Douglas Freeman, in his valiant attempt to decipher the character of George Washington, was forced to this admission: "The tradition that Mrs. Washington destroyed all her husband's letters to her must be accepted as correct, though the time and circumstances of this lamentable disservice to history are unknown." Consequently in spite of Freeman's far-flung research and his great gifts as an interpreter, the inner life and character of Washington still remain obscured. What an asset it would be to our understanding of the man and his times if the many letters which we know he wrote to his wife during the Revolution were now available! --letters like the one, fortunately preserved, in which he described his emotions on being appointed to command the Continental forces.
Mrs. Washington's probable reasons for destroying the letters are not difficult to understand and even appreciate. The letters were doubtless intimate and they were intimately hers. Why should she share what was personal and private to herself either with her contemporaries or with the fortunes of an uncertain future?
What, of course, Mrs. Washington did not appreciate was the overriding claim of history to the inspiration and recuperative values of the past--the past with all its triumphs and heart-breaks, its courage and evasions, its personal greatnesses and weaknesses. It is the vision of the past that makes the present livable, and no generation should be denied access to its secrets.
This is a point of view which is now becoming increasingly accepted, and the growing collections of personal letters and papers in the Library of Congress and elsewhere are an eloquent testimonial to a new attitude toward privacy. With the passage of years, privacy becomes at best a relative term. There is a kind of statute of limitations which after a reasonable period allows us to unlock the secrets and intimacies of a given generation without embarrassment or lack of taste. The richness of the past is not denied us because of a modesty or sense of inappropriateness which, however valid at the time, has outlived its relevance and meaning.
For this reason, it seems to me, Mrs. McAdoo's decision to publish the intimate letters of her father and mother, Woodrow Wilson and Ellen Axson Wilson, is to be applauded. That they are extraordinary letters and that they reveal an aspect of Wilson's character which neither the outside world nor his close friends had suspected, is at once apparent to anyone who reads them. With the possible exception of the love letters of the Brownings I doubt if any such outstanding collection is available in the English language, and they are bound to take a prominent place among the classics of this category.
In editing the letters, Mrs. McAdoo has performed her work faithfully and with a high degree of judgment and competence. While she . . .