Throughout history, George Washington has been highly regarded for his common sense and military fortitude. When it comes to the Founding Fathers, his intellectual pursuits have been overshadowed by Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, and Alexander Hamilton—who are conventionally considered the great minds of early America.
Despite his relative lack of formal education, Washington remained an avid reader throughout his life. Through comprehensive research, historian Kevin J. Hayes has identified Washington’s devotion to self-education. In the following excerpt from George Washington: A Life in Books, Hayes examines the evidence behind Washington’s overlooked intellectual life.
A hundred years ago Ezra Pound criticized American history textbooks for ignoring George Washington’s intellect. More often than not Washington has been seen as a shelf-filler, someone who decorated his home with books, but seldom read them fully or deeply. Here’s an alternate theory: though George Washington never assembled a great library in the manner of, say, Benjamin Franklin or Thomas Jefferson, he did amass an impressive and diverse collection of books that he read closely and carefully and that significantly influenced his thought and action.
No one has ever written an intellectual biography of George Washington. Though Washington’s surviving comments about books and reading are not nearly as extensive as those of other Founding Fathers, he did leave many different types of evidence that, in the aggregate, can help to reconstruct his life of the mind. The evidence takes many different forms:
Though Washington’s library was widely dispersed during the nineteenth century, many of his books do survive. The Boston Athenaeum holds the single largest collection of books formerly in his possession. Additional books survive at Mount Vernon. Other libraries—the Firestone Library at Princeton University, the Houghton Library at Harvard University, the Library Company of Philadelphia, the Library of Congress, the Lilly Library at Indiana University, the Morgan Library, the New York Public Library, the Virginia Historical Society—all hold books from Washington’s library in their collections, most of which I have examined.
With the notable exception of his copy of James Monroe’s View of the Conduct of the Executive of the United States, Washington’s surviving books contain little marginalia, but he did write in his books occasionally. Most of the time he did so to correct typographical errors, but sometimes his marginal notes reveal how he read. Occasionally his notes in one book indicate other books he read. The fact that Washington wrote in his books has gone largely unnoticed, because uncovering these notes requires work that some find tedious. One must examine the surviving books meticulously, turning over one page after another in search of the slightest pencil marks showing that Washington did read the volumes that bear his bookplate.
Much evidence survives to identify books from Washington’s library that do not survive. Mainly it comes in the form of library catalogues. Washington himself compiled two such catalogues, which not only list what books he had at Mount Vernon, but also demonstrate his level of bibliographical expertise. Lund Washington, his cousin and plantation manager, compiled a list of books at Mount Vernon toward the end of the Revolutionary War. Washington’s library was inventoried with his estate after his death. When many of his books went up for sale in the nineteenth century, the booksellers described them in considerable detail. All these various catalogues provide much additional information about Washington’s books.
The story of the books in Washington’s life includes not only those he owned and read; it also includes those he wrote and published. Washington was a reluctant author, but sometimes his professional responsibilities compelled him to publish what he wrote. Occasionally editors, both friends and enemies, took charge and edited Washington’s writings, especially his letters, for publication.
As a writer, Washington was at his best when he was writing letters. Like any good letter writer, he shaped his tone and persona to suit individual readers. Though he seldom discussed his reading with his correspondents, sometimes he did provide bookish advice, especially when it came to recommending what military manuals to read or what agricultural manuals were useful. Washington’s correspondence, which fills dozens of volumes in the standard edition of his papers, contains numerous references that shed light on his books and reading. His literary allusions are often subtle, and many of them have gone unnoticed previously.
Washington kept a diary through much of his life, but his individual diary entries are frustratingly brief. He says where he was and what he did, but seldom does he reveal the inner man. He rarely mentions what he read or what he was thinking. Every once in a while, he does provide a tantalizing clue indicating the importance of one particular book or another.
Extracts, abstracts, and notes
Washington filled many blank quires of paper with notes he took while reading. Some of these notes come from practical manuals. Others come from books of history and travel. Several of these notebooks survive at the Library of Congress. Amounting to a total of nearly 900 pages, Washington’s manuscript notes supply a wealth of information about his reading process. Other notebooks survive in fragmented form. The owner of one such notebook disbound it and distributed its individual holograph leaves to friends. Now only three leaves from the original notebook survive.
The image of George Washington as a man of letters is much different from the accepted image of George Washington as a man of action. Like any new interpretation, this new view may take some getting used to, so I ask the reader’s patience and indulgence.
Featured image credit: “Scene at the Signing of the Constitution of the United States” by Howard Chandler Christy, circa 1940. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.