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George Washington Papers at the Library of Congress, 1741-1799

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Go directly to the collection, George Washington Papers at the Library of Congress, 1741-1799, in American Memory, or view a Summary of Resources related to the collection.

The first release (Series 2) of The George Washington Papers, 1741-1799 contains forty-one letterbooks (about 8,000 pages), with manuscripts from the years 1774-99. The series includes materials that capture the history of George Washington's life, and, the historical progression of events that led to the founding of the United States of America. The collection can be used to explore key history content such as colonial America, the American revolution, the Constitution, and the Presidency. Subsequent releases will be coming online periodically, culminating in a total of 65,000 documents.

1) Colonial America

The thirteen English colonies in North America were well established by the mid-eighteenth century. In size, population, and prosperity, Virginia ranked among the first order in colonial America. As a Virginia gentleman, George Washington's story was illustrative of the compelling aspects of life in that part of the country. The collection contains original manuscripts and transcriptions of correspondence that contain such topics as farming, geography, slavery, Native Americans, economics, politics, and military life.

For example, as a young officer in the British army during the French and Indian War, Washington often found himself in dangerous situations.

Search on remarkable to find the July 18, 1755 letter in which he tells his brother about his brush with death:

... As I have heard since my arriv'l at this place, a circumstantial acct. of my death and dying speech, I take this early oppertunity of contradicting both, and of assuring you that I now exist and appear in the land of the living by the miraculous care of Providence, that protected me beyond all human expectation; I had 4 Bullets through my Coat, and two Horses shot under me, and yet escaped unhurt.

Letter from George Washington to John Augustine Washington, July 18, 1755 [Transcription]

2) The American Revolution

Washington's experiences in the French and Indian War, and the acquisition of a considerable estate through inheritance and marriage, brought him widespread recognition in Virginia. He was elected to the House of Burgesses during English rule; then to the First and Second Continental Congresses when problems between the colonies and the mother country pushed the country to the brink of Revolution. Appointed Commander-in-Chief of the American forces, Washington was in a position of unsurpassed influence and authority. His experiences included eyewitness accounts of battles, military strategy, and political developments during the American Revolution.

Search on Continental Congress, March 19, 1776, occupation of Boston to find the following reference of an early American success:

. . . I have the Pleasure to inform you, that on the Morning of the 17th Inst. General Howe with his Army abandoned the Town of Boston without destroying it, an Event of much Importance, and which must be heard with great Satisfaction; and that we are now in full Possession of it. Their Embarkation and Retreat were hurried and precipitate and they have left behind them Stores of one Kind and another to a pretty considerable Amount, among which are several Pieces of heavy Cannon and one or two Mortars, which are spiked.

Letter from George Washington to William Alexander, Lord Stirling, March 19, 1776 [Transcription]

3) The Constitution

With the successful conclusion of the War for Independence, Washington and his countrymen turned to the business of life in the new nation. The general resigned his commission and returned to Mt. Vernon, where he soon came to harbor concerns about the nature of the government of the United States under the Articles of Confederation. In particular, an uprising led by Daniel Shays in western Massachusetts in 1786-7, caused Washington consternation.

Search on anarchy and confusion to find the November 5, 1786 letter to James Madison that captures Washington's growing sense of alarm, as well as his view of the unique role that Virginia's leaders might play in resolving the difficulties:

. . . Let us look to our National character, and to things beyond the present period. No morn ever dawned more favourably than ours did; and no day was ever more clouded than the present! Wisdom, and good examples are necessary at this time to rescue the political machine from the impending storm. Virginia has now an opportunity to set the latter, and has enough of the former, I hope, to take the lead in promoting this great and arduous work. Without some alteration in our political creed, the superstructure we have been seven years raising at the expence of so much blood and treasure, must fall. We are fast verging to anarchy and confusion!

Letter from George Washington to James Madison, November 5, 1786 [Transcription]

The weaknesses of the Articles of Confederation convinced Washington and many others of the need for a stronger government. The Confederation Congress, made up of people such as James Madison, passed a resolution to hold a Federal Convention in Philadelphia beginning in May 1787. The events of that summer culminated in the creation of the Constitution of the United States. Washington's role before, during, and after the drafting of the document was crucial.

