The George Washington Papers at the Library of Congress

Essay:"Yr. Most Humble Obt. Servt." George Washington's Letterbooks

We are accustomed to thinking of the modern office as uniquely laden with paper. But the eighteenth-century "office"--whether that of a merchant, representative to a colonial assembly, or, a president of the United States--was just as burdened with paper proliferation. An eighteenth-century correspondent was compelled, more than we are today, to respond to every single letter he or she received. A response was often the only way a writer had of knowing that a letter had arrived. This was why most letters began with a specific acknowledgment of receipt of previous correspondence, citing its date, "ultimo" meaning the previous month, or "instant" meaning the present month. This letterbook copy of a 1789 letter from Washington to an applicant for appointment acknowledges his letter of "26th Ultimo." George Washington to William Milner, April 1, 1789.

To be certain of arrival of important letters, a merchant, legislator, or private individual might send several copies of the same letter by different routes. These different routes might be by formal post, by courier or friend traveling in that direction, or by a trading ship. Because of that practice, recipients' copies of letters sometimes survive today in duplicate or triplicate, occasionally showing small differences in composition. Still, although letters miscarried, it is perhaps a mistake to assume that people in the eighteenth century could not have reasonable reliance on correspondence and the posts. It was, after all, just about the only means of communication between individuals at a distance from each other. That people could have such reliance is indicated by Washington's amazement in his own time that a letter took a year to travel from England to Mount Vernon. He expected something better! In this January 30, 1785, letter to a prominent English radical, Patience Wright, Washington apologizes for not having responded to her letter, dated December 8, 1783, which he had just recently received. Such a long delay possibly made its ultimate arrival in the right place all the more impressive. George Washington to Patience Wright, January 30, 1785.

Written correspondence was a significant form of social interaction, requiring formal courtesies. The most important of these was polite acknowledgment. After the Revolutionary War ended in 1783, Washington found himself something of a national and international celebrity. People wrote to him from all over the world, presenting epic poems, dramas, and songs written in his honor, and making various requests of him. Some of these writers, while prominent, were strangers to him. Each letter nonetheless required a polite response. In this January 5, 1785, letter to former Revolutionary War general and friend Henry Knox, Washington complains frankly of the burdens of this correspondence: "Applications, which oftentimes cannot be complied with. Enquiries, which would employ the pen of a historian to satisfy. Letters of compliment, as unmeaning perhaps as they are troublesome, but which must be attended to." Combined with the demands of his estate, Mount Vernon, which had been neglected during the War, the stream of visitors, and the "common place business which employs my pen," this correspondence had become a vexation and prevented him from corresponding "with those I love." George Washington to Henry Knox, January 5, 1785. Nonetheless, his position and reputation required that he acknowledge them all.

Letters were also an important way of acquiring and sharing important regional, national and international news. Numerous copies of a letter or extracts might be made for enclosure in correspondence with family, friends, and work associates. Many of Washington's letters to Congress during the Revolutionary War contain extracts from or complete copies of letters and reports he had received.

Finally, for one's own reference, it was prudent to make and retain a copy of every letter one sent. This was done in letterbooks, large bound volumes of blank paper that one purchased or had made up. Letterbooks were a means of organizing and retaining copies of outgoing correspondence. They often had indexes in either the front or back. These indexes were simple listings of letter recipients under alphabetical headings with a corresponding page number on which the letter could be found in the volume. Index to Letterbook 4. Ideally, a letterbook would have running subject heads with dates at the top, such as "Letters Orders and Instructions January 1756" in this sample page from Series 2, Letterbook 3. Sample Page Letterbook 3. Each document was also nicely separated by a horizontal line and the date of each indicated at the top. But this letterbook was made at Mount Vernon after the Revolution. Other letterbooks were created under less comfortable circumstances, as indicated by this page from Series 2, Letterbook 7, kept by Washington during the Revolutionary War. Sample Page Letterbook 7.

In Washington's 1785 letter to Henry Knox above, he wrote that he intended to hire a secretary to assist him with the burdens of his correspondence. Letterbooks often contained several "hands," as it was not unusual to employ secretaries to take "dictation," or, to write themselves the more formulaic letters and responses to correspondence and to copy them into letterbooks. Washington employed a number of secretaries during his lifetime, often several at a time. During the Revolutionary War, his aides de camp often acted as secretaries and a number of Washington's letters from that period are in the hands of Alexander Hamilton, John Laurens, and Tench Tilghman. Washington sometimes employed young relatives, such as his nephew Robert Lewis, and Bartholomew Dandridge, his wife Martha's nephew, who was employed during Washington's first presidency. Related or not, secretaries became a member of Washington's "family," whether that was his "military family" during the War, his "presidential family" during his two administrations, or his extended household family at Mount Vernon. In this certificate Washington wrote in 1793 for a former secretary, William Jackson, he describes him as a worthy "member of my family" from the fall of 1789 until early 1792. Certificate for William Jackson. Secretaries' duties justified their inclusion as members of Washington's household. Tobias Lear, who was Washington's secretary at Mount Vernon after the Revolution, and in New York and Philadelphia during his presidency, managed the financial accounts of Washington's large household, corresponded on his behalf with staff at Mount Vernon and business associates elsewhere, and relieved Washington of the burdens of a large public correspondence. One suspects Lear often attempted to soften the disappointment of citizens at hearing from him rather than from George Washington. In this August 28, 1790, letter to Eliphalet Fitch, who had sent Washington some pamphlets on the slave trade, Lear states that he is writing "In obedience to the command of the President of the United States." Tobias Lear to Eliphalet Fitch, August 28, 1790. *

* Washington's secretaries and the letters that are in their hands are identified where possible in annotation in the Writings of George Washington, ed. John C. Fitzpatrick. 39 vols. United States Government Printing Office, 1931-1944, from which the text for this online publication is derived.

Letterbooks also formed a historical archive to be preserved and occasionally edited for posterity. Martha Washington has been thought by historians to have destroyed her correspondence with her husband after his death, because she regarded these papers as private. Washington not only preserved his own papers in good order but attempted in one instance to improve their content. At some point after the Revolution, Washington went through his letterbooks for the period 1754 through 1758 and made textual changes to the letters therein. These changes aimed at smoothing and polishing the syntax of what he'd written as a youth rather than at altering the substance, although admittedly the two can be difficult to separate. After he had edited the originals, he then had the texts re-copied with the changes into new letterbooks. In Series 2, Letterbooks 1, 3, 4, and 5 are the new copies Washington had made by his nephew Robert Lewis, who acted as his secretary during this period. Letterbooks 2 and 6 are all that remain of the originals showing the editorial changes Washington made in an attempt to improve the style of his younger self. In this April 2, 1755, letter to General Edward Braddock's British aide de camp, Robert Orme, Washington discusses the conditions upon which he might join Braddock's military "family" as a volunteer aide de camp. We can see the changes made to the original letter in Letterbook 2 and the smooth, recopied version in Letterbook 1. George Washington to Robert Orme Letterbook 2. George Washington to Robert Orme Letterbook 1.

Letterbooks may separate out one side of a correspondence from another, but they gather together in one volume a rich record of activities for particular historical periods. They also make available in one place copies of letters that we would otherwise be forced to find in the individual collections of Washington's numerous correspondents, scattered over many institutions and repositories. Where recipients' copies have not survived the centuries, letterbook copies supply their place. That Washington regarded his letterbooks as a rich historical archive is indicated by his efforts in creating and maintaining them. He also cared deeply about their preservation, making particular efforts during the Revolution, the most difficult period of his life, to safeguard his papers from injury or destruction.

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