Editorial Method

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    Every stage of the documentary editor’s craft—selection, transcription, annotation, indexing—is fraught with subjectivity. The best an editor can do is define a criteria that will inform the reader’s expectations, and adhere to that criteria in a way that ensures those expectations have been reasonably satisfied. Upon the logic, fairness, and consistency of the selection criteria hinges the success or failure, the value or the futility, of all the other editorial interventions.

    The selection criteria for this volume privileges letters revealing George Thatcher’s knowledge, thoughts, perceptions, and viewpoints on important issues and events of his day. I was initially drawn to Thatcher’s correspondence by the light it shed on the workings of the First Federal Congress (1789-91), and there persists in this volume a bedrock bias in favor of political commentary. But political awareness and behavior do not exist in a vacuum. The net must be cast wider than politics to ensnare all the factors that influence human agency: a spouse’s health, a child’s education, cash-flow issues at home, one’s faith community, and the forging of friendships (which may eventually evolve into political alliances). For social, cultural, religious, and economic historians, of course, those factors are important in their own right.

    The number and length of documents is always a paramount factor guiding their selection, especially in a single-volume edition. Space prevents as liberal and generous a selection as one might wish. The most significant impact is that the selection is limited to Thatcher’s outgoing letters. Those letters or passages relating strictly to household management (including finances), business, routine news of friends and family, and travel itineraries are generally omitted. However, readers will find a representative sampling of those topics in letters selected for their unusual or particularly revealing information about Thatcher’s character, viewpoints, or the special circumstances of his life. While references to specific lawsuits are omitted, for example, text dealing with how Thatcher practiced law is included.

    There is, lastly, one wild card: the editor’s ultimate prerogative to share whatever interests him or herself, even if it defies any other selection criteria. This editor has given himself permission to have fun. Caveat lector.

    Preference has been given to previously unpublished manuscripts, although some already published letters have been selected for this edition as well. Approximately fifteen percent of the documents selected for this volume (not counting the newspapers pieces) have been previously published. Most of them, from Chapter II, also appear in volumes 15 through 22 of The Documentary History of the First Federal Congress, 1789-1791 (DHFFC)—including many I discovered while serving as an associate editor of that series. The two years covered by the DHFFC, some of the most important of Thatcher’s entire congressional career, coincidentally represents one of his most prolific periods as a letter-writer; omitting letters from that period, or the few other previously published letters selected for this edition, would leave an unconscionable gap in the narrative of Thatcher’s life and the development of his thinking.

    The argument for including previously published documents also took into account whether a newer transcription would correct errors or supply omissions found in earlier versions. The argument mostly applies to nineteenth century publications, before the emergence of modern standards of documentary editing found in such editions as Letters of Delegates to Congress, 1774-1789 and The Documentary History of the Ratification of the Constitution. But even those modern editions omit parts or all of Thatcher letters, depending on their own selection criteria—which are generally narrower than this edition’s.

    The selections for this edition are organized into three categories. The bulk of the volume, comprising the first section, are Thatcher’s outgoing letters, for which the recipient’s copy (ALS) is the preferred source text. Lacking those, Thatcher’s own retained file copies (FC) are used. File copies can exist as drafts, in letterbooks, or both. Identifying the difference between ALSs and FCs in the Thacher Family Papers at the Massachusetts Historical Society posed an initial challenge. Early in his correspondence with wife Sarah, Thatcher asked her to keep what he wrote her, since “I have no copies of my Letters.”1 And yet, even his letters bearing a postmarked address sheet reveal the unmistakable properties of letterbook copies: rigid margins and pinholes indicating the stitching together of signatures. Clearly the pages were purchased as blank letterbooks before being unbound and used as separate sheets for outgoing letters.

    A different category of documents makes up the volume’s second section, “Selected Miscellaneous Writings.” It comprises a sample of undated notes and anonymously published newspaper pieces (sometimes in draft form). In this section and throughout the volume, Thatcher’s newspaper pseudonym appears in quotation marks when referring to the article itself, and without quotation marks when referring to Thatcher as its author.

    A third category is a sample of Thatcher’s recorded congressional speeches that shed light on his progressive antislavery views, which he seldom committed to paper.


    Anyone aspiring to do further research using George Thatcher’s original letters will be spared treacherous pitfalls. Apart from occasional elisions and misspellings, his handwriting represents the better sort among late 18th century holograph manuscripts. Indeed, the importance of legible and even handsome script comes in for repeated emphasis in Thatcher’s letters, both as precept and example.2

    Given his commendable regard for spelling, there is some irony in the confusion Thatcher himself generated over the correct spelling of his name: “Thacher” or “Thatcher”? Genealogists, archivists, and documentary editors have dealt with this confusion in their own way. The title of Chapter X is a deliberate nod to Thatcher’s final resolution of the issue. But apart from that one instance, this edition consistently gives the preference to the spelling that prevailed for the first fifty-plus years of Thatcher’s life. All other Thachers/Thatchers are referred to by their own choice of spelling.

    In every other instance as well, the transcription of documents and quotations retains their creators’ original spelling and punctuation; words, letters, punctuation, and other emendations are inserted (and properly identified as such) only if necessary to correct, expand, or clarify a word or expression that is otherwise liable to misinterpretation. Most of Thatcher’s misspellings, like everyone else’s at the time, are sufficiently phonetic to convey the proper intended meaning. Interlineations and marginalia are silently inserted into the text at the points Thatcher indicated (or the best conjectural location), canceled words are retained and so marked, words abbreviated with tildes are silently expanded, obvious typographical errors in printed documents are silently corrected, and opening or closing quotation marks have been silently provided when missing. Where two forms of punctuation end a phrase or a sentence (for example, a point and a dash), this editor has chosen one.

