George Washington's Letters

The collection of letters (known as correspondence) that were penned by George Washington during his life is quite large. In addition to the numerous letters that Washington wrote as both Commander in Chief as well as President of the United States, several private letters written by the great American hero to friends, family members, and lovers have survived throughout time. Since George Washington was a very meticulous and self-disciplined man, many of his letters are still preserved today due to measures that he took both before his death and after his death. Also, George Washington was a man full of ambition. Perhaps he had an inkling that someday he would be famous, or at the very least incredibly influential, and, therefore, he wanted to preserve his collection of letters for his legacy. Whatever the case may be, he organized his correspondence almost to the point of obsession. Many of his letters were copied directly after he had written them using a device called a letterpress (this small machine would lift some of the wet ink from the page of a freshly written letter in order to transfer the ink to another piece of paper to create an identical copy of the letter). Also, he would file his letters in letter books (letters bound together as the pages of a book). Some of this work he did on his own, and some of the work was done by his hired secretaries and aides.

The care with which George Washington handled his collection of correspondence was illustrated during the American War for Independence. While instructing his cousin Lund Washington in the overseeing of Mount Vernon while General Washington was away at war, George was reported to have requested that Lund ensure the safety of George's wife Martha Washington as well as the general's collection of letters. This order does not necessarily mean that Washington saw the safety of his correspondence to be of equal value to the safety of his wife, but it does offer a glimpse into the effort that he gave to ensure that his letters were protected.

During the war, Washington had his collection of letters moved to Philadelphia for safety reasons. After the war, one of the primary things that Washington hoped to accomplish during his short return to Mount Vernon before he was called upon to serve at the Constitutional Convention was the reorganizing of his correspondence. Following his time as President, Washington once again spent much of his time at his Mount Vernon home going through his collection of papers. He even was planning on having them stored in a special house on his property following his death. However, the construction of this storage room was never completed before Washington's passing. Even on his deathbed, some of George Washington's last words included a comment to his secretary Tobias Lear that Lear tend to the papers upon Washington's death. After Martha Washington chose to burn her private correspondence with George in order to ensure her privacy, Lear dutifully followed the late President's request; however, Washington's will indicated that his collection of correspondence be given to his nephew, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Bushrod Washington. Bushrod Washington was less than careful with the letters in the years following George Washington's death. Shortly after receiving the correspondence, he lent the collection to Chief Justice John Marshall to give Marshall content to write a biography on George Washington. During their time with Justice Marshall, some of the individual letters were damaged or lost. Additionally, Bushrod gave away some of the letters as gifts in order to gain political favor. After Bushrod Washington's death, his nephew George Corbin Washington inherited the collection of letters. During Corbin's lifetime, he sold the remaining set of letters from George Washington's collection to the State Department, where they were eventually given to the Library of Congress.

The Library of Congress made George Washington's correspondence public in the 1900s.