George Washington's Papers Reveal How History Repeats Itself

November 25, 2008 — Americans held hostage by an Islamic power, a nation divided over whether to go to war and widespread fears about a fast-moving and deadly epidemic. If this is "Jeopardy!," the category must be "The 1980s," right?

Then again, it also might be "The 1790s."

The Papers of George Washington project at the University of Virginia Library has released volume 14 of its Presidential Series, which covers the last four months of 1793, a period dominated by a yellow fever epidemic that largely shut down the federal government and all but emptied the city of Philadelphia. At the same time, President Washington was struggling to keep America out of a broad European war while Americans held captive in Algiers suffered long months, even years, in hopes of ransom or rescue.

In his introduction to the volume, editor David R. Hoth writes: "During the last four months of 1793, as in the summer preceding, [Washington] and his administration were chiefly involved with maintaining the neutrality of the United States during the war that pitted France against Great Britain and her allied powers."

Each of the two primary combatants pressured the fledgling American government to enter the fray on their side, leaving Americans divided over whether to enter on behalf of France or of Britain, or to support the president's proclamation of neutrality. British protests of the actions of French privateers off the American coast forced the United States to define for the first time the limits of its territorial waters. Meanwhile, both France and Britain were attacking American trade vessels on the open seas and confiscating goods bound for foreign ports.

Elsewhere, Barbary pirates also were attacking American vessels and holding the crews captive, some for as long as eight years by this time, in Algeria. The dey, or ruler, of Algiers demanded ransom for the captives as well as payment from nations for safe passage of their trading vessels through the Mediterranean.

Such challenges abroad were complicated at home by a deadly yellow fever epidemic that forced the substantial evacuation of Philadelphia, the nation's capital at the time. 

"Diagnosed in mid- to late August, the growing epidemic soon depopulated the city, as those who were able fled," Hoth writes. "The deaths and departures greatly reduced the operations of government."

Washington left Sept. 10 and later wrote to former secretary Tobias Lear: "It was my wish to have stayed there longer; but as Mrs. Washington was unwilling to leave me amidst the malignant fever which prevailed, I could not think of hazarding her & the Children any longer by my remaining in the City."

"In addition to being the 14th book in the Presidential Series," said project Editor-in-Chief Theodore J. Crackel, "the new volume is the 60th published overall of a projected 90. Like those before it, this volume lets us see Washington the man — not just the president who adorns the dollar bill."

The Washington Papers project was established in 1968 at the University of Virginia under the joint auspices of the University and the Mount Vernon Ladies' Association. An exhaustive worldwide document search has yielded the most complete collection of Washington documents ever assembled — photocopies of some 135,000 manuscript items from more than 300 repositories and private owners around the world.

The annotated documents are being published in separate series corresponding to significant segments of Washington's life. Completed series include The Diaries of George Washington, 1748-99 (six volumes); the Colonial Series, 1748-75 (10 volumes); the Confederation Series, 1784-88 (six volumes); and the Retirement Series, 1797-99 (four volumes).

Two series remain in progress: The Revolutionary War Series, 1775-83, has published 18 of an anticipated 40-plus volumes; and the Presidential Series, 1788-97, is expected to number 21 volumes upon completion. The project also has published The Journal of the Proceedings of the President, 1793-97 (one volume).

Copies of this and other volumes are available through the University of Virginia Press, P.O. Box 400318, Charlottesville, VA 22904-4318. Orders also can be placed by toll-free telephone, 1-800-831-3406, or by e-mail: vapress@virginia.edu.

The Papers of George Washington is funded largely through grants and private, tax-deductible donations. To contact the project, call 434-924-3569; send e-mail to gwpapers@virginia.edu; visit the Web site at gwpapers.virginia.edu; or write to: The Papers of George Washington, P.O. Box 400117, Charlottesville, VA 22904-4117.