Joseph J. Ellis notes in his book, "His Excellency: George Washington" that "Most of the prominent leaders of the revolutionary generation recognized that they were making history, and took care to preserve their correspondence and edit their memoirs with an eye on posterity's judgment. But none of them, including such assiduous memorialists as Franklin, Jefferson, and John Adams, were as earnest in courting posterity as Washington."
In his new biography, "Washington: A Life," Ron Chernow also recounts Washington's "persistent concern for his personal papers, which he saw as guaranteeing his posthumous fame and preserving his record from distortion by posterity." Chernow writes, "The way Washington fussed over these documents confirms that he knew he was a historic personage and reflected his awareness that his personal saga was inextricably entwined with that of the new nation."
As early as August 1776, while still a general in the Continental Army, George Washington sent a box of his personal papers to Philadelphia for safekeeping, and sometime during the following year he had a chest with strong hinges constructed to hold them. As the war against Britain raged on, Washington wrote a letter to the president of the Continental Congress on April 4, 1781 to express his frustration that so many of his "valuable documents which may be of equal public utility and private satisfaction" were in such disarray. According to Chernow:
Washington suggested hiring a team of writers led by an officer named Richard Varick, who would work under Washington’s direct supervision, "to preserve from injury and loss such valuable papers." Washington gave Varick detailed instructions for organizing his personal papers and transcribing his correspondence. Washington's military orders and instructions were to be organized meticulously and his letters transcribed in a "clear and intelligent manner, that there may be no difficulty in the references." In "His Excellency," Joseph Ellis writes:
"Varick and his team worked eight hours a day for two years in Poughkeepsie, New York, before producing twenty-eight volumes. When they were completed and about to be shipped to Mount Vernon, Washington assured Varick that 'neither the present age or posterity will consider the time and labour which have been employed in accomplishing it, unprofitably spent.'" [p. 151-152]
Once the material was transcribed, Varick returned the original documents to Washington, but Washington would insist that both the transcripts and original documents belonged to the people, "as species of Public property, sacred in my hands." I for one am glad that the "Father of our Country" had such foresight. Happy Birthday, Mr. President!
Gordon Belt is an information professional, archives advocate, public historian, and author of The History Press book, John Sevier: Tennessee's First Hero, which examines the life of Tennessee's first governor, John Sevier, through the lens of history and memory. On The Posterity Project, Gordon offers reflections on archives, public history, and memory from his home state of Tennessee.