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W.W. 'Bill' Abbot, 87

W.W. Abbot, 87; U-Va. Professor, Editor Opened Window Into 1st President's Mind

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By T. Rees Shapiro
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 9, 2009

W.W. "Bill" Abbot, 87, a University of Virginia history professor who was the longtime editor of the papers of George Washington, a project seeking to publish a definitive collection of the founding father's works, died Aug. 31 at a hospital in Charlottesville. He had congestive heart failure.

Dr. Abbot worked on Washington's papers for more than 15 years, raised millions of dollars in funding, and read or edited more than 135,000 documents. His work researching the Colonial period has been credited with greatly expanding what had been known about the Continental government during its infancy.

"Bill was always a major figure in the American understanding of our early years," said Edmund Morgan, a Pulitzer Prize-winning historian and professor emeritus at Yale University.

"The major achievement of the 20th century" Morgan said, "was to initiate the progress to publish all the papers of the founding fathers and so have a complete record of their minds which wouldn't be understood without what they were reading and writing. None of the founding fathers would have been more important than Washington."

He added that Dr. Abbot "was one of those who saw the importance of their full understanding."

The Washington papers project has about 50 full volumes and is expected to be completed in 2017 and span more than 80 volumes. This project differs from previous attempts to chronicle the founding father's papers because of its depth. The project, a comprehensive perspective on the first president, tells "both sides of the story" and includes thousands of letters addressed to Washington, said former project editor Dorothy Twohig.

The first president was exceedingly methodical and would often write a number of letters to his general officers asking their advice and opinions before coming to a conclusion or making a decision on a matter.

Dr. Abbot was just as meticulous. Twohig said Dr. Abbot went to extreme lengths to consult every possible document to provide detailed annotations explaining the context of each letter and diary entry to help readers understand "why Washington took the measures that he did."

"He was really fascinated by the way Washington's mind worked," Twohig said. "You couldn't help but see the similarities between them."

William Wright Abbot III was born May 20, 1922, in Louisville, Ga., and graduated in 1943 from the University of Georgia. After Navy service during World War II, Dr. Abbot received a master's degree from Duke University in 1949 and a doctorate in history in 1953.

Early in his career, he taught at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill., Rice University in Houston and the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg. He joined the history faculty at Virginia in 1966 and worked on Washington's papers from 1977 until he retired in 1992. After retiring, Dr. Abbot continued editing the Washington papers on a voluntary basis until 1998.

Besides his volumes on George Washington's papers, his books included "The Royal Governors of Georgia, 1754-1775" (1959) and "The Colonial Origins of the United States, 1607-1763" (1975).

In his spare time Dr. Abbot tended his garden and would often come home from his office and get right to work mowing the lawn while still wearing his khakis, coat, and tie.

Survivors include his wife of 51 years, Eleanor Pearre Abbot, of Charlottesville; two sons, William W. Abbot IV of Baltimore and John P. Abbot of the District; a sister; and two grandchildren.

Washington was keenly aware of his seat in history and scrutinized his public appearance. He wrote every letter with careful mind to how it would be interpreted in the future, which has led many historians to describe Washington as elusive. But Twohig said no one "knew" the first president better than Dr. Abbot. He claimed to have "lived with Washington for 20 years."

"I ended up without any sense that I understood Washington or that it was in my power to explain him to others," Dr. Abbot wrote about his research in the introduction to "In Search of George Washington" (2006). "I did, however, come to feel that I had somehow made Washington's acquaintance, that I would recognize him if I saw him, or heard him speak, and I became certain I would know when someone else got him wrong. Best of all I got to like him, and to find him endlessly interesting."


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