The Washington Papers

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The Washington Papers is a project dedicated to the publication of comprehensive letterpress and digital editions of George and Martha Washington’s papers. Founded at the University of Virginia in 1968 as the Papers of George Washington, the Washington Papers is an expansive project that includes the papers and documents of George Washington as well as of individuals close to him. The Washington Papers aims to place Washington in a larger context and to bring individuals, such as Martha Washington and Washington family members, into sharper focus.

The Washington Papers project should be distinguished from the archives of George Washington, part of which resides 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]

The story behind George Washington's papers

The Williamstown Portrait of George Washington as painted by Gilbert Stuart (1797).

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. Unfortunately, Washington died in 1799 before any such library could be constructed and his papers were bequeathed to his nephew, Bushrod Washington.

Washington was correct in assuming that people would take interest in his documents. In the 40 years following his death, both Chief Justice John Marshall and future Harvard President Jared Sparks borrowed the papers to write their respective works on the first president.

Between 1833 and 1839, Sparks published 12 volumes of The Writings of George Washington. Aware of the magnitude of Washington's document collection, he intentionally only included "the most valuable parts of Washington's writings."[2] Additionally, feeling it was his duty to polish the "awkward use of words, faults of grammar, or inaccuracies of style" that appeared in the papers, Sparks modified the text of many of the letters.[3] In one example, Sparks changed Washington's "but a flea-bite" to the more refined "totally inadequate."[4] In another, where Washington had written a nickname ("Old Put"), Sparks replaced it with the individual's rank and surname, "General Putnam."[4] 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. After carefully determining the value of each paper, Sparks then occasionally gave away the "unimportant" documents as gifts. As a result, hundreds, if not thousands, of Washington's papers were scattered about the country and the world, ending up in private hands and in 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.

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. Also titled The Writings of George Washington, Ford’s 14-volume series, published from 1889 and 1893, barely utilized more documents than Sparks’ series did.

Between 1931 and 1944, John C. Fitzpatrick, who had retired from the manuscript division of the Library of Congress, published The Writings of George Washington from the Original Manuscript Sources, 1745-1799. This 39-volume set 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 the New York Public Library, and like the previous compilers of Washington's papers, he predominantly included documents written by Washington. In leaving out letters that Washington had received, all of these works presented only half the story.

Project history: from the Papers of George Washington to the Washington Papers

In the mid-20th century, 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. As a result, in 1966, Virginia State Archivist William J. Van Schreeven proposed that the University of Virginia sponsor a new, comprehensive documentary editing project for George Washington. Agreeing with the importance of such a project, the University of Virginia and the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association agreed to sponsor it.[5]

Officially launched in 1968, the Papers of George Washington named Donald Jackson, formerly of the University of Illinois Press, as editor in chief. Though the project began almost 25 years after Fitzpatrick published his final volume, it ambitiously sought to surpass all of the previous undertakings. Unlike Fitzpatrick, Ford, and Sparks, Jackson's Papers of George Washington aimed to be the most comprehensive compilation yet, including not just letters Washington wrote but also those he received.

The project additionally 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. Finally, rather than only utilizing 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.[5]

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.

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

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:[5]

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 to similarly follow suit.

Longtime editor Dorothy Twohig became editor in chief following W.W. Abbot’s retirement (although he continued editing the Retirement Series as editor in chief emeritus until 1999). With technology rapidly advancing, the idea for a digital version of the Papers began to circulate.

Two years later, Philander D. Chase stepped into the role of editor in chief and encouraged the Papers to diversify its federal funding, thus preparing the project for increased expansion.

