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