Books at Mount Vernon
By Jack D. Warren«back | home
We generally think of George Washington as a man of action -- riding over his farms or commanding troops in battle. We seldom imagine him reading books. Temperamental John Adams, who was one of the most well-read Americans of his generation, wrote "that Washington was not a scholar is certain. That he was too illiterate, unlearned, unread for his station is equally past dispute." Whether or not this harsh judgment was correct, there can be no doubt that Washington felt, as he wrote in 1785, "a consciousness of a defective education." Unlike many gentlemen of his generation, Washington never learned any language but English. His early acquaintance with literature, philosophy, and natural science was limited, and his later life was so active that he had no time to fill in the gaps in his education. And yet at Mount Vernon Washington collected a library that was unusually large for his day, consisting of about 1,000 books. The library in which this collection was kept is perhaps the room most intimately associated with Washington's life at Mount Vernon. There he kept his accounts, reviewed farm reports, and maintained the vast correspondence that now makes up The Papers of George Washington. There too, he retired to read the newspapers, magazines, pamphlets, and books that he acquired.
When Washington died, a complete inventory of his library was made, so we know fairly precisely what books he owned. Classical and modern literature, along with works on agriculture, history, and politics formed the largest parts of the collection. Washington fittingly owned over 40 military works, and about an equal number of religious books, along with a smaller number on science, geography and travel, and the law. What the inventory cannot tell us is what each of these books meant to Washington. How did he acquire them? Which were his favorites? To find answers to questions like these we can turn to Washington's personal correspondence, now being published in full for the first time in The Papers of George Washington.
Before the Revolution Washington seems to have ordered many of the books he acquired from England. The Colonial Series documents many of these. During the Revolution, Washington had little time to read for pleasure, although several of the military works in Washington's collection were published in this period and Washington probably acquired them while in the field. The largest number of Washington's books were published after the Revolution and we can learn a great deal about many of these by examining his correspondence in the Confederation Series and the Presidential Series of The Papers of George Washington now underway.
As president, Washington received a steady stream of books as unsolicited gifts from admirers, some from people seeking personal favors, and others from people hoping Washington would use his influence to spread their ideas. Claude Boniface Collignon, a French lawyer, sent Washington two copies of his treatise on weights and measures in March, 1790, urging the president to have Congress adopt his system -- and buy additional copies of his book. In his own support, Collignon claimed (with no basis in fact) that he was personally responsible for the French alliance that had led to American victory in the Revolution. We can be sure that Washington never read Collignon's book, since he did not read French, but he passed a copy on to Thomas Jefferson, who did.
A few days later a Scottish lord sent Washington the prospectus of a new magazine, The Bee, to be published by the Scottish writer James Anderson. Washington subscribed to The Bee, and was soon engaged in a long correspondence with Anderson. An agricultural experimenter, Anderson sent Washington copies of his later books on agricultural improvement along with exotic seeds, like those of the "Swedish Turnip, or Ruta-Baga." Washington kept Anderson's books, and as a practical farmer with an interest in agricultural innovation, seems to have read them with interest. One volume of The Bee is in the collection at Mount Vernon today.
A few weeks after he received Anderson's prospectus, Washington received a pamphlet with the intriguing title Relief from accidental Death from an English doctor named Alexander Johnson. The pamphlet described treatments for the condition we now call shock, and Johnson wanted Washington to use his influence to help spread these treatments in the United States. We do not know whether Washington read the pamphlet or discussed it with any of the doctors he knew, but he kept it.
All of these works, read and unread, wound up in Washington's library at Mount Vernon. The letters sent to Washington by their authors -- carefully preserved by him -- are now being published for the first time in The Papers of George Washington along with many other documents that provide insights into Washington's education and intellectual life. Through these documents we can begin to understand the place of books and reading in the Washington's life, and to understand how he became, despite his limited education, a great man of reflection as well as action.
© 1995 Jack Warren
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