Historian William Abbot, Former Editor of George Washington Papers, Dies

September 03, 2009

September 3, 2009 — William Wright Abbot III, a former editor of The Papers of George Washington and an expert in early American history, died Aug. 31 in Charlottesville. He was 87.

Abbot taught early American history, but among historians he was best known as the chief editor of The Papers of George Washington, housed in the University of Virginia Library, from 1977 until '92. One of the founders of the Association for Documentary Editing, he also edited The William and Mary Quarterly from 1961 to '66 and The Journal of Southern History from 1960 to '61.

Abbot was hired as the James Madison Professor of History at U.Va. in 1966, serving twice as chairman of the Corcoran Department of History. Although he retired from the University in 1992, he continued to edit individual volumes of the Washington Papers until 1998, when nearly 50 volumes were in print.

"I often heard him remark that interpretations come and go, but that a properly edited set of historical papers can inspire scholars for generations to come," said U.Va. colleague H.C. Erik Midelfort, C. Julian Bishko Professor of History Emeritus. "Bill brought to his editing task a seasoned, literate sense of what a good edition requires: skill, knowledge and tact.

"He could perhaps best be described as a 'man of letters,' a term that has almost gone out of use in our age of hyper-specialization," Midelfort said, adding that Abbot possessed gentlemanly good humor and decent human concern, much valued during his stints as chairman.

Abbot's career as a teacher spanned nearly 50 years, beginning when he was assigned to teach celestial navigation to naval cadets at Duke University in the spring of 1946. That fall, he returned to his hometown of Louisville, Ga., to teach science and English grammar at his old high school.

Abbot received a bachelor's degree from the University of Georgia and entered the U.S. Navy in 1943. Under the G.I. bill, he studied history at Duke, where he earned his master's and doctoral degrees in history.

In 1953, he joined the faculty of the College of William & Mary. He also taught briefly at Northwestern and Rice universities.

In addition to editing magazines and documents, Abbot wrote two books, "The Royal Governors of Georgia, 1754-1775" and "The Colonial Origins of the United States."

Abbot was featured in a 1982 U.S. News & World Report article about Washington on the 250th anniversary of the first president's birth.

"He believed that his chief contribution as a teacher and historian came from the attentive reading and detailed responses that he gave over the years to the writing of his students and fellow historians," his son, John, said.

"All of us who knew Bill had both a love for him and an appreciation of what he meant to us," Paul Gaston, retired professor of history, said. "His acts of personal and professional generosity are legion. He has read virtually everything I have written, not always agreeing, but always helping me to say better what I wanted to say."

Abbot was always active professionally. He served as president of the Alpha chapter of Phi Beta Kappa from 1984 to 1987 and on the councils of the Institute of Early American History and Culture and the Southern Historical Association. For 20 years, he was on the board of editors of The Virginia Quarterly Review and was a member of the Gridiron Club at the University of Georgia and the Raven Society at U.Va. In 1989, the Virginia Historical Society made him a life member.

William & Mary awarded him the honorary degree of Doctor of Humane Letters in 1998.

Outside the academy, he was an avid gardener. "His flowerbeds are a wonder to see," Midelfort said.

He is survived by his wife of 51 years, Eleanor Abbot, two sons and two grandchildren, among other relatives.