Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Tweeting in the 18th Century

Wow, that’s a lot of snow! Plenty more on the way. Today, the Capital Weather Gang linked to the National Weather Service charting historic DC snowfalls. At the top it mentions what has been referred to as the Washington-Jefferson snowstorm of 1772 as both Founding Fathers mentioned a three foot accumulation in their diaries. If the Founding Fathers both independently mentioned this storm, then it must have been something newsworthy. Would it be possible to find these diaries transcribed online…

What!? Was there a doubt? This isn’t 1996; of course it’s online (the university system and Library of Congress are terrific)! Here’s a description of George Washington’s week in 1772:

“27. At home by ourselves the day being dreadfully bad.
28. Just such a day as the former & at home alone.
29. With much difficulty rid as far as the Mill the Snow being up to the breast of a Tall Horse everywhere.
30. At home all day it being almost impracticable to get out.
31. Still at home for the Causes above.
Feb. 1st. Attempted to ride as far as the Ferry Plantation to wch. there was a Tract broke but found it so tiresome & disagreeable that I turnd back before I got half way.
2. At home all day.
3. At home all day alone.”

Initially, I planned to discuss this snowstorm, but I’m realizing that we have much more lofty things to discuss than the weather. I want to put this out there for opinion: George Washington’s Diary and Weather Reports reads like a Twitter page. A thought, an action, a day whittled down to 140 characters or less. Even when starting a new diary Washington writes at the top, “Where and How my time is spent.” Some years he varies this statement with “Where, how, and with whom my time is spent.” Is that phrase not the essence of a Tweet?

I appreciate Washington’s compellation to record the weather. As a farmer, it was important to try to predict weather patterns year to year, especially when a drought or flood could cut in to profits. Understanding why Washington kept a diary is a bit different—he didn’t have others following his entries, yet he kept a diary off and on from 1760 to his death. The Library of Congress (LoC)suggests that his diary was intended to account for his time, which was valuable like the land on his farm. The diary was more a matter of good business practice, rather than a memoir or secret-keeper, or something to increase social status. This is where George Washington’s diaries diverge from Twitter.

Where I think the diaries and Twitter meet is that Washington’s entries are not strictly business. Though most of his emotions are reserved for his correspondence between friends and family, the diary serves as a blank interface, or as the LoC puts it, “He is not on guard here, for he seems unaware that any other eyes will see, or need to see, what he is writing.” This is the same phenomena we see on the internet with Facebook or Twitter, where there is an invisible wall, a disconnect, between the writer and the rest of the world. From time to time in the diaries you see outbursts rage and amusement. However, it does seem that he becomes wordier as time passes. I am not sure if this is due to old age or an indication of the presidency having affected his vanity. In any event, tonight I am left with the thought that George Washington was a natural tweeter (apparently the cartoonist on right agrees with me), and I’d like to know what sorts of hashtags he would come up with. Since I don’t have that luxury, I’ll create a tweet for him. GEorgEwa$hinGtoN: @Col. Fairfax c ya #foxhunt today. Rid to Mill. Gonna b awesome.

Source: The Diaries of George Washington. Vol. 3. Donald Jackson, ed.; Dorothy Twohig, assoc. ed. The Papers of George Washington. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1978. Available at the Library of Congress.