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[Detail] George Washington. Portrait by Gilbert Stuart c1929.

Arts & Humanities

Important insights about the collection that pertain to language arts may be found in the accompanying essay, Yr. Most Humble Obt. Servt. This short essay is highly recommended for those seeking insights into the nature of correspondence in the eighteenth century, as well as the logistical aspects of drafting, delivering, and preserving written communications during that period. The essay explains the necessity of responding to each piece of correspondence received, and illustrates what a formidable challenge this task was to important people of the day, such as George Washington. Like present-day leaders, Washington sometimes resorted to having aides reply on his behalf.

For example, search on disease to uncover an eighteenth century Presidential "form" letter:

Philadelphia, May 29, 1794.

Sir: The President of the U States has recd. your Letter together with a copy of your essay on the disease produced by the bite of a mad-dog. The President has directed me to assure you that his sincere wishes are offered for the useful effects of a work calculated to throw light on a subject so interesting; and to make his acknowledgements for your politeness in presenting it to him. I am etc . . .

Letter from Bartholomew Dandridge to James Mease, May 29,1794 [Transcription]

The sheer volume of manuscripts contained in George Washington Papers guarantees wonderful examples of descriptive and persuasive writing, personal and professional letters, journals, and diary entries. The topics and events to which they refer provide insights about major events in the era in which they were written.

The transcripts of the eighteenth century manuscripts provide lessons regarding the differences of formal and informal writing styles, as well as the conventions of grammar, usage, and literary discourse that were common at the time.

Historians have noted that George Washington's writing abilities improved during the course of his life. Washington's formal education was relatively limited, but his talents in the language arts increased with practice, and in tandem with his ascent into the upper strata of British, then American society. Comparing Washington's writing ability in his early years as a soldier to those of his latter years as a statesman is revealing.

Search on remarkable to examine excerpts from a July 28, 1755 letter to a fellow soldier:

My Dear Orme: I arrived at Home the day before yesterday, without meeting with an Egachee, (46) or any other remarkable event. I called at Belhavem purposely to acquaint Majr. Carlyle with your desire, who will use all possible means to procure a Vessel though I fear it will be somewhat difficult at present as the Shipping have most of them employ'd, in transporting the Tobo. from the diff't. Warehouses

It is impossible to relate the difft. accts. that was given of our late unhappy Engagem't; but all tend'd, greatly to the disadvantage of the poor deceas'd Genl., who is censur'd on all hands. As I have no cert'n conveyance for this Letter I shall only add my sincere compt's to Morris, Burton, George and Dobson and shall take an oppertunity of writ'g to you at Philadelphia, and of being more particular, I am my Dear Orme, etc.

[Note 46: It is possible that Orme and other army friends of Washington who had been wounded but survived the action at the Monongahela, rallied Washington on being a favorite of the gods because of his scathless escape from the massacre. This would permit the word "egachee" to be interpreted as Êgises, in the sense of a protective influence, a plural which Washington spelled by its sound to him. An old spelling of Êgis is egis.]

Letter from George Washington to Robert Orme, July 28, 1755 [Transcription]

Next, search on American People to find a paragraph from Washington's November 19, 1794 address to Congress, and compare the writing to the previous example.

Fellow Citizens of the Senate and of the House of Representatives: When we call to mind the gracious indulgence of Heaven, by which the American People became a nation; when we survey the general prosperity of our country, and look forward to the riches, power, and happiness, to which it seems destined; with the deepest regret do I announce to you, that during your recess, some of the citizens of the United States have been found capable of an insurrection. It is due, however, to the character of our government, and to its stability, which cannot be shaken by the enemies of order, freely to unfold the course of this event.

