The preservation of his papers was a subject never far from the mind of George Washington. In fact, his deathbed instructions to his secretary Tobias Lear in December 1799, to "arrange and record all my late military letters and papers . . . and other letters," were only the continuation of a practice that Washington had begun as a young man when he began saving his incoming letters as well as copies of most of his outgoing correspondence. A half-century of farm management, land speculation, business enterprise, and public service eventually came to be represented in the mass of written material that comprise his public and private papers, some 135,000 surviving documents.
The historical importance of Washington's papers was recognized while Washington was yet alive, by Washington himself, who took pains to assign guards to protect them during the Revolutionary War, and by writers like William Gordon and David Humphreys interested in the momentous events of the American Revolution. Washington, immediately after the war, declared "that no history of my life, without a very great deal of trouble indeed, could be written with the least degree of accuracy, unless recourse was had to me, or to my papers for information" (Washington to James Craik, 25 March 1784). His wartime papers he considered "a species of Public property, sacred in my hands," to be made available to writers and historians of the Revolution at the discretion of Congress and in conjunction with Congress's own records and those of the individual states (Washington to William Gordon, 23 October 1782).
It was Washington, in fact, who first edited his papers, when after the Revolutionary War he began cleaning up mistakes in spelling and grammar in his French and Indian War letter books. His call to the presidency cut short this work, however, and the eight years during which he led the new nation, when he was busy setting policy, making appointments, settling the seat of government, and otherwise occupied in establishing the new federal system, generated some tens of thousands of new documents. (Surprisingly, two-thirds of Washington's papers are in the eight-and-a-half-year period of the Revolutionary War, even though he played important roles in the French and Indian War and as first president of the United States.) During his brief, final retirement at Mount Vernon, Washington again turned to organizing and copying his papers, and even went so far as to plan a separate building near his mansion house for their safekeeping, although that plan remained unrealized at his sudden death in December 1799.
Early historians availed themselves of Washington's papers, beginning with Chief Justice John Marshall, whose five-volume biography of Washington published between 1804 and 1807 was based largely on papers loaned to him by Washington's nephew, Bushrod Washington. New England minister and historian Jared Sparks made the first attempt to bring into print an edition of Washington's writings, around the centennial of Washington's birth, in twelve volumes, The Writings of Washington: Being His Correspondence, Addresses, Messages, and Other Papers . . . (1834-1837). Another edition was brought out following the centennial of the Revolution, edited by Worthington Chauncey Ford, The Writings of George Washington (14 vols., 1889-1893). Both the Sparks and Ford editions were ambitious for their eras, but neither could compare with the edition prepared under the direction of the United States George Washington Bicentennial Commission, organized by Congress to commemorate the two-hundredth anniversary of Washington's birth in 1932, and published by the Government Printing Office between 1931 and 1944. Chosen to head the Commission was John Clement Fitzpatrick (1876-1940), a Washington, D.C., native who since 1902 had served as Assistant Chief of the Library of Congress's Manuscripts Division. The publication of Fitzpatrick's edition, The Writings of George Washington from the Original Manuscript Sources, 1745-1799, coincided with Congress's creation of the National Historical Publications Commission (NHPC) to foster a national program of publishing historical documentary editions.
Comprised of more than 17,400 letters and documents in thirty-seven volumes (plus a two-volume index), Fitzpatrick's Writings was a monumental achievement by any standard. His experience in the Library of Congress, which owns the single largest collection of Washington manuscripts (more than 60,000 documents), had ably prepared Fitzpatrick for the Herculean effort necessary to bring out an edition of that scale over such a short span of time. While in the Manuscripts Division, Fitzpatrick produced several Washington-related works, including his Calendar of the Correspondence of George Washington, Commander in Chief of the Continental Army, with the Continental Congress (1906) Calendar of the Correspondence . . . with the Officers (4 vols., 1915), and a List of the Washington Manuscripts from the Year 1592 to 1775 (1919), as well as George Washington's Accounts of Expenses While Commander-in-Chief of the Continental Army, 1775-1783 (1917), The Diaries of George Washington, 1748-1799 (4 vols.; 1925), George Washington, Colonial Traveller, 1732-1775 (1927), and The George Washington Scandals (1929). In 1933, after several volumes of the Writings had appeared, Fitzpatrick also published a biography of the subject that had become his life's work, George Washington Himself, and in 1939 he edited The Last Will and Testament of George Washington and Schedule of His Property. He also had found time to produce The Autobiography of Martin Van Buren (2 vols., 1920), The Spirit of the Revolution (1924), and four volumes of the Journals of the Continental Congress (vols. 28-31, 1933-1934), in addition to a number of other works. Fitzpatrick's personal papers are in the Special Collections Division of Georgetown University's Lauinger Library in Washington, D.C.
Respected as Fitzpatrick's Writings of Washington is, it, like the earlier Sparks and Ford editions, focuses almost exclusively on documents written by or generated on behalf of Washington. Its infrequent inclusion of letters sent to Washington are in notes only, and thus, like most documentary works of individuals edited before the advent of modern scholarly editing following World War II, presents only one side of the story. For the full record one must turn to The Papers of George Washington,the modern and more comprehensive edition being edited at the University of Virginia since 1969, which contains not only Washington's outgoing letters, orders, reports, proclamations, and addresses, but also all the correspondence, enclosures, and other documents sent to him. About half of the anticipated ninety volumes of the Papers have been edited and published, and the edition should be completed in about twenty years. Electronic publication of the new edition also is planned, and in fact has begun, although it is unclear when or in what manner it will eventually take place. Meanwhile, this electronic edition of Fitzpatrick's Writings serves as an important bridge.
The Libraryof Congress's Papers of George Washington manuscript collection was released in microfilm in 1964 as part of the Presidential Papers Project instituted by Congress in 1957. The collection then became the first manuscript collection at the Library of Congress to be digitized in its entirety (from the microfilm edition), as part of the Library's American Memory Historical Collections for the National Digital Library. As part of that effort, the text of Fitzpatrick's Writings was digitized and tagged in SGML according to the American Memory DTD for Historical Documents, so that searchable transcriptions could accompany many of the digital images of the manuscripts. The Library of Congress graciously provided a copy of its SGML-tagged text to the University of Virginia's Electronic Text Center for inclusion in its on-line archive of tens of thousands of SGML and XML-encoded electronic humanities texts. The E-Text Center converted the SGML tagged text to XML (using the TEIXLITE.DTD) and provided some enhanced mark-up. It is hoped this electronic edition of Fitzpatrick's Writings of Washington will provide easy and wide access to scholars and researchers and introduce this monumental work to a new audience.