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George Washington: Muse, Patron, and Lover of the Arts

by Katie Lebert, Communications Specialist
May 31, 2017

That Washington was not a Schollar is certain. That he was too illiterate, unlearned, unread, for his Station and reputation is equally past dispute. He had derived little no Knowledge from Reading; none from Travel, except in the United States, and excepting one Trip in his youth to one of the West India Islands and directly back again. From Conversation in publick and private, he had improved considerably and by Reflection in his Closet, a good deal. He was indeed a thoughtful Man.1

They say you crave what you cannot have. This was true for George Washington when it came to a formal education in the arts and sciences. Though his older half-brothers benefitted from schooling in England as adolescents, George did not. His father, Augustine Washington, died when George was only 11 years old, making it financially difficult for him to attend school. Although he was privately tutored in the following years, George Washington developed an insecurity about his lack of education and writing skills, which in turn motivated his words and actions, both public and private.2

Washington believed that books were useful to soldiers in their development of military acuity and discipline. Once, when his corps misbehaved, he suggested reading as an occupational necessity:

Remember, that it is the actions, and not the commission, that make the Officer—and that there is more expected from him than the Title. Do not forget, that there ought to be a time appropriated to attain this knowledge; as well as to indulge pleasure. And as we now have no opportunities to improve from example; let us read, for this desirable end. There is Blands and other Treatises which will give the wished-for information.3

Washington attended to the education of his adopted children and grandchildren as well, by providing them with books and tutors. Concerned that his stepson John Parke “Jacky” Custis did not appreciate his schooling, Washington advised Jacky’s instructor to more strongly divert the young man’s attentions from frivolities and back to his studies.4 To Washington’s alarm, his exhortations went unheeded. The Reverend Jonathan Boucher, Jacky’s tutor, complained:

In Truth, it is one of the worst Symptoms that I know of in Him, that He does not much like Books: & yet I have been endeavouring to allure Him to it, by every Artifice I cou’d think of. I hop’d that Cargo of Books wou’d have done it.5

When neither Jacky nor Martha acquiesced to Washington’s plea that Jacky complete his college education, Washington gave in, “contrary to [his] judgement.”6 Indeed, for Washington, a well-rounded education was necessary to render Jacky “useful to society.”7

George Washington’s honorary degree from Harvard College. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress. See Washington’s other honorary degrees by visiting their online collection of George Washington’s papers.

Such a belief reflected the 18th-century enlightenment idea that reason was the foundation of knowledge. Putting this into practice, then, required a commitment to intellectual self-improvement.

For the adult Washington, that meant reading. Consequently, he sought to amass a large and diverse library. Benefitting from the additions of the Custis estate, the Mount Vernon library boasted more than 1200 books at its largest size.8 Along with such reference tomes as A New and Complete Dictionary of Arts and Sciences, The World displayed; or a Curious Collection of Voyages and Travels and Cadmus: or, a Treatise on the Elements of Written Language, Washington collected works of history like The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire and novels including The History and Adventures of Don Quixote.9

In leading a young nation, Washington’s passion for education shines brightest. He frequently advocated for the establishment of a national university for the arts and sciences. The subject was so important to him that he included it in his undelivered first inaugural address (see paragraph 62), his first annual address to Congress, and his Farewell Address. He believed that such an institution was crucial to the cultivation of American values and to an understanding of the principles that governed democratic society.10

Though Washington would not see the establishment of such an institution in his lifetime, he personally invested in its future. In his last will and testament, Washington set aside money for a national university as well as for a school for orphan children.11

Educational institutions and organizations honored Washington by bestowing on him honorary degrees.12 For a man so enamored with the arts and sciences, it is even more fitting that his life would be celebrated in verse. A living muse, Washington was the subject of numerous songs and poems, among them one by renowned poet Phillis Wheatley.

Proceed, great chief, with virtue on thy side,

Thy ev’ry action let the goddess guide.

A crown, a mansion, and a throne that shine,

With gold unfading, Washington! be thine.13

 

Notes

  1. “From John Adams to Benjamin Rush, 22 April 1812,” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified March 30, 2017, http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Adams/99-02-02-5777. [This is an Early Access document from The Adams Papers. It is not an authoritative final version.]
  2. David Humphreys, The Life of General Washington (Athens, Ga., 2006), 6.
  3. “Address, 8 January 1756,” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified March 30, 2017, http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/02-02-02-0271. Also available in print: The Papers of George Washington, Colonial Series 2: 256–58.
  4. “From George Washington to Jonathan Boucher, 16 December 1770,” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified March 30, 2017, http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/02-08-02-0280. Also available in print: The Papers of George Washington, Colonial Series 8: 411–12.
  5. “To George Washington from Jonathan Boucher, 18 December 1770,” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified March 30, 2017, http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/02-08-02-0282. Also available in print: The Papers of George Washington, Colonial Series 8: 413–17.
  6. “From George Washington to Myles Cooper, 15 December 1773,” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified March 30, 2017, http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/02-09-02-0306. Also available in print: The Papers of George Washington, Colonial Series 9: 406–7.
  7. “From George Washington to Benedict Calvert, 3 April 1773,” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified March 30, 2017, http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/02-09-02-0158. Also available in print: The Papers of George Washington, Colonial Series 9: 209–11.
  8. Amanda C. Issac, Take Note!: George Washington the Reader (2013).
  9. Ibid. See also Mount Vernon’s catalogue of George Washington’s Library: http://www.librarything.com/catalog/GeorgeWashington.
  10. “From George Washington to the United States Senate and House of Representatives, 8 January 1790,” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified March 30, 2017, http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/05-04-02-0361. Also available in print: The Papers of George Washington, Presidential Series 4: 543–49.
  11. “George Washington’s Last Will and Testament, 9 July 1799,” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified March 30, 2017, http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/06-04-02-0404-0001. Also available in print: The Papers of George Washington, Retirement Series 4: 479–511.
  12. “From George Washington to the President and Faculty of the University of Pennsylvania, 20 April 1789,” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified March 30, 2017, http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/05-02-02-0080. Also available in print: The Papers of George Washington, Presidential Series 2: 86–87.
  13. “Enclosure: Poem by Phillis Wheatley, 26 October 1775,” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified March 30, 2017, http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/03-02-02-0222-0002. Also available in print: The Papers of George Washington, Revolutionary War Series 2: 242–44.