The Dispersal of George Washington’s Library

By William M. Ferraro, Senior Associate Editor
April 20, 2018

George Washington’s interest in books has attracted increasing scholarly attention. Mount Vernon pulled together a major exhibition in 2013 to mark the opening of the Fred W. Smith National Library for the Study of George Washington.1 Adrienne M. Harrison’s dissertation on Washington’s self-improvement through reading became a book published in 2015.2 Noted literary biographer Kevin J. Hayes has written a study with even greater range and depth. His book is now a finalist for the 2018 George Washington Prize.3 It has taken time for this scholarship to come forward because George Washington’s impressive library scattered after his death, and it was not his habit to muse about or ponder his reading in his diaries or correspondence. Sustained effort has been necessary to overcome the inaccurate perception that Washington had little curiosity and limited literary ability.4

Joseph R. Hawley, from James Grant Wilson and John Fiske, eds., Appleton’s Cyclopedia of American Biography, 7 vols. (New York, 1888–1900).

A significant portion of the roughly 900 volumes inventoried in George Washington’s estate shortly after his death almost went to the British Museum in the late 1840s. However, Bostonians banded together to purchase these books for the Boston Athenæum—where they still reside—for $3,800.5 Nearly 300 volumes were dispersed more widely on Nov. 28, 1876, when auctioneers from M. Thomas & Sons conducted a sale in an upper room of their offices at 139 and 141 South Fourth Street that drew a headline the next day in The Philadelphia Inquirer: “The Great Event of the Season in the Old Book Line—Large Attendance of Noted Buyers.” Lawrence Augustine Washington (1814–1882), grandson of George Washington’s brother Samuel and son of Lawrence Augustine Washington (1774–1824), offered these books for sale after putting them on public display during the United States Bicentennial Exhibition of 1876, only recently concluded in Philadelphia.6 Lawrence Washington had moved his family in the early 1850s to Denison, Tex., where he practiced medicine and evidently suffered financial misfortune as an ardent Confederate during the Civil War. The newspaper article on the sale reported that he attended the auction and deemed the prices realized—$1,933 in total—satisfactory.

The newspaper account graphically described the auction scene. Relatively few “spruce and lively young book collectors” paced among the 200 “gentlemen and half-dozen ladies assembled in the auction hall.” Two buyers particularly caught the reporter’s eye. Veteran bookseller Joseph Sabin of New York, whose “snowy head . . . rose immediately in front,” and Joseph R. Hawley, a former Civil War general who became a U.S. senator for Connecticut. He “occupied a chair, which leaned against a pillar.” Sabin, Hawley, and Philadelphia businessman John R. Baker secured the most lots, which “were rushed off rapidly” over the course of less than two hours to “the score or more purchasers that contested the possession.”

Baker’s annotated copy of the auction catalog has survived, and a photocopy of that item from an unknown source is part of the holdings of The Washington Papers. From that catalog, we know that the sale included a four-volume edition of Don Quixote (London, 1786), each with George Washington’s signature, and the two-volume Federalist Papers (New York, 1788), noted to be “in excellent condition” with Washington’s bookplate and signature in each volume. Also noteworthy in the early lots were Chesterfield’s Letters to His Son (4 vols., New York, 1785); Adam Smith’s An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations (3 vols., Philadelphia, 1789); and Thomas Jefferson’s Notes on the State of Virginia (2nd ed., Philadelphia, 1794).

Whoever compiled the catalog took few pains to detail features of the books. Not many entries went beyond noting the presence of Washington’s bookplate and signature. This practice hid the importance of Lot 114—Acts passed at a Congress of the United States of America held at New York, March 4th, 1789 (New York, 1789), a folio bound in calf—which sold for $13 to Hawley. This book again came up for action on June 22, 2012, at Christie’s in New York, where it sold for a then-record price of $8.7 million to the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association.7

This specially published collection of acts of Congress contained George Washington’s own margin notes next to the copy of the Constitution printed with the volume. Such marginalia were atypical for Washington, but in this remarkable instance, they reveal the care he gave to fulfilling his presidential duties. Still in excellent condition, despite its journey through the hands of different owners, this volume is now the centerpiece of the Smith Library’s efforts to recreate George Washington’s library as a resource for scholars and all interested in exploring the life and times of this great American. One of the books dispersed in 1876 has found its way home in grand style!

 


  1. Amanda C. Isaac, Take Note!: George Washington the Reader. Mount Vernon, Va., 2013.
  2. Adrienne M. Harrison, A Powerful Mind: The Self-Education of George Washington. Lincoln, Neb., 2015.
  3. Kevin J. Hayes, George Washington: A Life in Books. New York, 2017.
  4. For more on Washington’s “detractors” and his intellect, see William M. Ferraro, “George Washington’s Mind,” in Edward G. Lengel, ed., A Companion to George Washington (Malden, Mass., 2012), 542–57.
  5. Appleton P. C. Griffin, comp., A Catalogue of the Washington Collection in the Boston Athenæum (Cambridge, Mass., 1897), vii-ix.
  6. Griffin, ix.
  7. For video on this noteworthy book with footage from the auction in June 2012, see http://www.mountvernon.org/library/research-library/special-collections-and-archives/the-acts-of-congress/.