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Foreword to the Writings of George Washington.

February 15, 1931

[Released February 15, 1931. Dated November 19, 1930]

THE PEOPLE of the United States are justly proud of their literary men and women. They likewise are proud of their outstanding statesmen. Literary power and statesmanship were combined in George Washington, the greatest political leader of his time and also the greatest intellectual and moral force of the Revolutionary period. Everybody knows Washington as a quiet member of the Virginia Assembly, of the two Continental Congresses, and of the Constitutional Convention. Few people realize that he was also the most voluminous American writer of his period, and that his principles of government have had more influence on the development of the American commonwealth than those of any other man.

Unfortunately, Washington for many years was interpreted to his countrymen chiefly through warped biographies written upon a great deal of legendary assumption. Until very recently no readable biography of George Washington in reasonable compass made him stand for what he was--the most potent human and intellectual force in a firmament of American intellect. Nowadays good biographies of Washington are available, written from the sources. Many of them are devoted to a particular phase of his activity--the military side, the political side, the personal side. Hence when the United States George Washington Bicentennial Commission began its work it did not attempt to inspire new biographies. It selected as its most important literary duty the making Washington better known, by spreading abroad his own thoughts and plans and hopes and inspirations in the exact form in which he framed them.

Thus one of the first decisions of the Commission was to provide an edition of Washington's writings as complete as possible, in a form which would make it available for the present generation and forever hereafter. Of the two previous editions of Washington's Writings the first, a hundred years ago, was the twelve-volume edition, edited by Jared Sparks, a pioneer in collecting and publishing historical documents. Proper canons in historical editing were not yet developed, and it hurt the feelings of Sparks if the great man misspelled or seemed to him ungrammatical. Therefore the Sparks edition can not be relied upon to tell us what Washington actually did say. The edition of Worthington C. Ford, forty years ago, was scholarly and carefully edited, but materials were then lacking for a complete edition, the production was limited by commercial considerations, and it is now out of print.

The Commission has set out to publish a definitive edition of all the written and printed words of George Washington in the form in which they left his hands, including several volumes of General Orders, almost the whole of which up to now had remained in manuscript only. Most of his original writings of every kind are fortunately preserved in the Library of Congress. Other libraries and private owners of manuscripts have permitted photostats to be made for inclusion in the great publication. When this series is completed, therefore, almost the whole of his reported thoughts will be within the reach of readers, investigators, and writers.

The George Washington Commission takes great satisfaction in rendering this public service; for as the publication of the new series progresses it will become more and more clear that the reputation of George Washington as a soldier, statesman, and man is enhanced by the record of everything that he is known to have committed to pen and paper.

One deviation has been made from the plan of including all of Washington's writings in this edition. The Diary has been recently published by a skillful editor, enlivened by interesting notes. It has therefore been left out of the new set. On the other hand, the General Orders, which are of great significance for the history of the Revolution, are now for the first time made available in print, and will be distributed in the order of their dates.

What is the message from Washington revealed by this complete and scholarly edition ? First of all it includes Washington's own graphic records of his experiences on the frontier while it was still in the possession of the Indians. Throughout the series will be found letters and documents showing that he was the American of his time who had the liveliest sense of the absolute necessity of occupying the West and making it a part of an American commonwealth.

The materials on his activity as a man of affairs, which are here brought into relief, bring home to the reader the picture of Washington as a landowner, land developer, and land cultivator. A much neglected side of his character is Washington as an engineer. His countrymen have not realized how modern he was in his engineering operations--as reclaimer of the Dismal Swamp; as advisor and engineer of the Potomac and James River Canal; as the first advocate of a combined highway and waterway from the Atlantic Coast to the Ohio River; as a bank director; as an investor; as one of the earliest Americans to recognize the possibilities of power transportation by water; and the first to suggest that air navigation might be very useful to the people of the United States.

What Washington says for himself will also be the foundation of our appreciation of his great abilities and immense services as the leader of the Continental Army. He was a thoroughly modern soldier, intensely interested in drill and tactics and plans of campaign, but equally unwearied in recruiting and supply and officering and in maintaining the morale of his troops. All the efforts to show that Washington had no military genius will fade away under the searchlight of this publication of his military material, much of it for the first time.

If nothing had been written by others about Washington's leadership in forming a new nation, his papers and correspondence while President would forever establish him as a great constructive statesman. His private virtues are set forth from the earliest boy's letters down to the last entry that he made in his diary. Washington with his wife's children and grandchildren stands out as clearly as Washington at Yorktown.

The United States George Washington Bicentennial Commission is undertaking to throw light upon the character of Washington in many ways. None will be more enduring than this collection of his own words and thoughts. The addresses, the pageants, the public meetings, and the memorials of every kind which the Commission will encourage and support, will call public attention to the most striking of the events in his life. But a hundred years after 1932, Washington will still be appealing to the sense, the interest, the public spirit, and the patriotism of that later age, by the great thoughts of his mind, by his great hopes for his country, and by the simple, straightforward, elevated, manly, and patriotic spirit of which these WRITINGS will be the imperishable record.


President of the United States

Chairman of the George Washington Bicentennial Commission.

Washington, D.C.,

November 19, 1930.

Note: Congress established the George Washington Bicentennial Commission in December 1924 (S.J. Res. 85, 43 Stat. 671) and, in February 1930, authorized the preparation of a definitive edition of Washington's writings. The Commission asked the President to write the foreword, which was made public in conjunction with Washington's birthday celebrations in 1931.

John C. Fitzpatrick edited the series entitled, "The Writings of George Washington from Original Manuscript Sources, 1745-1799," which was published in 39 volumes between 1931 and 1944.

Herbert Hoover, Foreword to the Writings of George Washington. Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/node/207274

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