For 8 1/2 years a small group of historians has been labouring here on a job that may not be finished for another quarter century: enduring George Washington's papers.
By the time the project is finished, it will have taken close to the 49 years Washington spent producing the material in the first place. Close to 150,000 documents will have been assembled, possibly 25 volumes (the first two appeared this year) will have been published, and heaven knows how many graduates students working for the project part-time will have been driven batty reading 18th centruy script. G.W. - as they refer to him - had excellent handwriting, but some of his correspondents were not as conscious of the art of penmanship.
Unlike a previous 39-volume edition of Washington's paper published between 1931 and 1944, these books will include the letters he received as well as those he sent. In the end, the editors expected to have provided an invaluable record for scholars of Washington who will be able to study his paper legacy for clues to what is generally referred to as "the enigma" of his character.
Dramatic new discoveries about the father of our country are not expected. Rather, new conclusions may perhaps be drawn from the patterns that emerge from the complete record. Certainly Washington will never be known for the wit, penetrating insights, or gossip revealed by his papers. His writings are full of at-times-exasperating detail ("When a fox hunting but started nothing. Visited planation in the Neck an Mill.") and characterized by an almost total absence of personal feeling.
"After a while you can pick up the nuances of when he was angry," said University of Virginia graduate student Jeff Delahorne, who is currently supporting himself on the $3.10 an hour he is paid for reading, summarizing an cataloguing some om the less significat letters received or sent by Washington. "For exapmle he found out that this guy had kept a letter he'd wanted destroyed. G.W. wrote back and said he was "disappointed" because he'd hoped for more care from that person. If you hadn't read a lot of his letters you'd never know he was angry."
Delahorne was asked if Washington was ever funny. "Well, sometimes. We had one of the other day where he was talking about "the charming sound of bullets whizzling by his head' ... well, we thought it was funny."
One reviewer said the first two volumes of the diary were "dull" and compared them somewhat unfavourably to those of the scintillating John Adams."... whatever else he was, the Champion of the Revolutionary War and the first president of the United States was not an inspired keeper of a diary ..." wrote John Seelye in the current edition of the Virginia Quarterly Review. "Where an earlier Virginian diarist, Willaim Byrd of Westover, set down with relish his amatory adventures at home and abroad, George Washington solemly records the covering of mares by his imported stallion and the lining of bitches by hunting hounds (and assorted spaniels)."
Washington recorded the weather every day - not something most readers would leap at for entertainment. "We're printing it, every gale, every rain," said assistant editor Fredrick Schmidt, "We know, for example, that some of the most brutal winters occured during the Revolution. They really did suffer.
And what is one to make of the knowledge that Washington edited his early letterbooks sometime before the Revolutionary War - when it was clear he was headed for fame?
"I think he altered and improved them because he thought someone would be reading them one day," said associate editor Dorothy Twohig.
His handwriting changed over the years as well, she said, becoming somewhat larger and grander as he got older and more famous.
No one's handwriting could compare with John Hancock's, however. Coming across a letter from him while reading a collection of letters or microfilm the other day was like stumbling on a formal garden in the middle of a hayfield. "Wow," said graduate assistant Bryson Clevenger," he could get a job as a monk."
"People always ask what sort of a man he really was," said Schmidt. "We can't really say - we know a lot about him, but we don't necessarily know him. Basically I think we have our noses too close to the ground. He was more a man of action. (than words and) that may be part of the problem in trying to get into his mind."
Of course, daily contact with a person's diaries and letters does lead to some conclusions
"I like to think of him as a very modern man," said Schmidt, whose own specialty is the study of colonial labor practices. "He wrote a lot about labor problems, and by the 1780s had almost all black overseers because the hired white labor would quit at the least provocation. They were called "buckskins" and were very independent and very proud."
Schmidt had spent two hours that morning trying to figure out if a boat Washington referred to was a "brig" or a "brigantine." Washington used both term.
