George Washington Papers at the Library of Congress, 1741-1799 gives a detailed account of the political and personal life of George Washington and consists of his diaries, accounts, correspondence, military, and other accumulated papers.
These online exhibits provide context and additional information about this collection.
- Essays About the George Washington Papers
- George Washington: Surveyor and Mapmaker
- Timeline: America during the Age of Revolution
- Timeline: The Colonial Period
- Timeline: The Early Republic
- To Form a More Perfect Union: An Introduction to the Congressional Documents
These historical era(s) are best represented in the collection, although they may not be ll-encompassing.
- Colonial Settlement, 1492-1763
- The American Revolution, 1763-1783
- The New Nation, 1780-1815
Related Collections and Exhibits
These collections and exhibits contain thematically-related primary and secondary sources. Browse the Collection Finder for more related material on the American Memory Web site.
- A Century of Lawmaking for a New Nation, 1774-1873
- Documents from the Continental Congress and the Constitutional Convention, 1774-1789
- Declaring Independence: Drafting the Documents
- Map Collections, 1500-2004
- Memory Section, American Treasures of the Library of Congress
- Portraits of the Presidents and First Ladies, 1789-Present
- Temple of Liberty: Building the Capitol for a New Nation
- Thomas Jefferson Papers, 1606-1827
- Words and Deeds in American History
Recommended additional sources of information.
Specific guidance for searching this collection.
The text that is searched is a direct transcription of the letterbooks as written in the eighteenth century. The spelling has not been modernized. Early spellings or special spellings (ligatures), such as foederal for federal, occur. In some instances, Washington varied the spelling in such words as insuing for ensuing or inclosure for enclosure.
There are many abbreviations in the texts. When searching for cities or states, think of different ways names might be abbreviated. For example, searching for mass will be more productive than searching for Massachusetts. Some abbreviations will be unique, for example, philada for Philadelphia.
Events, such as Shay's Rebellion, require more than one search request. Washington referred to this event by such terms as that "commotion in Mass." Other terms that produce results are insurrection and disorder. For best results, search for an item, read the text to learn Washington's description for the item, then search on Washington's term.
There are many different types of documents within the George Washington Papers, such as diaries, journals, and letterbooks. Washington's correspondence was copied into the letterbooks. Therefore, there may be several different letters copied on to the same page.
Searches for individuals with common first names (such as James, John, George, and Thomas) result in large hit lists. To narrow results, search on a last name only or look for exact matches with an individual's first and last name.
For more help with searching, go to Finding Items in American Memory.
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.
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]
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.
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!
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.
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]
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.
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.
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.
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. . . .
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 ...
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.
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.
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.
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?
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 . . .
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.]
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.
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.]
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.