Search on radical cures to reveal Washington's correspondence with Madison regarding the prospect of a Federal Convention:

. . . I am glad to find that Congress have recommended to the States to appear in the Convention proposed to be holden in Philadelphia in May. I think the reasons in favor, have the preponderancy of those against the measure. . . It gives me great pleasure to hear that there is a probability of a full representation of the States in Convention; but if the delegates come to it under fetters, the salutary ends proposed will in my opinion be greatly embarrassed and retarded, if not altogether defeated. I am anxious to know how this matter really is, as my wish is, that the Convention may adopt no temporizing expedient, but probe the defects of the Constitution to the bottom, and provide radical cures.

Letter from George Washington to James Madison, March 31, 1787 [Transcription]

The drafting of the Constitution was one thing; getting it accepted by nine legislatures out of thirteen states was quite another. Washington watched the ratification process with a wary eye, as revealed in his May 28, 1788 correspondence to Lafayette.

Search on the plot thickens to reveal the letter, which includes the following:

Since I had the pleasure of writing to you by the last Packet, the Convention of Maryland has ratified the federal Constitution by a majority of 63 to 11 voices. That makes the seventh State which has adopted it, next Monday the Convention in Virginia will assemble; we have still good hopes of its adoption here: though by no great plurality of votes. South Carolina has probably decided favourably before this time. The plot thickens fast. A few short weeks will determine the political fate of America for the present generation and probably produce no small influence on the happiness of society through a long succession of ages to come.

Letter from George Washington to Marquis de Lafayette, May 28, 1788 [Transcription]

4) The Presidency

The new Constitution called for a government of three branches: the executive; the legislative; and the judicial. It fell to Washington to establish the foundation of the government under the Constitution, and the precedents he set are the bedrock of our democracy today.

Search on the good of my country to find the October 26, 1788 letter to Benjamin Lincoln in which Washington discusses the uneasy--and unsolicited--prospect of his election as the nation's first president:

. . . But be assured, my dear Sir, if from any inducement I shall be persuaded ultimately to accept, it will not be (so far as I know my own heart) from any of a private or personal nature. Every personal consideration conspires to rivet me (if I may use the expression) to retirement. At my time of life, and under my circumstances, nothing in this world can ever draw me from it, unless it be a conviction that the partiality of my Countrymen had made my services absolutely necessary, joined to a fear that my refusal might induce a belief that I preferred the conservation of my own reputation and private ease, to the good of my Country.

Letter from George Washington to Benjamin Lincoln, October 26, 1788 [Transcription]

As the first president, Washington selected the first members of the judicial branch, as well as the members of the president's original cabinet. See the September 25, 1789 "Nominations" letter to the Senate to review Washington's choices for various federal judges, attorneys, and federal marshalls and the Secretary of State, Attorney General, and Post-Master General.

Search on wearied traveler to review Washington's state of mind on the eve of his retirement, at the close of his second term as president. His feelings are contained in a March 2, 1797 letter to his close friend, Henry Knox:

To the wearied traveller who sees a resting place, and is bending his body to lean thereon, I now compare myself; but to be suffered to do this in peace, is I perceive too much, to be endured by some. To misrepresent my motives; to reprobate my politics; and to weaken the confidence which has been reposed in my administration, are objects which cannot be relinquished by those who, will be satisfied with nothing short of a change in our political System. The consolation however, which results from conscious rectitude, and the approving voice of my Country, unequivocally expressed by its Representatives, deprives their sting of its poison, and places in the same point of view both the weakness, and malignity of their efforts. Although the prospect of retirement is most grateful to my soul, and I have not a wish to mix again in the great world, or to partake in its politics, yet, I am not without my regrets at parting with (perhaps never more to meet) the few intimates whom I love, among these, be assured you are one.

Letter from George Washington to Henry Knox, March 2, 1797 [Transcription]
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