Letter from George Washington to Congress, November 19, 1794 [Transcription]

Washington's improved abilities as a writer were not lost on him, for after the Revolution, he reviewed and corrected mistakes in much of his correspondence from the years 1754 through 1758. Search on remarkable to locate the July 18, 1755 letter from Washington to his brother Jack, and examine the changes noted in the original:

Dear Jack: 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.(44)

[Note 44: The 1784--85 change is as follows: "oppertunity of contradicting the first and of assuring you that I have not as yet, composed the latter. But by the all powerful dispensams. of Providence, I have been protected beyond all human probability and expectation for I had 4 Bullets" etc.]

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

Vivid language could be problematic in the eighteenth century, just as it is in the present day. Search on wicked Ministry to read the last paragraph of a letter from Washington to the British General Howe during the American Revolution, where one phrase caused Howe to take offense:

. . . [T]hat we have all here the highest regard and reference for your great personal, Qualities and Attainments, and that the Americans in general esteem it not as the least of their Misfortunes, that the name of Howe; a name so dear to them, should appear at the Head of the Catalogue of the Instruments, employed by a wicked Ministry for their destruction.

With due Respect I have the Honor to be, etc.

P.S.: If an Exchange of Prisoners taken on each Side, in this unnatural Contest, is agreeable to General Howe, he will please to Signify as much, to his Most Obedient.(67)

[Note 67: Congress by a resolve (December 2) had directed Washington to obtain the exchange of Allen. Howe did not feel himself authorized to hold exchange negotiations without directions from England. Washington's words apparently touched a tender spot, for Howe replied (December 25): "It is with regret, considering the character you have always maintained among your friends, as a gentleman of the strictest honor and delicacy, that I find cause to resent a sentence in the conclusion of your letter, big with invective against my superiors, and insulting to myself, which should obstruct any further intercourse between us." This letter is in the Washington Papers.]

Letter from George Washington to William Howe, December 18, 1775 [Transcription]

The letterbooks contain a wealth of examples of descriptive writing on Washington's part.

Search on dastardly behaviour to find a July 18, 1755 letter to his mother:

. . .When we came there, we were attack'd by a Body of French and Indns. whose number, (I am certain) did not exceed 300 Men; our's consisted of abt. 1,300 well arm'd Troops; chiefly of the English Soldiers, who were struck with such a panick, that they behav'd with more cowardice than it is possible to conceive; The Officers behav'd Gallantly in order to encourage their Men, for which they suffer'd greatly; there being near 60 kill'd and wounded; a large proportion out of the number we had! . . . In short the dastardly behaviour of those they call regular's expos'd all others that were inclin'd to do their duty to almost certain death; and at last, in dispight of all the efforts of the Officer's to the Contrary, they broke and run as Sheep pursued by dogs; and it was impossible to rally them.

Letter from George Washington to Mary B. Washington, July 18, 1755 [Transcription]

Search on Constitutional door to uncover a letter sent to Patrick Henry a week after the conclusion of the Constitutional Convention. The letter reveals Washington's ability to succinctly state his opinions regarding significant events:

Mount Vernon, September 24, 1787. Dear Sir: In the first moment after my return I take the liberty of sending you a copy of the Constitution which the foederal Convention has submitted to the People of these States. I accompany it with no observations; your own Judgment will at once discover the good, and the exceptionable parts of it. and your experience of the difficulties, which have ever arisen when attempts have been made to reconcile such variety of Interests and local prejudices as pervade the several States will render explanation unnecessary. I wish the Constitution which is offered had been made more perfect, but I sincerely believe it is the best that could be obtained at this time; and, as a Constitutional door is opened for amendment hereafter, the adoption of it under the present circumstances of the Union is in my opinion desirable.

From a variety of concurring accounts it appears to me that the political concerns of this Country are, in a manner, suspended by a thread. That the Convention has been looked up to by the reflecting part of the community with a solicitude which is hardly to be conceived, and that if nothing had been agreed on by that body, anarchy would soon have ensued, the seeds being richly [ sic ] sown in every soil.

Letter from George Washington to Patrick Henry, Benjamin Harrison, Thomas Nelson Jr Thomas Nelson Jr., September 24, 1787 [Transcription]