In 2004, the Papers of George Washington, under editor in chief Theodore Crackel, embarked upon several new initiatives that would continue to make George Washington’s papers increasingly accessible. The largest of these projects included the successful launch of a digital edition, known as the Papers of George Washington Digital Edition, through a partnership with Mount Vernon and the University of Virginia Press's digital database, Rotunda. The first of the major Founding Father documentary editing projects to establish an online presence, the Papers thus created a "living edition," enabling editors to correct known errors in the print volumes and to compile and standardize references to people, topics, and sources that have appeared multiple times throughout the project's history. In 2008, following the success of the project’s digitization, the Papers conceived a new venture that would make Washington's financial papers—one of the most comprehensive sets of such documents for the time—accessible, something that letterpress editions could not.[6]

In addition to digitization, the Papers of George Washington under Crackel saw changes to the presentation of the letterpress copies in order to increase document accessibility. These changes included the addition of introductions to the front of each volume, maps at the end of each volume—where appropriate—and the alphabetization of the index subheadings.[7]

In 2010, Edward G. Lengel became project director. In his role, he soon began guiding the Papers to expand upon its blossoming relationship with Mount Vernon. As Mount Vernon sought to increase opportunities for education, a new initiative presented itself for understanding not just Washington’s papers, but also the scholarship written about George Washington. In 2012, the Papers of George Washington and Mount Vernon embarked upon the Bibliography Project, an ambitious endeavor that sought to identify, describe, and signify every book about George Washington.

Following a successful beginning to the Bibliography Project with Mount Vernon, the partnership began to consider new ways to educate the public about George Washington. Soon, the Washington Papers and Mount Vernon decided to not only present Washington through his own papers and correspondence, but also through the correspondence of his wife and stepchildren. Washington’s oft-misunderstood Barbados diary was also included in this endeavor. These projects put Washington’s papers in a larger context by placing them in conversation with the rest of Washington’s world.

The Martha Washington Papers project and the Barbados Diary project officially began with support from Mount Vernon in July 2015. The Martha Washington Papers project and the Washington Family Papers project are currently in their earliest stages of document collection. With the addition of Martha Washington and other family members’ papers, it was at this time that the project thought it more fitting to identify as the Washington Papers.[8]

Since its inception in 1968, the Washington Papers has published 69 of its projected 90 George Washington volumes, completing the Colonial, Confederation, and Retirement series. The Washington Papers project has distinguished itself by publishing two volumes a year. That average is twice the amount of the other Founding Father documentary editing projects. The Washington Papers remains on schedule to complete the papers of George Washington in about 2025.

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

The significance of the Washington Papers project

The George Washington Papers project at the University of Virginia, as part of the Washington Papers, is different from the George Washington Papers American Memory database at the Library of Congress in two major ways.

First, each project has unique goals and purposes. In presenting transcriptions of documents that are heavily annotated, the Washington Papers seeks to serve as a vital resource for academic research on George Washington, his wife, and his family. In contrast, American Memory's George Washington Papers displays images of documents, few transcriptions, and even fewer annotations, making it a resource for accessing original manuscripts rather than 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 Washington Papers includes copies of documents from small and large American repositories, private collectors, and international libraries.[9]

The Washington Papers project expansions

The Washington Papers Online

Though the Papers of George Washington were originally made available online through the Papers of George Washington Digital Edition, the National Historical Publications and Records Commission and the University of Virginia Press announced plans in October 2010 to create a new web site that provides free access to the papers of the Founding Fathers. Work on the project, Founders Online, began in October 2011 and it went online in October 2013. It includes more than 100 combined 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, discoveries, and additions of new individuals to the Washington Papers, such as Martha Washington. Founders Online allows users to read, browse, and search the voluminous texts of the Founders in one place and will serve as a resource for both scholars and educators.[5]

The George Washington Financial Papers Project

Conceived in 2008 and officially launched in 2011 with funding from the National Historical Publications and Records Commission, 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 the Washington Papers Digital Edition; and use a multitude of other functions. The GWFPP is still ongoing and has successfully completed its first phase of the project.[6]

Bibliography Project

Started in 2012 and still ongoing, the Bibliography Project seeks to create a comprehensive database that catalogues and describes the numerous resources, including children’s books, written about George Washington. Hoping to provide students, scholars, and citizens with free digital access to the various ways in which we have understood George Washington over time, the database will describe the context and meaning of each text that significantly portrays George Washington.