"If it was a distinction made at the time it must have meant something," he said. "It might indicate to some researcher where the user of the word was from. There was a slight difference in sails between a brig and a brigantine, as far as I can tell. He used the boat for shipping flour, corn and herring to the West Indies. The boat had different names under different owners. He named it Farmer - typical of George."
Dr. William W. Abbot took over as editor of the papers at the beginning of the year, when former editor Donald Jackson retired. A professor of history here at the University of Virginia. Abbot is a specialist in the 18th century. He said he has spent a great deal of his time since taking over as editor familiarizing himself with Washington and his writing. "Before I came they told me I'd get to like George," he said, "and they assured me I'd like Martha too."
Thus far his two main impressions are that Washington had "incredible patience. He was constantly bailing out old war buddies, paying for their children's educations, helping them get jobs. The other clear impression is of a man devoted to agriculture. He was a dedicated farmer, very involved in experimentation."
"G.W. was one of the few founding fathers who was not a lawyer." Schmidt said, "His concern for his farms was unusual in that respect. Madison for example, went bananas at Montpellier his farm after awhile."
Nor is it commonly known that Washington loved the theater, or rather, show business. This is known, Schmidt said, from records of expenditures in his account books. For example, he spent one pound six shillings to see "a sagacious dog," in Williamsburg, and also paid money to see a "tyger" - as well as plays and performances of other kinds.
The Washington Papers project costs about $100,000 a year, most of it in salaries for the seven full-time staff members. It is funded by the Mount Vernon Ladies Association (which runs Mount Vernon), the National Endowment for the Humanities, the National Historic Publications and Records Commission (NHPRC), private foundation and the University, which donates office space in the Alderman Library (a suite down the hall from the Madison Papers project).
For the most part the project is unnoticed on the campus, although occasionally students who have seen a listing for "Washington Papers" wander up hoping to buy a Post or a Star.
While larger in scope and size than most, the Washington Papers is only one of many "papers projects" in progress.
The publications and records commission granted about $2 million this year to 40 different projects, including the Washington Papers, according to assistant executive director Roger Bruns. The grants range from $5,000 to $100,000 and encompass not only Founding Fathers but such things as a "fantastic collection" of indormation about tramps assembled by a Hartford, Conn., clergyman in the 1890.
In recent years, Bruns said, the trend has been away from projects as large and as long as the Washington, Jefferson, or Benjamin Franklin projects. (At any rate, he said, all the major Founding Fathers' papers are in progress, except for James Monroe "who didn't leave many papers of interest anyway.")
There has also been a trend toward funding projects on famous women and members of minority groups, such as Chief John Ross the Cherokee who resisted U.S. seizure of his people's lands in Georgia, and Frederick Douglass, the militant black protest leader of the 1870s and 1880.
Although Bruns prefers the shorter projects (three to four years) that aim at fewer volumes (one or two), he doesn't think the possible 75 volumes of Washington papers are unnecessary. "After all, he was George Washington," he said.
There is division in the academic community on the value of straight documentary projects such as these, editors at the Washington Papers said. Some people think that "laundry lists" are a waste of time and money that might be better spent on interpretative work. Not surprisingly, the editors here disagree.
"Fifteen years ago there was great scorn for the laundry list approach," Abbot said. "Now all young historians are social historians and all they want is lists of slaves, goods shipped out and in, etc. You just can't tell what will be wanted in the future."
"Americans tend to be very impatient," Schmidt said. "These projects are expensive and take a long time. The attitude toward history among most Americans is that it's a junkyard - very interesting, but all dead. Students see it as being all known. I prefer the Greek definition - to seek . . . mostly we're dealing with unknowns.
"I'm not going to play the game of comparing the cost of this project to the cost of one bomb, that's silly," Abbot said, "Is it better to do this than to keep someone from starving? I can't make that sort of argument. At this point the investment (in this project) is such that it would be a tragic waste to dicontinue it . . . This generation of leaders was in a position to do things that really mattered, and they were aware of it and excited. Historians tend to condescend to the past; the best antidote is to go back and read what they really said."