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September 11, 2000

George Washington's Diaries to Be Available Online

Library of Congress and University Press of Virginia Offer All 51 Diaries of First President

The Library of Congress, the University Press of Virginia and the Papers of George Washington at the University of Virginia on Sept. 15 will release online The Diaries of George Washington on the American Memory collections Web site. This release provides the first electronic publication of the work of the Founding Fathers Papers Projects, established by President Truman in 1950.

George Washington's diaries (1748-1799) offer a unique window into the daily life of the most celebrated founder of the United States. Unlike Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, James Monroe and Benjamin Franklin, Washington kept a daily diary for much of his life, from his first surveying trip in 1748 until Dec. 13, 1799, the day before his death. The Library of Congress Manuscript Division houses 37 of 51 known diary volumes and diary fragments. The published documentary edition, The Diaries of George Washington, edited by Donald Jackson and Dorothy Twohig, includes transcriptions of some 2,300 diary entries, annotated by nearly 600 notes, 300 bibliographic entries on which the notes are based and 375 illustrations. A one-volume abridgment, edited by Ms. Twohig, was published in 1999. The American Memory presentation makes all these materials available to the public as searchable text and as bitonal and grayscale page images.

The Diaries are one of six series in the documentary edition The Papers of George Washington, available at (external link) and published by the University Press of Virginia ( (external link)).

The documentary edition provides diary introductions and annotations that identify all persons mentioned in the texts, explains their relationship to Washington and his activities and are often accompanied by portrait reproductions. The editors have identified the slaves and white artisans Washington employed on his farms, as well as the plants, crops, implements and mechanical devices with which he experimented. Historical background about major events in Washington's life clarifies and enriches the significance of the diary texts. The volumes feature a variety of maps and illustrations.

During the course of his life, Washington kept many different kinds of diaries: travel diaries; diaries devoted to specific events; and, most consistently, daily diaries of weather, work and events at Mount Vernon and his various farms. He kept diaries during his visit to Barbados in 1751-52 with his half-brother Lawrence, who was seeking to recover his health; and for his expeditions to the Ohio River region in 1753-54, during the preliminary phases of the French and Indian (or Seven Year) War. He began his Revolutionary War diary at Yorktown in 1781 and lamented "not having attempted it [keeping a diary] from the commencement of the War." Significant diaries for Washington's presidency in 1789-1796 survive in the form of journals of presidential tours of New England in 1789 and of the South in 1791.

Washington began keeping daily diaries of his life at Mount Vernon by 1760. Mount Vernon became his property in 1758, and eventually it consisted of five separate farms. Washington was devoted to its expansion and development, and the "diaries are a monument to that concern," as the editors of the documentary edition note. Often kept in the blank pages of published Virginia almanacs, Washington's entries record family, neighborhood and local events; weather; and, most important, his transition from planter to farmer, from his early frustrating efforts with the cash crop tobacco to a commitment to diversification and production for a domestic market and his abiding interest in experimentation with the latest agricultural methods. Shortly before his death, Washington was drafting yet another plan for crop rotation and new farming operations.

A five-part introduction to the Diaries, included in the Web presentation, provides interesting background on these fascinating documents as well as on the man himself:

  • Washington as a Diarist. That Washington's diaries were important to him there is no doubt. When in the spring of 1787 he journeyed to the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia and discovered that he would be away from Mount Vernon for many weeks, he wrote home for the diary he had accidentally left behind. "It will be found, I presume, on my writing table," he said. "Put it under a good strong paper cover, sealed up as a letter."
  • The Worlds of Washington. As he rode about Mount Vernon on his daily inspection trips, Washington could turn his eyes frequently to the shipping traffic on the Potomac River, his principal link with the great outside world. Now and then his commercial representatives in London, Robert Cary & Co., would err and place his shipment aboard a vessel bound for another Virginia river, such as the Rappahannock. He once warned the Cary company never to ship by any vessel not bound for the Potomac, for when a cargo via the Rappahannock finally reached him, he found "the Porter entirely Drank out."
  • Washington and the New Agriculture. No theme appears more frequently in the writings of Washington than his love for his land. The diaries are a monument to that concern. In his letters he referred often, as an expression of this devotion and its resulting contentment, to an Old Testament passage. After the Revolution, when he had returned to Mount Vernon, he wrote the Marquis de Lafayette on Feb. 1, 1784: "At length my Dear Marquis I am become a private citizen on the banks of the Potomac, & under the shadow of my own Vine & my own Fig-tree." This phrase occurs at least 11 times in Washington's letters. "And Judah and Israel dwelt safely, every man under his vine and under his fig tree" (2 Kings 18:31).
  • The Weather Watch. Washington's preoccupation with the weather was clearly an extension of his needs and interests as a farmer. He was not a scientific observer, as was Jefferson, and his weather records are irregular in scope and content. If he was not scientifically accurate, he was at least persistent. On April 30, 1785, when he was unable to record the weather personally because of a trip to Richmond, he put Mrs. Washington in charge of the thermometer. "Mercury (by Mrs. W's acct.) in the Morning at 68--at Noon 69 and at Night 62."
  • History of the Diary Manuscripts. Washington's earliest diaries were kept in notebooks of various sizes and shapes, but when he began in earnest to make daily entries he chose to make them in interleaved copies of the Virginia Almanack, a Williamsburg publication. By the end of the Revolution he had grown accustomed to the blank memorandum books used in the army, and he adopted a similar notebook for his civilian record. By 1795 he had gone back to his interleaved almanacs. Ruled paper was not available to Washington, and he obtained regularly spaced lines by using a ruled guide-sheet beneath his writing paper. "This practice gives us evidence of his failing vision, as the diaries, after the Presidency, show frequent examples of his pen running off the outer edge of the small diary page, and whole words, written on the ruled guide-sheet beneath, escaped notice of not being on the diary page itself," according to John C. Fitzpatrick, an earlier editor of The Diaries of George Washington, 1748-1799 (Boston; New York, 1925).

The definitive transcriptions, introductory essays and rich annotation provided by The Diaries of George Washington offer a unique opportunity to explore the thoughts, activities and historical world of one of the nation's founders. The online presentation of these materials now makes them fully searchable and available to a much wider audience.

American Memory is a project of the National Digital Library Program of the Library of Congress. By the end of 2000, the Web site will offer more than 5 million historically important items of American history, in collaboration with other institutions. More than 80 American Memory collections are now available in topics ranging from presidential papers and photographs from the Civil War, to early films of Thomas Edison and panoramic maps, to documents from the women's suffrage and civil rights movements.

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PR 00-132
ISSN 0731-3527

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