New Online: The George Washington Papers Move to a New Digital Platform

(The following post is written by Julie Miller, early American historian in the Manuscript Division.)

George Washington, painted by G. Stuart; engraved by H.S. Sadd, N.Y. 1844. Prints and Photographs Division.

George Washington, painted by G. Stuart; engraved by H.S. Sadd, N.Y. 1844. Prints and Photographs Division.

George Washington was not only the first president of the United States, he was also the first digital president. In 1998 the Library of Congress’s monumental collection of George Washington papers was opened to the world online. The digital Washington papers were part of American Memory, the Library’s first project to digitize its holdings. Begun in 1990 at the dawn of the Internet age, by the year 2000, American Memory had made more than 5 million items available to the public online. Among them were the approximately 77,000 items that constitute the George Washington papers. Now this early foray into cyberspace is being retired and replaced by a new digital platform. The George Washington papers were recently relaunched there.

If you are one of the many scholars, teachers, students and members of the curious public who have relied on the George Washington papers on the American Memory site, don’t worry. All of Washington’s papers are still online. You will, however, see changes in the way the site works. Among the most significant of these changes are the methods you can use to search for items and display your results.

There are multiple ways to search. One is to enter text into the search box that appears at the top of the collection’s landing page. Documents can be found by entering their dates, titles, or, in the case of letters, the names of Washington’s correspondents. Since transcriptions accompany some of these documents (see the landing page for an explanation of what transcriptions are available on the site), it is possible to find some documents with a full-text search.

Another search method, replacing the browse function on American Memory, is to scroll down the landing page and click on the links to the collection’s series. Series are logical groupings that follow the original order of a collection of papers. The George Washington papers have series for diaries, correspondence, financial papers and more.

The collection’s finding aid, or guide, provides a third way to search. There is a link to the finding aid and to other useful tools in the Expert Resources box on the left side of the landing page and on each search results page. Click on the finding aid’s Contents List and you will see series-level links that will take you to images of the papers. Additional links are in the works.

Once you have your list of results, you can limit, order and display it in a variety of ways. The view function allows you to display results in a list, or in gallery, grid or slideshow views. Multipage letters can also be displayed in this range of views or as single images. All these images can be zoomed, and single images can be rotated. While the slideshow view simulates the experience of looking at a reel of microfilm, the single image view allows you to choose pages to view from a box labeled Image.

Search results can be downloaded as GIF’s and JPEGS. When transcriptions are available they can be presented side-by-side with the original text. When transcriptions are not available on the site, viewers have the option of using Founders Online, which includes a digital version of the modern published edition of Washington’s papers. A link to it is available in the Expert Resources Box. Because Founders Online is full-text searchable, it can help you to find dates, correspondents and other information that will allow you to do more accurate searches on the Library of Congress Washington papers site.

Even with these enhancements, the George Washington papers, which layer the 21st century on top of the writing conventions of the 18th, can be confusing to use. To help you we have updated and augmented the explanatory essays that appeared in the browse function of American Memory and renamed them Series Notes. These explain the twists and turns of the more complex series. The note for Series 5, which contains Washington’s financial papers, has been updated, and one for Series 2, Washington’s letterbooks, has been added. The Series Notes can be found under the heading Articles and Essays, where you will find more to help you navigate the collection.

The diaries of George Washington. Manuscript Division.

Maybe you have never looked at Washington’s papers online and are wondering what they have to offer you. The short answer is that they bring George Washington, who we tend to think of as stony and remote, to warm and complicated life. Also, and more unexpectedly, the papers contain documentation of the many lives that intersected with his: fellow military officers and government officials, family members, servants, slaves, neighbors, tradespeople, even the dentists who helped him with his famously failing teeth. By digitizing Washington’s papers, and with this recent digital update, the Library of Congress has made Washington’s papers accessible to everyone, everywhere, anytime.

