Five years into the war, with his papers piling up and stuffed into overflowing trunks that followed the general from headquarters to headquarters, George Washington took the extraordinary step of asking for help to organize and preserve these papers, seeing them for what they were, “valuable documents” of public importance, living histories of the fight for American independence. He reached out to Congress to approve the hiring of a team of clerks to organize, transcribe, and ultimately preserve this historical record. The resulting project would come to be known as the Varick Transcripts.
The project, headed by Lt. Col. Richard Varick, ultimately created a backup copy of Washington’s official papers created during the American Revolution, and brought order to a large amount of material that had been hauled around with the general from Virginia to Boston to New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and elsewhere. This would make it the first act of archival work sanctioned by the new country.
Throughout the war, Washington employed a small but impressive team of aides who were in charge of handling the bureaucratic morass that comes with managing a large army spread up and down the east coast from Quebec to Florida and out to the western frontiers. These administrative officers were responsible for drafting correspondence (to Congress, individual members of Congress, foreign dignitaries, state and local leaders, officers, etc.), all orders issued from Washington to his subordinates in all of the various departments, notes and proceedings taken during councils of war, and many other types of records.
Over the course of the war, thirty-two aides served under Washington with four to seven working for the general at any given time. Typically, they were young, most in their twenties. The tasks laid upon these administrative officers were enormous: crafting a dozen or more letters a day, one to four pages in length, issuing general orders, delivering those orders, entering daily expense accounts, disbursing public funds, planning military campaigns, and worrying about supplying troops with food, clothing, and arms, ready at a moment’s notice to pack it all in, march elsewhere and start it a new place the next day. There was a near-endless stream of paper coming in and out of Washington’s headquarters at any time. At the start of the war, importance was placed upon correspondence as time and care ensured that copies of letters and orders were entered into books in a neat and orderly fashion, but these formalities quickly devolved into a careless jumble until they stopped being copied into the books at all.
After the retreat of his Army from New York City in August 1776, Washington boxed up his papers, thinking it best to keep them further away from British forces, and had them shipped to Congress, then in Philadelphia, to look after. They would remain with Congress, even moving around with them as they adjourned to York, Pennsylvania. The boxes seem to have been misplaced or forgotten as they eventually ended up in Reading, Pennsylvania. Meanwhile, the war churned on producing more and more records. With each move of headquarters, Washington’s personal guard, Maj. Caleb Gibbs, packed the records up to be sent to the next location.In February 1779, after the rediscovery of the older papers in Reading, Washington called for those papers to rejoin him.
Two more years passed before Washington sought a solution to his growing records management problem. He related the poor state of his papers to President of Congress Samuel Huntington, and let it be known that his aides could not keep up with registering new records; now everything “remain in loose sheets; and in the rough manner in which they were first drawn.” Cross-referencing or even finding records became nearly impossible and the situation had “a tendency to expose them to damage and loss.”
To rectify this, Washington proposed employing a team of transcribers to record and organize his records in what amounted to preserving them under the supervision of a “man of character in whom entire confidence can be placed.” It was not out of character for Washington, a man who took an active interest in the preservation and maintenance of his records, going so far as setting aside money and land in his will for the purpose of erecting a presidential library to house all of these records. That there exists so many of his records, from his childhood up to his death, shows a dedication to preserving his legacy (and maybe even to shaping that legacy). It is no coincidence that as he prepared to get his papers in order, Washington decided to begin a war time diary. The two acts showcase his desire to tell his story, his way.
Upon reception of Washington’s request, Congress passed a resolution on April 10, 1781 to hire another aide to alleviate the problem and bring some semblance of order to the papers. Things moved quickly in finding just the right man of character for the position. After a month Washington settled on offering the position to Richard Varick, who accepted the offer only after discussing it with New York’s wartime governor, George Clinton. Varick vacillated on taking the position, fearing that he wouldn’t be able to find the right people, or anyone, to help him out with the enormous task. Armed with Clinton’s assurances of help,Varick acquiesced.
That Varick was the choice was auspicious as just months before he had faced court martial for being caught up in Benedict Arnold’s treason drama. His selection was as much a testament to his commitment to the Continental cause as a demonstration of his excellent bureaucratic acumen. Varick enjoyed a quick rise through the ranks from joining the Army in the summer of 1775 and almost immediately became Gen. Philip Schulyer’s military secretary, serving alongside him during the Canada campaign. In addition to his duties as a private secretary, he served as quartermaster for all northern forts and as the Northern Army’s deputy muster master general.
During this time working closely with the Northern Army, he became friendly with Arnold. Military politics being what they were, when Horatio Gates replaced Schulyer as commander of the Northern Army Varick was left without a position. He took the opportunity to return to studying and practicing law. Arnold approached Varick during this lull and asked him to be his aide-de-camp at West Point. Three months later Arnold was found out to be a traitor and Varick was under arrest.
