George Washington: From the Horse’s Mouth

The writings of George Washington from the original manuscript sources: volume 1


    The people of the United States are justly proud of their literary men and women. They likewise are proud of their outstanding statesmen. Literary power and statesmanship were combined in George Washington, the greatest political leader of his time and also the greatest intellectual and moral force of the Revolutionary period. Everybody knows Washington as a quiet member of the Virginia Assembly, of the two Continental Congresses, and of the Constitutional Convention. Few people realize that he was also the most voluminous American writer of his period, and that his principles of government have had more influence on the development of the American commonwealth than those of any other man.

    Unfortunately, Washington for many years was interpreted to his countrymen chiefly through warped biographies written upon a great deal of legendary assumption. Until very recently no readable biography of George Washington in reasonable compass made him stand for what he was — the most potent human and intellectual force in a firmament of American intellect. Nowadays good biographies of Washington are available, written from the sources. Many of them are devoted to a particular phase of his activity — the military side, the political side, the personal side. Hence when the United States George Washington Bicentennial Commission began its work it did not attempt to inspire new biographies. It selected as its most important literary duty the making Washington better known, by spreading abroad his own thoughts and plans and hopes and inspirations in the exact form in which he framed them.

    Thus one of the first decisions of the Commission was to provide an edition of Washington’s writings as complete aspossible, in a form which would make it available for the present generation and forever hereafter. Of the two previous editions of Washington’s Writings the first, a hundred years ago, was the twelve-volume edition, edited by Jared Sparks, a pioneer in collecting and publishing historical documents. Proper canons in historical editing were not yet developed, and it hurt the feelings of Sparks if the great man misspelled or seemed to him ungrammatical. Therefore the Sparks edition can not be relied upon to tell us what Washington actually did say. The edition of Worthington C. Ford, forty years ago, was scholarly and carefully edited, but materials were then lacking for a complete edition, the production was limited by commercial considerations, and it is now out of print.

    The Commission has set out to publish a definitive edition of all the written and printed words of George Washington in the form in which they left his hands, including several volumes of General Orders, almost the whole of which up to now had remained in manuscript only. Most of his original writings of every kind are fortunately preserved in the Library of Congress. Other libraries and private owners of manuscripts have permitted photostats to be made for inclusion in the great publication. When this series is completed, therefore, almost the whole of his reported thoughts will be within the reach of readers, investigators, and writers.

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