A posthumous portrait of Martha Washington based on the original, portrait by Gilbert Stuart that was simply of the head and bust.

Martha Washington Papers Project

Officially launched in July 2015, the Martha Washington Papers project seeks to reclaim the first First Lady.[8] Though Martha burned most of her correspondence with her husband following his death, the project intends to provide further insight into her character by including all correspondence she sent and received, much like the project does with George Washington. The Papers intends to publish her correspondence in a two-volume letterpress edition as well as online.

Barbados Diary Project

Starting around the same time as the Martha Washington Papers project, the Barbados Diary project officially began in the summer of 2015. Seeking to include the first full transcription of the diary in more than a century as well as the first-ever full transcription of George Washington’s ship log, the diary and its annotations will be available in both digital and letterpress editions.[8]

Outreach Projects

The Washington Papers has not only endeavored to reimagine the boundaries of documentary editing, but has also sought to become a more prominent part of the University of Virginia, higher education, and K-12 communities. Under the leadership of Edward G. Lengel, the Washington Papers has undertaken initiatives to encourage educators and UVA undergraduate students to participate in documentary editing and historical thinking.

  • Day by Day Project The most recent of these outreach projects is the Day by Day project. Proposed and led by Associate Editor William F. Ferraro of the Washington Papers, the Day by Day project shows users what George Washington was doing on a particular day. The Day by Day project is almost exclusively run by students and allows them to identify and examine primary source documents. Begun in Fall 2014, the Day by Day project completed its first phase in Summer 2015. The project is still ongoing.
  • Teacher Internship Program Another ongoing outreach project is the Washington Papers’ Teacher Internship program. This program invites K-12 educators to spend their summers in a role at the Papers that helps them further their professional development through increased experience with primary source documents and scholarship in early American history.

Editing process

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.

Next, the editors must select which version of a document they want to use. For letters from the 18th century, it is common to find multiple drafts or copies 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 will use what is available. In this case, they then have to decide which of the copies they want to utilize, for each 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 the contemporary lack of standardization in abbreviations, spelling, capitalization, and grammar. In addition, many individuals in this time period lacked formal education and proper training, thus making the deciphering of 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.

Lastly, the editor then provides the annotations necessary for identifying the people, places, events, and any other information that the reader may not know or would need in order to 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.”

Funding agencies

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

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.[11]

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."[12]

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.[13]

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.[14]




  1. "Editors & Staff | Papers of George Washington". Retrieved 2016-01-07.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  2. Sparks, Jared (1837). The Writings of George Washington. 1. Boston: American Stationer’s Company. pp. viii.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  3. Adams, Herbert Baxter (1893). The Life and Writings of Jared Sparks, Volume 2. P. 273. Boston and New York: Houghton, Mifflin and Company. p. 273.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  4. 4.0 4.1 Whipple, Wayne (1915). The Story of Young George Washington. Philadelphia: Henry Altemus Company. pp. 12–13.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  5. 5.0 5.1 5.2 5.3 "Project History | Papers of George Washington". Retrieved 2016-01-07.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  6. 6.0 6.1 "Financial Papers Project | Papers of George Washington". Retrieved 2016-01-07.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  7. Papers of George Washington. Papers of George Washington Newsletter (Fall 2006): 2-3. Print.
  8. 8.0 8.1 8.2 Washington Papers. Washington Papers Newsletter (Fall 2015): 2-3, 11. Print.
  9. "George Washington Papers: Building the Digital Collection". Retrieved 2016-01-07.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  10. "Support | Papers of George Washington". Retrieved 2016-01-07.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  11. "Past Award Recipients". Lyman H. Butterfield Award. The Association for Documentary Editing.
  12. "2003 Thomas Jefferson Award". The Papers of George Washington Newsletter (6). Fall 2003. JSTOR 20093380.
  13. Kim-Brown, Caroline (Jan–Feb 2006). "Papers of George Washington: Documenting a Presidency". Humanities 27 (1)
  14. The Papers of George Washington Digital Edition". American Founding Era. Rotunda.

External links