While Varick was Arnold’s aide his commander’s behavior and actions raised many red flags, which were later confirmed. Varick’s court-martial enabled him to showcase his lawyering skills by supplying the court with corroborating testimonies as well as eleven letters attesting to his character, ability and honesty. At a board of inquiry held early in November 1780, he was acquitted when no evidence was presented that he had anything to do with Arnold’s actions. With his name cleared, Varick entered back into private practice in New York for the next six months, before being summoned back into service by Washington in May 1781.
Washington wasted little time after receiving Varick’s acceptance, appointing him recording secretary in a reply the same day, providing salary information, the authority to requisition supplies, and the use of two houses to do the job. In a separate letter, Washington provided detailed instructions on how he wanted the papers organized:
Instructions to the Recording Secretary at Head Quarters.
- All Letters to Congress, Committees of Congress, the Board of War, Individual Members of Congress in their public Characters and American Ministers Plenipotentiary at Foreign Courts, are to be classed together and to be entered in the Order of their Dates.
- All letters, Orders and Instructions to Officers of the line, of the Staff, and all other Military Characters, to compose, a second Class, and to be entered in like manner.
- All Letters to Governors, Presidents and other Executives of States, Civil Magistrates and Citizens of every Denomination, to be a third Class and entered as aforementioned.
- Letters to foreign ministers, Foreign officers, and subjects of Foreign Nations not in the immediate service of America, in Virtue of Commissions from Congress, to compose another Class.
- Letters to Officers of every Denomination in the service of the Enemy, and to British subjects of every Character with the Enemy, or applying to go in to them.
- Proceedings of Councils of War in the Order of their Dates.
The Secretary is to assort and prepare these papers to be registered by different Clerks. He is to number and keep a List of his Deliveries of them to those persons, takg recets for them. The Lists are to specify the Dates, and to whom the Letters are directed; by which the papers after they are registered are to be carefully returned by the Clerks to the secretary, who is to compare them with the Books of Entries, and to have them neatly filed in the Order they are registered, or in such other manner, as that references may be more easily had to them. Clerks who write a fair [Hand], and correctly, are to be employed; and that there may be a similarity and Beauty in the whole execution, [all the] writing is to be upon black lines equidistant. All the Books to have the same Margin, and to be indexed in so Clear and intelligent a manner, that there may be no difficulty in the references. The Clerks must be sworn, or be upon their Honour, to be careful of the papers. To give no Copies without permission, or suffer any thing be taken with their privity or Knowledge.
Letters to me are to be Classed, in the same order as those from me, indorsed and filed in neat Order, and of easy access.
All Files are to be upon Formers of the same size, that the Folds may be the same, and the [Storage] (in proper Boxes) close and compact.
All Returns are to be properly assorted, arranged and treated in the same way. So are papers of [every other] Class, and the whole to be organized in such a manner, as that easy references may be had to them.
If you are not already furnished with a sufficient number of Books, you will apply to the Quarter Master General for as many more as you shall find necessary to compleat your Entries. All the Books are to be of the same size.
These instructions formed the road map used by Varick throughout the two and a half years it took to complete the project, describing the final shape into which the logbooks would be organized.
Varick visited Washington’s headquarters at New Windsor, New York, and collected the trunks (fifteen in total of various sizes) full of records and various other items such as the general’s bed, saddle and bridle, and a large map of South Carolina and Georgia. He then moved to Poughkeepsie, New York, to begin the project there in the house of Dr. Peter Tappen, the brother-in-law of Governor Clinton, whom he referred to as an “honest patriot.” The governor provided Varick a guard to protect the sensitive records and the work being done. Writers on the project had to take an oath not to disclose any information found in the documents they were transcribing, an early form of a security clearance.
According to everyone who had an opinion on the matter this was the most dreadful job in America at the time. Comment after comment noted how terrible and excruciating it was for a person to spend their time copying letters into a book. Varick referred to the job as “a perfect and unremiting Drudgery.” Tench Tilghman, one of Washington’s aides, related it to walking through “mud and mire,” while one of Varick’s potential assistants, John Stagg, Jr. called it “siege” work (he did not accept Varick’s offer to join the project). None of these complaints or comments on the work ever made it directly to Washington.
Varick the middle-manager had to deal with unique personnel problems. The first was trying to find a schedule that worked for everyone. The writing team would settle into an eight hour work day that consisted of working four hours in the morning, taking a two hour lunch break, and finishing off the day with four more hours of work. This was met with complaints from the writers as 8 AM proved too early for some (who were not able to wake up, eat breakfast and make it into the office by eight) and as the days grew shorter 6 PM was too late as there wasn’t enough natural light to read and write with.To be more flexible Varick allowed his writers comp time to make up hours when they needed to.