Who might you meet when you go through this portal to the past? A teenaged George Washington writing in his diary about a surveying trip “over the Mountains” in 1747, or the young aide-de-camp to British general Edward Braddock during the French and Indian War carefully copying his correspondence into a letterbook. Washington later returned to this letterbook and corrected the writing of his younger self. After his marriage in January 1759 to the widowed Martha Custis, the new Mrs. Washington appears in her husband’s ledger books purchasing goods from London suppliers, among them a “coach & 6 in a box,” a toy for her children.

Washington’s commission as commander of the Continental Army, issued to him by the Continental Congress in June 1775 at the start of the Revolutionary War is in the collection. So is a June 17, 1778, report containing this modest admission by the Marquis de Lafayette in response to Washington’s request for military advice from a group of officers: “I am almost the yungest of the general officers who knows less the country I rather refer to theyr Sentiments” the 20-year-old wrote in his uncertain English.

The start of Washington’s presidency is documented by the inaugural speech he delivered at Federal Hall in New York on April 30, 1789. The papers from the era of his presidency also contain a small, paper-bound book that records the Washingtons’ daily expenses during 1793-1794 when the capital was in Philadelphia. This modest volume contains the raw material to construct multitudes of stories about life in 18th-century Philadelphia. The purchases it records include books Martha Washington bought for herself (here a “Ladies Geography” and Mary Wollstonecraft’s 1787 “Thoughts on the Education of Daughters”), a gift of “gold ear drops” the president bought for Martha Washington’s granddaughter, Eleanor Custis; shoes and stockings for Ona Judge and Molly, two of the slaves that served the Washingtons in Philadelphia; and wages for their servants.

The correspondence dating from Washington’s presidency shows him mediating between his feuding cabinet secretaries, Thomas Jefferson, secretary of state, and Alexander Hamilton, secretary of the treasury. On August 23, 1792, fed up, he wrote Jefferson chidingly: “How unfortunate, and how much is it to be regretted then, that whilst we are encompassed on all sides with avowed enemies & insidious friends, that internal dissentions should be harrowing & tearing our vitals.”

Washington found relief from stresses like these by staying in close touch with the manager of his farm at Mount Vernon, who sent him weekly reports. These not only kept him up to date, they also indulged his lifelong passion for agricultural innovation. This passion is equally apparent in Washington’s collection of books on agriculture. His papers document his purchases of these books and preserve the notes he took as he read such works as “The Practical Farmer,” by John Spurrier (1793) and “A Practical Treatise of Husbandry,” by Henri-Louis Duhamel du Monceau (1759).

The farm reports are also one of the windows that Washington’s papers open onto the lives of the people who worked for him in bondage – slaves. One of these (August 22, 1789) from the summer after he became president, shows men, women, and children hard at work hoeing, harrowing, plowing, weeding, threshing, hauling, stacking, and loading Washington’s wheat, oats, tobacco and vegetables. Slavery, the tragic, unresolvable paradox of American history, is present in Washington’s papers just as it was in his life.

Washington’s papers have long been an inspiration for the hundreds of thousands of people who have used them over the years. We hope that this updated website will make them even more accessible.


  1. R Newland
    January 23, 2017 at 2:11 pm

    I have already used the new search features with students. It is so much more user friendly and aligns well with the way students are searching these days.

  2. Ramon D. Js. Polanco R.
    April 3, 2017 at 5:44 pm

    The Honorable
    President of the Russian Federation
    The President’s Office
    The Kremlin

    My Dear President Putin:

    SINCE becoming eminent threat endless conflicts at several regions, we cannot longer enjoy peace of mind witnessing terror episodes of traumatic consequences as had occurred in Tunisia; Germany and Paris. Saint Petersburg yet another infamy jeopardizing sacredness of life, giving Russian security services instantly motif to reorganize counter-terrorism strategy.

    I shall praise the Lord Jesus for the victims expecting Russian cities will remain safe by bringing to justice perpetrators, upon reassurance the slaughterer of a single human life is the enemy of mankind.

    With kind regards,

    People’s Watch
    Santiago, DR
    [email protected]
    3 April 2017-5:30 p.m.

