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Collection Connections

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

U.S. HistoryCritical ThinkingArts & Humanities

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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.

Chronological thinking provides students with the skills to understand how the sequence of events helps explain cause and effect relationships. By studying George Washington's letterbooks, students can identify the temporal sequence of key events in the early history of the nation. Examining Washington's letterbooks and the recorded correspondence of his contemporaries helps students interpret data, reconstruct patterns of historical developments, and gain insight into historical continuity and change.

Students can explore the Timeline in George Washington Papers to examine documents in the letterbooks that reveal Washington's influence on and his responses to key events in history.

Historical Comprehension

Diary entries, notes, personal correspondence, and public speeches convey the intentions of people, the difficulties they encountered, and the complexities of the time in which they lived.

Investigating Washington's expressions of gratitude of the public trust placed in him on election to the presidency, coupled with his reluctance to resume the responsibility of public service reveals insights to his character, values, and ideals that are often lost in textbook accounts of Washington's public life.

Search on ocean of difficulties to find a letter Washington wrote to Henry Knox before leaving Mount Vernon for New York and his inauguration as first president of the United States:

. . . I assure you . . . that my movements to the chair of Government will be accompanied with feelings not unlike those of a culprit who is going to the place of his execution: so unwilling am I, in the evening of a life nearly consumed in public cares, to quit a peaceful abode for an Ocean of difficulties, without that competency of political skill--abilities & inclination which is necessary to manage the helm. . . .

Letter from George Washington to Henry Knox, April 1, 1789 [Transcription]

Compare this with the letter to Henry Lee on the occasion of Washington's re-election on January 6, 1793.

. . . A mind must be insensible indeed, not to be gratefully impressed by so distinguished, and honorable a testimony of public approbation and confidence: and, as I suffered my name to be contemplated on this occasion, it is more than probable that I should, for a moment, have experienced chagreen if my re-election had not been by a pretty respectable vote. But to say I feel pleasure from the prospect of commencing another tour of duty, would be a departure from truth ...

Letter from George Washington to Henry Lee, January 20, 1793 [Transcription]

Search on election and 1789 or election and 1793 to find additional correspondence regarding Washington's election to the presidency.

Historical Analysis and Interpretation

Historical analysis builds on the skills of historical comprehension and compels students to assess evidence and differentiate between ungrounded expressions of opinion from those grounded in historical evidence. The letterbooks offer students a variety opportunities to analyze documents.

Search on Articles of Confederation to find Washington's letter to John Jay, May 18, 1786, in which he expresses his views regarding the call for a convention to amend the Articles of Confederation:

. . . [T]here are errors in our national Government which call for correction, loudly I would add; but I shall find myself happily mistaken if the remedies are at hand. We are certainly in a delicate situation, but my fear is that the people are not yet sufficiently misled to retract from error. . . . I scarcely know what opinion to entertain of a general convention. That it is necessary to revise and amend the articles of confederation, I entertain no doubt; but what may be the consequences of such an attempt is doubtful. Yet something must be done, or the fabrick must fall, for it certainly is tottering.

Letter from George Washington to John Jay, May 18, 1786 [Transcription]

Nearly a year later, shortly after the Continental Congress called for a Federal Convention to amend the Articles of Confederation, Washington wrote to James Madison:

. . . [M]y wish is, that the Convention may adopt no temporizing expedient, but probe the defects of the Constitution to the bottom, and provide radical cures; whether they are agreed to or not; a conduct like this, will stamp wisdom and dignity on the proceedings, and be looked to as a luminary, which sooner or later will shed its influence.

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

Historical Research Capabilities

Encounters with historical documents place students in the framework of working as historians. Washington's letterbooks provide numerous opportunities for extended research. For example, search using the keyword slave to find Washington's personal references to the institution of slavery.

Although Washington was a prominent Virginia planter with numerous slaves, he expressed concerns about purchasing slaves. In a letter to John Mercer on September 9, 1786, Washington wrote:

. . .I never mean (unless some particular circumstance should compel me to it) to possess another slave by purchase; it being among my first wishes to see some plan adopted, by which slavery in this country may be abolished by slow, sure, and imperceptible degrees.

Letter from George Washington to John Mercer, September 9, 1786 [Transcription]

A few months earlier Washington responded to a letter from Lafayette in which the marquis had discussed a plan to free slaves in the West Indies and employ them as free laborers. In the letter he indicates his belief that legislative action is necessary to end the institution of slavery.

. . . [Y]our late purchase of an Estate in the Colony of Cayenne with a view of emancipating the slaves on it, is a generous and noble proof of your humanity. Would to God a like spirit would diffuse itself generally into the minds of the people of this country, but I despair of seeing it. . .

Letter from George Washington to Marquis de Lafayette, May 10, 1786 [Transcription]

Although Washington, as president, took no official position on slavery, he established provisions for emancipation of his slaves in his last will and testament.

Researching any subject requires an investigation of a variety of records; therefore, consult other primary and secondary sources to fully evaluate Washington's views on the institution of slavery.

Historical Issue Analysis

Issue analysis challenges students to grapple with issues that confronted individuals at critical periods in history and analyze the factors that determined the choices they made to resolve these problems.

Students can use the collection to explore issues relating to foreign policy concerns, especially over decisions regarding relations with France, our former ally during the Revolution, and the activities of Citizen Edmond Genet, the French ambassador.

Search on neutrality for references to the decision to remain neutral in the war between England and France during the era of the French Revolution.

On April 12, 1793, Washington wrote to Alexander Hamilton that he was embarking from Mount Vernon for Philadelphia and intended, once in the capitol, to take steps to insure that the United States maintained neutrality in the war that had just broken out between England and France.

Hostilities having commenced between France and England, it is incumbent on the Government of the United States to prevent, as far as in it lies, all interferences of our Citizens in them; and immediate precautionary measures ought, I conceive, to be taken for that purpose. . .

Letter from George Washington to Alexander Hamilton, April 12, 1793 [Transcription]

On April 22, Washington issued a formal proclamation of neutrality. Search on Genet for correspondence specifically relating to the activities of the French ambassador, Citizen Edmond Genet and his flagrant disregard of American neutrality. Correspondence on the activities of the French ambassador can serve as a means to analyze historical issues. Some questions to consider might be:

  • What were the reasons for Washington's decision to proclaim neutrality?
  • Was the neutrality proclamation a violation of the French alliance?
  • Was it in the best interests of the country to remain neutral?
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Last updated 09/26/2002