The first biographer of George Washington was "Mason Weems, famous for his anecdote of the young Washington chopping down a cheery tree, i.e."I cannot tell a lie...", who first published his The Life of George Washington in 1800 and subsequently in 1804–1807[a] setting the tone for many popular biographies that eventually followed. Washington was so central to the story of the American Revolution and the government after 1787 that virtually all the early histories celebrated him as the model American and President. They were handicapped however by lack of access to his private papers and by haphazard availability of his official papers as general and president.
A number of years after Washington's death passed before much of the finer and more intimate biographical information on Washington began to emerge, as this information could only be found in Washington's letters and diaries, most of which were still in the hands of family members and other private individuals. The greater public only had access to accounts from newspapers and various official documents. It wasn't until 1833 that a more comprehensive account of Washington's personal life became known. The first such account was authored by "Jared Sparks, considered the best informed man on Washington in his day and the first biographer who was given access to Washington's many letters by Washington's nephew "Bushrod Washington. Sparks published The Writings of George Washington, published in "twelve volumes between 1833 and 1837, and The Life of George Washington in 1839. Sparks was sometimes criticized for editing Washington's spelling, grammar and various phrases.
Chief Justice "John Marshall, an ardent "Federalist from Virginia, greatly admired Washington, and between 1804 and 1807 published a highly detailed five-volume biography. It greatly shaped the scholarly image of Washington for the 19th century. Marshall's Life of Washington was based on records and papers also provided to him by the Washington family and reflected Marshall's Federalist principles. His revised and condensed two-volume Life of Washington was published in 1832. Historians have often praised its accuracy and well-reasoned judgments, while noting Marshall's frequent paraphrases of published sources such as William Gordon's 1801 history of the Revolution and the British Annual Register.
In the 20th century, by far the most comprehensive biography was written by "Douglas Southall Freeman in seven volumes, 1948–1957. A recent evaluation of its 3582 pages concludes, "Although a few specific interpretations have been supplanted, this remains the most comprehensive study of Washington and the best place to check for specific activities, military movements, and decisions." Freeman's research was thorough, and the story is told from Washington's own viewpoint. Freeman wrote, "the great big thing stamped across that man is character." By character, says "David Hackett Fischer "Freeman meant integrity, self-discipline, courage, absolute honesty, resolve, and decision, but also forbearance, decency, and respect for others." Freeman posthumously won a "Pulitzer Prize in 1958 for his work, and "James T. Flexner's, George Washington: The Indispensable Man, in four volumes (1965–1972), also won the Pulitzer Prize in 2005. Joseph J. Ellis, His Excellency: George Washington (2005) has frequently been praised as an interpretive essay. David Hackett Fischer's long, intense, microscopic study of the December 1775 campaign Washington's Crossing (2004) likewise won a Pulitzer Prize in 2005. The most recent major biography is Washington: A Life (2011) by "Ron Chernow, which won Chernow a Pulitzer Prize in 2011. Chernow estimates that to date[b] more than 900 books have been written about George Washington. Many of these works are now in the "public domain, can be freely downloaded,[c] and are denoted with 'eBook' following the book's entry.
After Washington died the huge volumes of his writings and documents were bequeathed to his nephew, "Bushrod Washington. Not long after Washington's death Bushrod prevailed upon several authors to write Washington's biography. He first approached Washington's old friend and compatriot "John Marshall[d] to write a biography, offering all of Washington's letters, manuscripts and diaries to help in the effort, to which Marshall agreed, subsequently producing his five-volume biography of George Washington, first published between 1804 and 1807. With its many references to various letters and documents, Marshall's five-volume work became the sole comprehensive source for Washington and his life that served advanced readers for several decades. Finally in 1833 Bushrod also allowed "Jared Sparks access to Washington's letters, and in 1839 Sparks published his two-volume, The Life of George Washington, which drew on the same abundance of primary sources. He also produced a large 12-volume work outlining Washington's writings, published between 1833 and 1837. Sparks was sometimes criticized for silently editing Washington's spelling, grammar and various phrases. Another major compilation of Washington's writings was published from 1889 to 1893 by historian "Worthington Chauncey Ford in a fourteen-volume set of The Writings of George Washington. The next major compilation didn't appear until "John Clement Fitzpatrick compiled and edited a thirty-nine volume work, also entitled, The Writings of George Washington, (1931–1944), using much of the same original manuscript sources as Sparks and Ford. Historian Donald Jackson and Dorothy Twohig in 1984 published what is now considered by historian John R. Alden the best edition of Washington's diaries, in six volumes.
The "Library of Congress has a comprehensive bibliography, as well as online scans of diaries, letterbooks, financial papers and military papers. Washington biographer Ron Chernow estimates that to date more than 900 books have been written about George Washington.
|Booknotes interview with Richard Norton Smith on Patriarch: George Washington and the New American Nation, February 21, 1993, "C-SPAN|
The greater volume of George Washington's known letters were first edited and published in the 19th century by several prominent historians. These works form the basis of all other such publications that followed.
"Jared Sparks was given access to Washington's personal writings and other documents by Bushrod Washington who had inherited them from his uncle George Washington upon his death. After a several year effort Sparks produced his twelve volume The Writings of George Washington, published from 1833 to 1839.[e] Sparks was widely praised for his great effort but was sometimes criticized for his editing of Washington's spelling, grammar and various phrases.
|Writings of George Washington, in 12 volumes, edited by Jared Sparks, et al|
"Worthington C. Ford published a 14 volume work, also entitled, The Writings of George Washington, in 1889–1890. Ford draws on much of the same material as did Sparks in 1834 and Fitzpatrick in 1931. In his Preface to volume 1, Ford, while praising Sparks' enormous volume of works, offers some sharp criticism about his sometimes questionable editorship of Washington's writings as Sparks would sometimes edit spelling, grammar, change or leave out phrases, etc. Ford made clear of his position here, that his editorship of Washington's writings would not be conducted in the same expedient manner that his predecessor sometimes employed.
|Writings of George Washington, in 14 volumes, edited by Worthington C. Ford, et al|
"John Clement Fitzpatrick was commissioned by the George Washington Bicentennial Commission in 1931 to transcribe, edit and publish Washington's writings in what became a 39 volume work entitled The Writings of George Washington.[f] The Commission was created to commemorate the coming 200th anniversary of Washington's birth in 1932, and to promote education in Revolutionary War era history overall. This massive work, taken from Washington's letters, military records, diaries, etc., was edited and compiled under the direction of "John Clement Fitzpatrick, and sponsored and prepared by the Commission, under the authority of U.S. Congress, 1931, taking several years to complete. The commission conducted a thorough investigation of all available books, pamphlets reports, and other material relating to the life and times of George Washington. Because the field was very broad, members of the commission found it necessary to study the requirements of selecting source material while making sure they didn't exclude any essential data, a process that Fitzpatrick over saw for eight years until his death in 1940 before all the volumes had been published.
|Writings of George Washington, in 39 volumes, edited by John C. Fitzpatrick, et al|