On December 18, 1836, Henry Van Der Lyn penned a letter to his nephew describing a visit to the Georgetown home of Col. George Corbin Washington, with a former student, Congressman Aaron Ward. As they prepared to leave, George Washington’s grand-nephew called them back to show them “some relicks” of his esteemed great uncle. In his letter, Van Der Lyn then gushes about the manuscripts, including Washington’s ciphering book, surveying book, a journal of the 1745 expedition to Fort Duquesne, a poll book, diary, and his farming journal, while extolling George Washington’s virtues and encouraging his nephew to preserve his own youthful scribblings to show his friends someday.
It’s a curious anecdote illustrating the cult that surrounded Washington in the decades after his death, but it gains greater significance when considered as a part of the larger story of George Washington’s papers. Months prior to this visit, Col. Washington had turned over an installment of his great-uncle’s papers to the State Department. In an effort to assemble a comprehensive record of the nation’s history, Congress had actually approved the $25,000 purchase of Washington’s public papers in the early summer of 1834. That began a protracted saga involving the transfer of the documents, in part because Jared Sparks'(to whom the family had lent papers in 1827) had yet to complete The Life and Writings of George Washington.
In 1838, the State Department completed a review of the material in State Department which revealed quite a number of missing items when compared with Sparks’ Life and Writings. Among these were the very treasures described in Van Der Lyn’s letter. As it turned out, Col. Washington had set these aside after deeming them of a “private nature” in accordance with the 1834 agreement he had made with Congress, whereby the purchase would include Washington’s public papers. Still many documents remained unaccounted for; as the Library of Congress has described, among other things, the list included “several hundred original letters” replaced by copies.
Those missing letters highlight the unfortunate effects of the Washington papers’ decades-long meander from Mount Vernon to the Library of Congress. Given his revered status, we might be inclined to think of Washington’s papers as inviolate from the moment of his death, but his stature may have been the biggest threat to the collection remaining intact. Instead, individual pieces were inherently valued artifacts and the papers were thus subject to depredations by his nephew, Bushrod Washington, who doled out letters and other items as a mementos. Bushrod also passed along letters for copying, or scholarly projects such those of John Marshall and Jared Sparks. An 1816 letter from Lafayette, in New-York Historical’s collection, provides a particularly good example of how Washington’s nephew dispersed parts of the collection. In it, Lafayette eagerly anticipates Bushrod’s offer to send the French general’s correspondence with his late “paternal general and friend” from 1777 until Washington’s death.
The consequences of this practice are apparent: even borrowed letters might never make their way back to the collection. This is something that James Madison (to whom Bushrod Washington incidentally lent several letters for copying, which he returned) himself faced when he wrote in 1828 exhorting William Wirt to the return a cache of letters from Edmund Pendleton which Madison had loaned for a biography of Patrick Henry, published by Wirt eleven years previous, in 1817.
Admittedly, Bushrod’s seemingly cavalier attitude deserves some consideration as a product his era, since loaning out documents was not uncommon in the period. Yet for those in the archival world of today, where great importance is placed on maintaining a collection as an organic whole, his obliviousness to the integrity of the collection is disappointing to say the least.
There certainly was a measure of reckless destruction that is simply inexcusable too. Jared Sparks comes under especial scrutiny since he vandalized Washington’s draft of his first inaugural by chopping it into a multitude of pieces to hand out as souvenirs, a practice which he continued until 1861.
Washington’s papers thankfully found a home at the Library of Congress but it’s fascinating to realize the unexpected, and sometimes horrifying, misadventures they went on before finding their permanent home. As we mark another July 4, this story provides a sobering reminder of the need to protect and preserve the sources that document the history of the nation.
There are many more twists to this tale than can be recounted here, so if you’re interested in learning the fuller story, there are some excellent summaries available on the Library of Congress’ website (1, 2), and an extensive account by Joseph M. Toner written in the late nineteenth century.