The work consisted of an early version of scanning files, which falls in line with what modern archives do in creating a backup of records while preserving, organizing and maintaining the original. Writers, as they were called, were assigned certain sets of records to transcribe. They recreated documents in letterbooks, trying to match the text precisely, a job they did well. John C. Fitzpatrick, editor of The Writings of George Washington, commented upon the small amount of errors between the actual text and the transcripts. Mainly, the errors amounted to minor spelling, capitalization, and punctuation deviations.
Varick meanwhile did quality checks of their work, made lists of letters and copies for the writers to follow, crafted a common naming convention, numbered the letters, organized them into the proper locations, and fulfilled any request for records that came in. It was a daunting task for the lawyer and it fast became apparent that this job was bigger than anyone really expected: “much more time is necessary to the business, than either your Excellency or myself was aware of, when I accepted the Office.” Which sounds like he had no idea what he was in for and shows a semblance of second thoughts.
For the most part the work itself continued fairly steadily. Pay for Varick and the writers was always an issue, with Varick sending many missives to Washington asking for him to intervene with Congress for back pay. This led to some writers leaving the project and others on the project becoming troublesome for attempting to rile up the others. Along with pay there was also grumbling over rations and forage that they were promised. Varick met all of this with a firm hand (or at least that is what he reported to Washington) to show them that “I am not anxious about their services and that Trifling will [not] be put up with.”
Throughout the process, Varick reached out to Congress and the states and individuals to fill in gaps he identified in the recordand worked with Washington and his staff to be sent the paperwork currently being generated and not yet at Poughkeepsie.
In total, the project spanned over two and a half years of work, organizing and transcribing and cross-referencing. Only one writer would stick it out over the entire period of the project, Zachariah Sickels. There were as many as three writers working under Varick at any one time, while most of the time it was Varick and two other writers.
As the work pushed into 1783, the workload slackened and writers were allowed to leave or were released and recalled as new records came into their possession. Washington came in July 1783 to take away the first batch of boxes of his records. The final shipment occurred in December of that year along with the forty-four bound letterbooks Varick and the writers had filled over those years. Washington expressed his “thanks for the care and attention which you have given to this business. I am fully convinced that neither the present age or posterity will consider the time and labour which have been employed in accomplishing it, unprofitable spent.”
The Varick Transcripts have served as a constant for that period in Washington’s life. During his life and particularly afterwards researchers and others borrowed some documents for one purpose or another, such as John Marshall’s biography of Washington or Eliza Hamilton pulling together all of Alexander Hamilton’s writings. The papers themselves, along with the transcripts, were purchased by the State Department in 1833. They were eventually transferred to the Library of Congress in 1904, where they can still be found and viewed online, a vast and reliable source of knowledge of the Revolution and of Washington.
List of Clerks who worked on the Varick Transcripts
George Washington to Samuel Huntington, April 4, 1781,”founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/99-01-02-05289.
Washington to John Hancock, August 13, 1776, founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/03-06-02-0003.
Timothy Pickering to Washington, January 16, 1779,” founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/03-19-02-0010.
Washington to Richard Peters, February 17, 1779,” founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/03-19-02-0230. Washington to Anthony Walton White, February 17, 1779, founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/03-19-02-0234.
Samuel Huntington to Washington, April 14, 1781,” founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/99-01-02-05399.
Varick to Washington, August 21, 1781,” founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/99-01-02-06748.
Varick to Washington, July 19, 1781,” founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/99-01-02-06453.
Zack Lukels to Varick, July 25, 1781, Richard Varick Papers, 1743-1871, Series I: Correspondence, 1775-1830, Subseries I: Letters received, New York Historical Society, digitalcollections.nyhistory.org/islandora/object/islandora%3A116836.
Varick to Jonathan Trumbull, Jr., December `8, 1781,” founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/99-01-02-07557.
Tench Tilghman to Varick, July 21, 1781,” founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/99-01-02-06478.
J. Stagg, Jr. (probably John Stagg, Jr.) to Varick, June 15, 1781, digitalcollections.nyhistory.org/islandora/object/islandora%3A115876.
Varick to Washington, October 1, 1781,” founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/99-01-02-07071.
Varick to Washington, December 18, 1781,” founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/99-01-0207556.
John C. Fitzpatrick, ed., The Writings of George Washington, Vol. 27 (Washington DC: Library of Congress, 1932), 289, babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=mdp.39015011913475&view=1up&seq=21&skin=2021.
Varick to Washington, October 6, 1781,founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/99-01-02-07112.
Varick to Washington, February 21, 1782,” founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/99-01-02-07858.
Varick to Washington, January 14, 1782,” founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/99-01-02-07693.
Trumbull to Varick, July 12, 1783,” founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/99-01-02-11590.
Washington to Varick, January 1, 1784,” founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/04-01-02-0002.