and eventual release of the beta and final versions of DocTracker. In 2013 the NHPRC awarded The Papers of George Washington a three-year grant for the Financial Papers Project to accomplish several goals, including: digitizing document transcriptions from materials in the Papers of George Washington, Series 5, at the Library of Congress as well as Gouverneur Morris’ 1811-1816 account book; further developing DT’s financial records functionality; developing a web prototype that allows users to perform simple queries and download data; and writing and distributing a guide for creating editions of financial papers.

Editing process[edit]

The mission of a documentary editing project is twofold. The first job is to provide accurate, readable, and accessible transcriptions of historical documents. The second is to provide readers with the proper information to understand and use the text. This process is known as annotation. Fulfilling both of these goals takes time and, as each document must be examined individually, makes the editing process a complex one.

Before any work can be done to prepare the document for publication, the manuscript must first be authenticated. This means that the editors must verify that the signature, handwriting, date, and content fit the individual in question. They must also ensure that the paper and ink align with the standards of the day and that the document has a proven history, or provenance. This process takes a tremendous amount of time, but is crucial in maintaining the integrity of the papers and the project.

Next, the editors must select which version of a document they want to use. For documents from the 18th century it is common to find multiple drafts or copies of letters in letter books (bound volumes in which individuals would copy out the text of letters they had sent and received). Editors prefer to utilize the document that was physically sent and not these copies, but when the official document is unavailable, they use what they have. In this case, they then have to decide which of the copies they want to utilize, for they all may differ in terms of content and date.

The next step in the editing process is transcribing the document. The style of 18th-century handwriting makes this difficult enough, but editors also have to contend with abbreviations, spelling, capitalization, and grammar that had not yet been standardized. In addition, many individuals in this time period lacked formal education and proper training, making deciphering handwriting and sentences even more difficult. The physical conditions of the document can also be problematic to transcription. Faded ink, damage to the manuscript, and unclear photocopies make transcription a painstaking process. The editors' goal is to preserve the original spelling, punctuation, capitalization, and paragraphing of the manuscript, as well as the author's intentions and words. Occasionally an editor will have reason to make changes to the text and will outline those changes, as well as their reasons for doing so, in the book's introduction.

In annotating documents, the editor identifies people, places, and events that the reader probably wouldn't know, in addition to any further information that would help the reader understand the document. This process requires the editor to conduct thorough research and write short, concise summaries on specific points. Similarly, annotations contain information about where the original document is located, what textual problems the editor may have found in the manuscript, and what alternative versions of the document may exist. Annotations can also include other substantive information mentioned within the document, such as attached maps or illustrations, or relevant letters and enclosures. According to Philander D. Chase, former editor-in-chief of the Papers of George Washington, "the work of properly annotating and indexing each document is one of the most time-consuming tasks the editors perform."[1]

Funding agencies[edit]

The Papers of George Washington is funded in part by the National Endowment for the Humanities, the National Historical Publications and Records Commission,[10] the Packard Humanities Institute, the Mount Vernon Ladies' Association, the University of Virginia [11] and other private donors.


Former Editor-in-Chief Ted Crackel stands second from the right with President George W. Bush and the recipients of the 2005 National Humanities Medal

In 1986, the Papers of George Washington project received the Lyman H. Butterfield Award from the Association for Documentary Editing for excellence in the publication of documentary editions.[12]

On March 2003, Papers of George Washington Assistant Editor Dr. Christine Sternberg Patrick received the Thomas Jefferson Prize from the Society for History in the Federal Government for editing Presidential Series volume 11 (August 1792 – January 1793). Patrick was lauded for "displaying all the qualities as a historian and an editor that make this documentary edition outstanding."[13]

Replica of Houdon's bust of Washington with the National Medal for the Humanities

On November 10, 2005 the Papers of George Washington received the National Humanities Medal from President George W. Bush in the Oval Office of the White House. To this day it remains the only documentary editing project to receive this honor.[14]

In 2007, the American Library Association's Choice magazine named the Papers of George Washington Digital Edition an Outstanding Academic Title. Choice bestows this honor upon books and electronic sites and resources that provide valuable resources to undergraduates and libraries.[15]


The Papers of George Washington project has distinguished itself for publishing at a pace of two volumes a year. That average is twice that of the other Founding Father documentary editing projects. It continues to be on schedule to complete its projected 90-volume collection by 2023.



  1. ^ a b c d e f "In His Own Hand: Editing the Papers of George Washington". Exhibits. The Papers of George Washington. 
  2. ^ "Life of Jared Sparks". National Park Service. 
  3. ^ "Papers of George Washington".
  4. ^ Donald Jackson, "Starting in the Papers Game," Scholarly Publishing, October 1971, 28–38.
  5. ^ "Introduction to the Papers of George Washington". The Papers of George Washington Digital Edition. Rotunda. 
  6. ^ "Project History". The Papers of George Washington. 
  7. ^ "Project History". The Papers of George Washington. 
  8. ^ "National Archives to Put the Founders Online". National Archives. 
  9. ^ "The George Washington Papers at the Library of Congress, 1741–1799". American Memory. The Library of Congress. 
  10. ^ "Virginia Grants, Records Projects". National Historical Publications and Records Commission. National Archives. 
  11. ^ "Support". The Papers of George Washington. 
  12. ^ "Past Award Recipients". Lyman H. Butterfield Award. The Association for Documentary Editing. 
  13. ^ "2003 Thomas Jefferson Award". The Papers of George Washington Newsletter (6). Fall 2003. JSTOR 20093380. 
  14. ^ Kim-Brown, Caroline (Jan–Feb 2006). "Papers of George Washington: Documenting a Presidency". Humanities 27 (1). 
  15. ^ "The Papers of George Washington Digital Edition". American Founding Era. Rotunda. 

External links[edit]