    Editorial emendations are indicated in various ways:

    1. 1. Insertions for clarification are indicated by [italics]; e.g. “[Silas] Lee will probably return home.”
    2. 2. In cases where text is obviously missing, either by Thatcher’s negligence or the compromised physical condition of the document, the best supposition for the missing letters or words is indicated by [roman]; e.g. “Lee wil[l pr]obably return home.”
    3. 3. <italics> indicates physical conditions that prevent a reliable conjectural reading for missing or illegible text; e.g. “Lee <page torn> home.”
    4. 4. Portions of text omitted by the editor appear as [. . . .]. (Text omitted from quotes within annotation is indicated by ellipses without brackets.)

    Datelines and placelines are standardized in the heading of each letter, from information furnished internally within the letter or from any cover sheet or envelope, or reasonably conjectured from the letter’s context. Complimentary closings are collapsed to a single line of text, and signatures—all Thatcher’s—are omitted altogether.


    Annotation is provided at multiple levels. While it generally takes the form of providing necessary context from secondary sources, an earnest effort has been made to elaborate and amplify upon the selected text with quotes from Thatcher’s correspondence not otherwise selected for inclusion, so that no revelatory scrap is wasted. In some cases, the annotation quotes writings from non-correspondents, such as other officeholders at the seat of government, when they provide complementary “inside information” on the topic being discussed.

    Endnotes for each letter run sequentially; new numbering resumes for each new letter. At the most basic level, notes and editorial insertions serve to identify or clarify obscure references. The intention in every case is to put the reader as closely as possible in the position of the author and recipient. Such references may be to historical figures, literary allusions, geographic locations, foreign and archaic words, or simply to incoming letters that help explain something Thatcher was writing in reply. Large and well-known cities and towns (Boston, Philadelphia, Baltimore, etc.) are left unidentified by state; all other locations should be assumed to be in Maine unless otherwise noted. Bracketed emendations (e.g., [Silas] Lee) identify the full names of individuals and locations only at their first mention within each letter. In rare cases of nearly anonymous individuals, this is the only identification they will receive.

    At a much broader level of annotation, the Introductory Essay (above) prepares the reader with a chronological survey of important events and significant themes encountered in the documents that follow. As with the footnotes, the essay is also used to incorporate as much material as possible from relevant writings otherwise omitted from such a highly selective edition. The result is the first and probably only full-length biographical treatment Thatcher will ever receive. These considerations explain, and hopefully excuse, the essay’s length.

    Standard reference sources (e.g., the Biographical Dictionary of Congress) are not cited. Statutes and congressional procedures, including roll-call vote tallies, are cited to Statutes at Large and the House or Senate Journal only if the date or other context is not sufficient to permit the reader to locate the source in those standard reference works readily available online through the Library of Congress’s website, https://memory.loc.gov/ammem/amlaw/lawhome.html. Non-journalized actions on the other hand, such as procedures and floor debates in the committee of the whole (COWH), always reference a source. In the days before an officially sanctioned Congressional Record or Register of Debates, newspaper publishers at the seat of government eagerly and ambitiously attempted to cover the debates and procedures of the House from the moment it opened its doors to the public on 8 April 1789 (and of the Senate after it too opened its doors permanently to the public on 9 December 1795). Rather than citing the newspapers’ coverage of House debate and procedures, the source most often resorted to in this edition is the Annals of Congress, compiled between 1834 and 1856 from contemporary newspaper accounts published at the seat of government, covering the first eighteen Congresses (1789-1824). Although the Annals printed incomplete versions of original newspaper accounts—which were themselves taken down with varying accuracy by reporters in the chamber working under the pressure of daily deadlines—it has long been considered the definitive account.3 More importantly, the Annals has the advantage of being much more accessible for further study by the average reader via the Library of Congress’s website, https://memory.loc.gov/ammem/amlaw/lwac.html. The Library’s American Memory website also provides ready access to the American State Papers (ASP) cited in this volume; see http://memory.loc.gov/ammem/amlaw/lwsp.html.

    Text quoted in the annotation is cited to already published sources when available, rather than to the original manuscript sources—again, to facilitate readers’ further study. The only exceptions are when the published text is difficult to access, or abridged and/or marred in transcription (as, for example, [Samuel Nasson] to GT, 9 July 1789, quoted at length in the Introductory Essay).

    Source notes at the end of each letter provide information about the source text: the type of manuscript, its location, and in the case of excerpts, the subjects of the omitted text and the location of available printed copies supplying a fuller version of the letter. When the source text differs from another contemporary version, such as a file copy draft, that information is also indicated in the location note, with substantive differences being footnoted directly into the text. Additional information from a letter’s cover sheet or envelope—such as the address, any docketing, postmark, or congressional frank—is included in the location note, as is a description of the letter’s physical condition when it bears on a reading of the text; for example, if the text is fragmentary or mutilated.

    Brief biographies of every recipient of a letter printed in this volume, as well as persons appearing with some frequency elsewhere in the text, have been compiled into a Biographical Gazeteer in the Appendix. Most other identifications remain as footnotes to the text. All main biographical identifications, whether in footnotes or the Biographical Gazetteer, are indicated in the Index by boldface page numbers.