Because of an editing error, an article Wednesday on the exhibition of George Washington's will contained incorrect biographical information. Feb. 22 will be the 256th anniversary of his birth. (Published 2/5/88)

For nearly 200 years, George Washington's will -- a document reflecting the character of the nation's first president and his views on such subjects as education and slavery -- has been kept in the courthouse vaults of Fairfax County.

The will was probated in 1800 and tucked away. It has generally remained out of view, with only a few exceptions. One was during the Civil War, when it was folded into a letter-sized packet and rushed to Richmond for safekeeping from Union troops. On another occasion, in July 1982, the will was escorted by police to a special one-day Smithsonian Institution exhibit.

Now the will -- in which Washington discussed the disposition of property ranging from land holdings to Revolutionary War swords and spyglasses -- is about to make another public appearance. On Feb. 16, the 56th anniversary of Washington's birth, it will be put on display in a specially built, alarm-equipped case on the third floor of the Fairfax County Courthouse.

"We've had a number of people comment about the lack of this type of display," said Fairfax's chief deputy court clerk, Glenn Dryden, explaining the reason for the exhibit. The original document will be displayed only occasionally, to prevent damage. The rest of the time, a copy will be exhibited.

Washington, a resident and one-time justice in Fairfax County, wrote his will at age 67 while in fine health, according to Ellen McCallister Clark, librarian at Mount Vernon, Washington's plantation on the Potomac. Five months later, while riding around his farm as it began to snow, Washington caught a chill and developed a throat inflammation known to his doctors as quinsy.

Various remedies, including bloodletting, were tried, but Washington quickly died of suffocation brought on by the infection.

The bulk of his estate was left to his wife, Martha -- testimony, perhaps, of his affection, historians say, for he was required to consign her only one-third.

In his will, Washington expressed "serious regret" that young Americans traveled to foreign countries for their education, "often before their minds were formed, or they had imbibed any adequate ideas of the happiness of their own, contracting too frequently not only habits of dissipation and extravagence {sic}, but principles unfriendly to Republican government and to the true and genuine liberties of mankind, which, thereafter, are rarely overcome."

To remedy the situation, Washington stipulated that 50 of his shares in a particular company be used to found a national university in the District of Columbia -- "a great dream which never quite came to be, but it was a vision of his," Clark said.

Washington's will also indicates that he was concerned about how to go about freeing his slaves so that they could gain a place in society, Clark said. "He goes into great detail to see that they weren't just unleashed, but were to be given annuities, and that they'd be educated if they were young," she said.

A census taken just before Washington wrote his will indicates that 317 slaves lived on the five farms that made up Mount Vernon. Washington granted freedom to his slaves upon the death of his wife; she freed most of them at the end of 1800, the earliest date that liberation was legally possible, according to Virginia statutes, Clark said.

Martha Washington died in 1802, about 2 1/2 years after her husband. Her will, also in the possession of Fairfax, has a history, too, said county archivist Constance Ring.

It was stolen from the county courthouse during the Civil War by an Ohio soldier, then acquired by financier J.P. Morgan, and later returned in 1915 by order of the U.S. Supreme Court, Ring said.

For now, though, it remains in the vault.