On his deathbed, George Washington held his secretary's hand and asked him to fulfill one last duty. In his account, Tobias Lear wrote, "He said to me, 'I find I am going, my breath can not last long. I believed from the first that the disorder would prove fatal. Do you arrange and record all of my late military letters and papers. Arrange my accounts and settle my books, as you know more about them than any one else, and let Mr. Rawlins finish recording my other letters which he has begun." Six hours later, Washington was gone.
To say that Washington considered the preservation of his papers important is an understatement. "Washington had a sense of history," says Theodore Crackel, editor in chief of The Papers of George Washington. "He had a sense that the Revolution was an extraordinarily important event in the history of this nation and that he was going to play a very important role in this. And that preserving the papers--his papers and the papers of the Revolution--was an extraordinarily important goal. So it was something that he began to do from the very beginning."
Even before Washington had a staff to make copies of the documents that flowed through his headquarters, he had already begun to collect his personal papers. There were the detailed records of his farming, trading and land interests, as well as the letter books he retained from his time as commander of the Virginia Regiment in the 1750s. As one of the nation's very earliest commercial farmers, he also kept a meticulous diary recording the weather, the state of his crops, and any visitors to Mount Vernon. There were financial account books, orders and invoices from British merchants, lists of slaves, books, and extracts from treatises on agriculture. In a wartime letter to his cousin, in the same sentence, Washington requests a safe place for Mrs. Washington and his papers. That so much of it has survived attests to Washington's careful preservation. That so much is available to us now is a testament to the great work done by the staff of The Papers of George Washington project at the University of Virginia.
The project was begun in 1969 by the University of Virginia and the Mount Vernon Ladies' Association. In addition to the papers that were housed at the Library of Congress, a search was instituted to find other documents. "One of the things that was done when the project was launched was that while the editors began work on the diaries, they were also, in parallel to that, conducting a search all over the nation and all over the world for Washington's documents. They found them in more than three hundred repositories and libraries around the world. It was a massive search. We continue to find documents."
To date, there are 135,000 documents in photographic form at the project's offices. Of the projected ninety-volume series, fifty-four have been published. "We have moved very rapidly through the work," says Crackel. "But, we've also had a reputation of being extraordinarily careful about what we do and extraordinarily precise."
Precision is important in this endeavor because the papers reveal not only Washington as farmer, commander in chief, and president, they reveal the man himself. "These papers are the embodiment of Washington that we have today," says Crackel. "They are the closest thing to the real live George Washington because they are his words."
Crackel has been most struck by Washington as a visionary. "What I have come to find in this since I've been reading his letters is his vision," he says, "his vision of America, his understanding of what this nation could be, his sense that this nation was not bounded by the Appalachian Mountains or even the Mississippi. He had a sense that this nation was going to expand, and though no one had done much exploring of the west, that this nation was going to be much larger and extend well beyond the original thirteen colonies. He had a marvelous vision of the future of this nation."