Special Presentation Graphic "Introduction" to
The Diaries of George Washington

Introduction | Washington as a Diarist | The Worlds of Washington | Washington and the New Agriculture | The Weather Watch | History of the Diary Manuscripts |
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History of the Diary Manuscripts

Except for special occasions, such as his mission to the French commandant and his voyage to Barbados, Washington apparently kept no daily record until 1760. Even then, his diary-keeping was erratic until 1768, when he settled down to a program that he was to continue faithfully until he became commander in chief in 1775.

Washington kept no diary during most of the Revolution. The rigor of his activities would have made it difficult to do so, and the full record of the period which accumulated in his official letterbooks and general orders rendered the custom less necessary. He tried to resume his old habit in 1781, but it was not until he had resigned his command and returned home that he became a confirmed diarist again.

It seems likely that diaries were kept for the presidential years 1789-97, and the fact that so few have survived is particularly vexing to historians. "The Journal of the Proceedings of the President (1793-97)," a daily account of Washington's official activities and correspondence, written in the first person but kept by his secretaries, will be published later. An entry for 16 April 1789, recounting his departure from Mount Vernon to assume office, appears only in Jared Sparks, ed., The Writings of George Washington (12 vols.; Boston, 1833-37), 1:441-42. The entry for 23 April 1789, remarking on the enthusiasm with which the public received him, is from Washington Irving, Life of George Washington (5 vols.; New York, 1857-59), 4:511. So at least we know that Jared Sparks and Washington Irving had access to material indicating that Washington began his presidency with a determination to continue the record. Diaries are extant for the period covering his tours of the northern and southern states and a brief one kept during the Whisky Rebellion of 1794. Apart from an unrewarding record for 1795, all else is lost for the presidential years.

The earliest diaries were kept in notebooks of various sizes and shapes, but when Washington began in earnest to make daily entries he chose to make them in interleaved copies of the Virginia Almanack, a Williamsburg publication. By the end of the Revolution he had grown accustomed to the blank memorandum books used in the army, and he adopted a similar notebook for his civilian record. By 1795 he had gone back to his interleaved almanacs.

As Fitzpatrick observes, ruled paper was not available to Washington, and he obtained regularly spaced lines by using a ruled guide-sheet beneath his writing paper. "This practice gives us evidence of his failing vision, as the diaries, after the Presidency, show frequent examples of his pen running off the outer edge of the small diary page, and whole words, written on the ruled guide-sheet beneath, escaped notice of not being on the diary page itself" (John C. Fitzpatrick, ed., The Diaries of George Washington, 1748-1799 [4 vols.; Boston and New York, 1925], 1:x).

Upon Washington's death in 1799, most of his papers still in his hands became the property of his nephew Bushrod Washington, an associate justice of the U. S. Supreme Court. We shall have more to say about the fate of these invaluable documents in the Introduction to Volume I of The Papers of George Washington.
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Editor Jared Sparks gave away this page from a Washington diary in 1832. (Historical Society of Pennsylvania, Dreer Collection).

Destruction and dispersal of the papers began very early when Mrs. Washington reportedly burned all the correspondence she had exchanged with Washington during his lifetime--overlooking only two letters, we believe. There followed long years of careless handling by Bushrod, biographer John Marshall, and editor Jared Sparks. Indeed, what is most important in the story of Washington's papers is not such natural processes as fire, flood, mildew, and the tendency of paper to fall into dust. Rather, there has been an overabundance of stewardship by misguided caretakers, persons who thought they knew what was important and what was trivial, what should be saved and what given away to friends and autograph collectors.

The editor who laments the disappearance of so many Washington diaries can only sink into despondency upon learning that Bushrod gave many away. To diplomat Christopher Hughes, in 1825, he gave the 1797 diary and a sheaf of Washington's notes on agriculture; Hughes dispersed these among his friends in the United States and Europe. Two years later, Bushrod gave the diaries for 1795 and 1798 to Margaret and Robert Adams, of Philadelphia. Then he presented the 1767 diary to Dr. James W. Wallace, of Warrenton. These and certain other diaries once in private hands have been preserved; others apparently have not.

Jared Sparks's turn to mishandle the papers came in 1827, when he persuaded Bushrod to let him take large quantities to Boston, where he was to prepare his twelve-volume edition, The Writings of George Washington (Boston, 1837). Sparks decided that carefully excising a Washington signature from a document, and sending it to a friend, did not really damage the manuscript as a piece of history; that a page torn from a Washington diary, or an entire Washington letter, could safely be given away if he, Sparks, judged it to be of no historical value. It was Sparks who cut Washington's draft of his first inaugural address into small pieces and so thoroughly disseminated this document of more than sixty pages that the efforts of several collectors have failed to reassemble more than a third of it. Even after he had supposedly returned all the papers to the Washington family, Sparks retained a supply to distribute. He was still mailing out snippets in 1861.

The pillage stopped in 1834 when the Washington family sold the basic collection to the U. S. government. This corpus, together with a later, smaller sale, forms the basis of the principal Washington archive at the Library of Congress. Other acquisitions have been made throughout the years. In the following list . . .

Introduction | Washington as a Diarist | The Worlds of Washington | Washington and the New Agriculture | The Weather Watch | History of the Diary Manuscripts