  3. Ramon D. Js. Polanco R.
    April 4, 2017 at 10:42 am

    [(Eye U.S. Congress; House of Representative (urgency)]

    Papal Residence Castel Gandolfo

    Father Benedict:

    NOTICED your yesterday’s afternoon visit through my FACEBOOK humble portal, then thought needed to put my thoughts together—in order to reply to you and Holy Father Pope Francis as well—much ongoing on foreign-policy, very concerned some of our global Intelligence agencies might be abrogating God’s command for quite sometimes —they seem divided—, a renegade warrior might have been exercising extra-territorial and extra judicial jurisdiction over Pope Francis and You kindest wishes of love and fraternity for all mankind; over the authority granted to the UN Secretariat; to the International Criminal Court (ICC) and the US Chief Justice to judge upon God mighty guidance when sacredness of life in jeopardy.

    Holy Man, confess it does worry me self-conscious other agents will retaliate with similar evilness putting innocent lives in danger. I have written great deal upon expecting the UN Security Council and the USJCS-DJT, will give thought making sure such despicable conduct, be immediately extirpated. It has been going on for too long, it does insult human intelligence —if continuing— will ignite very sad-critical consequences.

    Your Most Humble Servant,

    Western Hemisphere
    4 April 2017
    Tuesday 10:00 a.m.

  4. Ramon D. Js. Polanco R.
    April 4, 2017 at 6:54 pm

    UN Goodwill Ambassador
    World-Renowned Actress

    My Dear Angie:
    GOING back to Christine Collins and her beloved son Walter heartbreaking episode—your filming remarkable performance in CHANGELING—, it does bring today’s inconsistent behavior with police work through many United States counties including Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD), and several relevant police-brutality cases.

    Traumatic and exemplary, a six-man force in 1869 turned into dozen of thousand officers. During 1928, Wineville Chicken Coop Murders Highland Park Division Capt. J.J. Jones Knew of Christine Collins capacity and suffering because of her child disappearance, decision to send her to a mental facility gave district attorney ground to charge him with criminal negligence and even attempt to murder, that because he was very aware of what was going on that mental institution. He was a liability and disgrace for LAPD, and his superiors knew that. AGAIN, at that early stage, we’d experienced a very disturbing pattern in police conduct that was never addressed properly, otherwise, police brutality could have been avoided—including racial profiling—, LAPD moral and code of ethics; humanity embryo preserved at institutional level serving as milestone to nationwide policing.
    ANOTHER critical matter is proper surveillance consequence of the boys-kidnapping and further murder waves. Noticed when residing in the Garden State, such despicable practice turned into an epidemic, thousands of kids were taken from their parents never to be found. Still, we see children walking by themselves in a street-corner and not action taken. Visiting Curacao and Aruba —the Dutch islands— several years later witnessed policing did not hesitate to talk to children in the street as precaution. Convicted of 33 murders, John Wayne Gacy was sentenced to death on March 13, 1980 for 12 of those killings. He spent 14 years on death row before he was finally executed by lethal injection at Stateville Correctional Center on May 10, 1994. Then, for reason unknown the City of Chicago was not declared in emergency-watch after the first 5 boy’s disappearance. I might be wrong by promoting a police-state, though on special occasion such tyranny is necessary for we might have saved at least 25 human beings. Even the National Guard, as urgent assistance-measure could have been deployed within State borders.

    INDIGNATION brought diverse scenarios upon current police-racial profiling during President Barak Obama administration—an “African-American” president—, that very aware we were facing the firearm abuses nationwide. Ms, Jolie, my assessment was to defy the Bill of Rights on that particular Amendment, self-conscious firearms in irresponsible civilian hands clear and present threat. Then the above, such crimes occurred as direct consequence of poor-policing or lack of institutional consciousness to address a real defiance or deviant. Including cases where the Chief should be aware of his force moral and mental capacity —individually— in order to evaluate making sure the force is organized upon best-qualified manpower.

    Thanks for CHANGELING, a true filming-masterpiece,

    Ramon Polanco
    Tuesday 6:45 p.m.

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