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Collection George Washington Papers

Series 2, Letterbooks, 1754-1799

Forty-one letterbooks dating from 1754, when Washington was a young colonial officer in the French and Indian War, to 1797, his last year as president of the United States.

Long before there was email or even carbon paper, people in business, government, and private life kept copies of their outgoing mail in blank books called letterbooks. Letterbooks were often large and leatherbound and included an alphabetical index that writers could use to record the names of their correspondents. Blank letterbooks were for sale at stationery shops, and the labels stationers pasted inside their covers provide a record of where the book was purchased. Some letter-writers made modest letterbooks for themselves, folding and sewing together sheets of paper by hand.

Series 2 of the George Washington papers consists of forty-one letterbooks dating from 1754, when Washington was a young colonial officer in the French and Indian War, to 1797, his last year as president of the United States. In addition to outgoing letters, Washington's letterbooks also include copies of  military orders, speeches  (including his first inaugural address, April 30, 1789), congressional reports and resolutions, and other papers. Washington's letterbooks also contain copies of some of the letters he received. While Washington's earliest letterbooks are in his own hand, those he kept during the Revolutionary War and as president of the United States, when the volume of his correspondence was very great, are largely in the hands of his secretaries. During the Revolutionary War Washington's aides-de-camp served as his secretaries and included Alexander Hamilton, John Laurens, Joseph Reed, Tench Tilghman, and others. During his presidency Tobias Lear, and nephews Robert Lewis and Bartholomew Dandridge were among his secretaries. The editors of the published editions of Washington's papers identify many of the secretaries' hands in the letterbooks.

Letterbooks 1-6, 1755 to 1758, document Washington's experience in the French and Indian War, but only two of them are the originals Washington maintained at the time. One of the original letterbooks is volume 2, which covers the period in 1755 when Washington was aide-de-camp to the British general Edward Braddock. The other is volume 6, from the period in 1758 when Washington, as commander of Virginia's militia companies, served under General Henry Bouquet in the campaign led by General John Forbes to capture Fort Duquesne (today, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania) from the French. At some underdetermined later point Washington returned to these letterbooks from early in his military career and edited them with the goal of improving the writing rather than changing the substance. He then had them recopied, with his editorial changes, into new volumes. Volumes 1, 3, 4, and 5 are the recopied volumes, containing contents from volumes 2 and 6 and from other letterbooks that Washington edited and had recopied but that no longer survive. To learn more about Washington's French and Indian war letterbooks and the changes Washington made to them see "The Letter Book for the Braddock Campaign, 2 March  – 15 August, 1755," and "Preface," The Papers of George Washington, Colonial Series, Volume 1, ed. W.W. Abbot (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1983), xvii-xix.

After letterbook 6, which ends in 1758, there is a gap. The letterbooks start again on June 24, 1775, two weeks after Congress appointed Washington commander of the Continental Army. While these letterbooks, volumes 7-11, are dominated by war news, they also show Washington managing his Virginia estate, Mount Vernon, from afar, and include his correspondence with his farm manager, Lund Washington (a cousin).

In May, 1781 Washington put Colonel Richard Varick  in charge of gathering, organizing, and copying his Revolutionary War correspondence into new letterbooks. Among the mass of correspondence Varick and his secretaries copied were the letterbooks in Series 2. The new copies are known as the Varick Transcripts, Series 3 of the George Washington papers. For a description of these see Series 3, Varick Transcripts, 1775-1785.

Most of the remaining letterbooks in Series 2 document Washington's presidency. Volumes 16-24 contain general correspondence from the whole span of his two terms, while volumes 25-40, also covering the whole date range, are divided by type of correspondent as follows:

25-27 Congress
28-30 State Department
31-34 Treasury
35-37 War Department
38-40 Civic, Fraternal, and Religious Groups

Letterbooks 28-30, Washington's correspondence with the State Department, contain photostats that appear to have been made from originals now at the National Archives, R.G.59, George Washington's Correspondence with his Secretaries of State.

Letterbooks 38-40 contain Washington's communications with groups of citizens. Included in these three volumes are copies of letters (often both received and sent), addresses, resolutions, and more, congratulating Washington on his elections, offering praise and appreciation, greeting him when he toured their towns, and offering views on a range of issues such as, for example, the controversial Jay Treaty of 1795. These groups included state legislatures; town mayors and aldermen; churches and church organizations representing the wide array of Protestant denominations in the United States, as well as Catholic and Jewish religious and other organizations; colleges and universities; Masonic lodges and branches of the Society of the Cincinnati; and groups of citizens assembled by town or occupation. Copies of the August 17, 1790 address Washington received from Moses Seixas, warden of the Newport, Rhode Island Hebrew Congregation, now known as the Touro Synagogue, are included in Volume 39 (page 17), as is Washington's reply (page 19) in which, echoing Seixas, he declared that "we now . . . behold a Government, erected by the Majesty of the people – a Government, which to bigotry gives no sanction, to persecution no assistance." (Seixas's original letter is in Series 4, Correspondence; Washington's reply is in private hands.)

Volume 41, Journal of the Proceedings of the President, January 5, 1793 – February 21, 1797, while a letterbook in format, is different in content from the rest of the volumes in Series 2. Its title is: "A Memorandum or Journal of Letters &c Which Have Been Submitted to the President of the United States by the Heads of the Departments for his Perusal or Approbation, from the 5th of January, 1793." Kept in the hands of several secretaries, written sometimes in the first person, sometimes in the third, it contains summaries of letters received by Washington from members of his cabinet, or received by them and brought to him to consider. More than simply an annotated list of letters, it includes records of Washington's conversations with his cabinet secretaries, and his actions in response to them, dating from the last year of his first term in office to near the close of his second term.

The letterbooks in Series 2 are one example of Washington's practice of creating multiple copies of his letters. Often he wrote a draft, then a corrected copy to send, and then a letterbook copy to keep for his records. Sometimes he generated a fourth copy, as when he had his French and Indian War and Revolutionary War correspondence recopied into new letterbooks. When the Library of Congress has the papers of Washington's correspondents, such as Thomas Jefferson, the recipients' copies are here, too. At times, such as during the Revolutionary War and his presidency, the copies in Washington's letterbooks appear to have been made from the drafts he kept rather than the letters he sent. A byproduct of these methods is that there are sometimes variations between the multiple versions of a single letter. Typically the variations are slight; where they exist the editors of the published editions of Washington's papers note and compare them. You can see the modern published edition of Washington's papers online at Founders Online, and transcriptions from older published editions are available with the letters on this website.