Washington's papers moving to Mount Vernon library

Sunday, July 4, 2010; 3:29 PM

A collection of about 135,000 documents belonging to George Washington and studied at the University of Virginia for more than four decades will be making its way to the home of the nation's first president as the centerpiece of a new library.

Scholars at the Charlottesville school have sifted through more than half of the 90 volumes of papers, issuing two volumes each year. About 15 years from now when the volumes are complete, the papers will become part of what collaborators call the international headquarters for knowledge about America's most well-known founding father.

"The completed library will eventually house the greatest collection of Washington's works held anywhere in the world," said Ted Crackel, editor in chief of the Papers of George Washington project at U.Va. "Copies of some of the documents from private collections will be only available at the library." The Papers of George Washington project, which is housed in the University of Virginia's Alderman Library, was launched in 1968 by the university and Mount Vernon Ladies Association. The association bought Washington's home in 1858 and opened it to the public in 1860. The project was awarded the National Humanities Medal in 2005 by President George W. Bush, becoming the only documentary editing project to receive that honor.

Over the years, the group has learned a lot about Washington by transcribing the documents and identifying people and places mentioned in the papers, which Washington worked hard to preserve.

"I think he'd be a little puzzled that people are interested in things that never occurred to him they'd be interested in, but I think he'd be delighted," Crackel said.

Crackel noted that Washington was a very guarded person in his correspondence. He also noted one remarkable thing learned through the documents was the transformation of Washington's views on slavery.

Early in the Revolution, one of Washington's letters contained comments about his slaves saying he'd "'like to be done with them,' and by that he meant selling them," Crackel said. But the needs on his farm made that impossible.

The summer before he died, Washington wrote a will instructing his wife, Martha, to free the slaves and provide education for the young slaves, job training for the middle-aged ones, and continuing care for the older slaves.

Funded by $38 million from the Donald W. Reynolds Foundation, the library will be called the Fred W. Smith National Library for the Study of George Washington, named for the foundation's longtime chairman.

A collection already at Mount Vernon includes 45 books from Washington's original library, as well as 450 letters and other manuscripts written in his hand. It also includes about 1,500 additional 18th-century books, as well as thousands of important 19th-century newspapers, manuscripts and documents.

While a large collection of Washington's original documents are housed at the Library of Congress, the collection being transferred from U.Va. contains copies of those documents and thousands of others collected from around the world.

The idea of a place that serves as Washington's presidential library began with Washington himself in 1797, Crackel said. Less than a month after leaving the presidency, Washington wrote to a former aide saying he wanted to build a place "for the accommodation & security of my Military, Civil & private Papers which are voluminous and may be interesting."

"As they say, it's never too late to execute a good idea," Crackel said.

© 2010 The Washington Post Company