An early goal of The Washington Papers was to make George Washington’s business and household records accessible. Given the complexity of these documents and the means of publication available at that time, very little was done: Several cash accounts from the ledgers were published in print during the 1980s as part of the Colonial Series of The Papers of George Washington, and others have been published occasionally as standalone documents or used in annotations. As the digital edition of the letterpress volumes moved forward, solutions for the financial papers began to emerge as well. These solutions have continued to evolve in step with exciting and ongoing advances in the field of digital humanities.
The George Washington Financial Papers Project (GWFPP), funded by a grant from the National Historical Publications and Records Commission (NHPRC) in 2013, is an innovative digital documentary editing project that makes GW's business and household accounts freely accessible in a digital edition using an open-source editorial platform. Users are able to:
* Read transcriptions of GW's three ledger books of accounts
* Perform simple and advanced searches on the documents and data
* Explore documents by people, places, ships, occupations & titles, services, food & beverages, agriculture, and place types
* Download search results, transcriptions, and data
* Follow links to related correspondence in The Papers of George Washington Digital Editions (Rotunda and Founders Online)
To learn more about the project, please visit our About page.
"Another thing I would recommend to you; not because I want to know how you spend your money; and that is to keep an Acct Book, and enter therein every farthing of your receipts & expend[it]ures. The doing of which wo[ul]d initiate you into a habit, from which considerable advantages would result. Where no account of this sort is kept there can be no investigation; no correction of errors; no discovery from a recurrence thereto, wherein too much, or too little has been appropriated to particular uses. From an early attention to these matters, important & lasting benefits may follow."
GW's advice to George Washington Parke Custis, 11 January 1797.
AL (incomplete), ViHi; Custis, Recollections, 79–81.
George Washington kept a variety of business and household accounting records, including receipts, bills, invoices, waste books, journals of accounts, and ledger books of accounts. He used these to keep track of how much money he owed or was owed to him and to monitor how he spent his money. These documents provide detailed information about his financial dealings, such as earnings from shipping tobacco and other goods produced by his plantations; travel expenses to various taverns; and rent payments due from his tenants. Prices of many commodities (food, livestock, crops, household items) are recorded in these pages, as are transactions with a wide range of people, including men and women, large- and small-scale farmers, tradespeople, laborers, lawyers, businesspeople, mariners, free blacks, and enslaved people. This information can all be found by searching GW's accounts.
In order to keep such comprehensive records, GW had to follow a process likely inspired by Book-keeping Methodiz'd: or, A Methodical Treatise of Merchant-Accompts, According to the Italian Form... by John Mair. This text details the intricacies of bookkeeping, including how to create and maintain various types of records, what information to record, and how the books are connected to each other. Some of the record types described by Mair include cash books, receipt books, copy-books of letters, pocket books, and ledger books of accounts, all of which GW kept.
While these are GW's business and household records, it is interesting to note that he did not always maintain them himself. As commander in chief of the Continental Army during the Revolutionary War and as first president of the United States, GW often was away from his home, Mount Vernon. Overseers, farm managers, and secretaries often took care of the day-to-day account management needed to keep GW's estates thriving and his finances in order. To learn more about eighteenth-century accounting and GW's process, see John McCusker's essay "To 'arrange my accounts'—Fulfilling the Last Wishes of George Washington."
Explore Users can explore detailed information about the documents on the Explore page and individual document pages. Each ledger page, or folio, has a dedicated webpage (linked as "Document Name, Page"; for example, Ledger A, 1750–1772: pg. 43) and includes: a transcription of the transactions recorded on that folio, categorized either as Debit or Credit; links to images of the original manuscript page; a page overview; and, when applicable, annotation. Under "Page Overview" are links listing the account holders, people, places, ships, occupations, services, and food & beverages mentioned on the debit and credit sides of that folio page. Each of these links leads to an ID, which includes identifying information and links to related pages, including The Papers of George Washington Digital Edition (Rotunda and Founders Online).
Search The search interfaces allow for robust and flexible searching. The basic Search page is for simple and quick keyword searches. The Advanced Search page allows users to search on one or more fields relating to the document itself: book, account name, date, entry (transcribed text), and entry regularized (clear text). Results from both search interfaces can be downloaded into CSV and XLS files, which can then be manipulated as data sets independent of the GWFPP website.