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A Project of Imperative Importance

by Barbara B. Oberg

The Georgian Papers Programme at Windsor Castle is an ambitious, collaborative enterprise to digitize and disseminate in searchable form an extraordinarily large and rich collection of letters, state papers, and household ledgers from the Archives of George III. The archives contain internationally significant material for a tumultuous period of military conflict and social and political change involving not only Great Britain and America, but Europe, Africa, the Americas, and Asia. Much of the material has been inaccessible to the public, and in many cases even unknown.

The GPP is one of the most exciting and important endeavors in the field that I can remember in my years as a scholar of that period. It will transform the study of eighteenth-century British and American history. As Chair of the OI Executive Board, I am delighted that we, along with King’s College London, the Royal Archives at Windsor, and William and Mary, can be a founding partner of such a remarkable endeavor, one that that embodies the OI’s mission since its founding in 1943—to support the research and writing of early American history at the highest level.

Let me tell you from my own experience why I think it is important—and perhaps even imperative—for historians to have these documents. Thanks to a terrific undergraduate history class on eighteenth century Britain and a keen interest in the American Revolution that I inherited from my parents, early in my career I found my way to researching the peace negotiations of 1782-83 and particularly the correspondence and papers of two individuals central to those negotiations:  David Hartley, scientist, inventor, Member of Parliament, and signer of the Treaty of Paris in 1783, and his long-time friend Benjamin Franklin, Minister Plenipotentiary to the Court of France and also a signer of the Treaty of Paris. It seemed a good way to pursue my interest in British and American history and use my training as a documentary editor.

Visiting archives in person was the only way to gain access to the materials. I hunted down Hartley’s and Franklin’s letters at the William L. Clements Library in Ann Arbor, the Library of Congress, the Public Record Office in London, and the Berkshire Record Office in Reading, England. Of course visiting these places had its pleasures. But travel also took time and resources, which not all scholars have. And at the end of a week or several weeks, could I be sure that I had found every item? Was the collection fully catalogued?

One archive central to my research remained. The Royal Archives at Windsor held approximately 350,000 documents, including enlightening correspondence between George III and his ministers about the political, military, and diplomatic events during the years of the revolution. Documents relating to Franklin and Hartley were highly likely to be found there. The only way to get at this important material, however, was in the highly selective six volumes of The Correspondence of King George III, edited by Sir John Fortescue in the 1920s. Those volumes contained enough references to formal peace negotiations, private opinions on the personalities involved, and guesses at America’s and France’s strategy and war aims to leave me hungry for the whole story. That story remained buried in the Windsor Archives until now, but thanks to the Georgian Papers Programme it will see the light of day. I am tremendously excited for the scholars who will make this newly available material the center of their research and for all of us interested in early American history, broadly understood, as discoveries and interpretations simply not possible until now have the chance to develop.

 

Barbara B. Oberg is a senior research scholar in the department of history at Princeton University. She has served as the general editor of the Papers of Thomas Jefferson at Princeton and the editor of the Papers of Benjamin Franklin at Yale University. She is a coauthor, with Doron Ben-Atar, of Federalists Reconsidered (1998) and, with Harry S. Stout, of Benjamin Franklin, Jonathan Edwards, and the Representation of American Culture (1993). She has held the R. Stanton Avery Distinguished Fellowship at the Henry E. Huntington Library as well as fellowships from the International Center for Jefferson Studies, American Philosophical Society, the Library Company of Philadelphia, and the National Endowment for the Humanities. She is a past president of the Society for Historians of the Early American Republic, the Association for Documentary Editing, and the Society for Textual Scholarship, and a former council chair of the Omohundro Institute for Early American History and Culture. She currently chairs the executive board of the Omohundro Institute as well as serves on the council of the American Philosophical Society. Her current project, ‘Autobiographical Musings,’ focuses on the autobiographical writings of Franklin and Jefferson.

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