lthough Thomas Jefferson is today the most noted early presidential lover of books, he was not the only one. George Washington and John Adams also had a strong penchant toward reading. As committed readers, they each helped usher in a new era—a new nation—founded on humanist texts and Enlightenment ideals. This was no easy task.
In a time when libraries were rare repositories of knowledge, Washington, Adams, and Jefferson went about systematically collecting books. They needed to know what Cicero thought of the Roman Republic, what Adam Smith had to say on the economy, what political theories were proposed by John Locke or David Hume; they even sought from books advice on the most effective way to reap crops. It is clear that as their fame and prosperity grew, so did their libraries. Washington perhaps built his out of necessity, Adams out of duty, and Jefferson out of insatiable need. All became readers of the very highest order.
Although George Washington never went to college and acquired little formal education, he was not an uneducated man. [figure 4.2] Largely taught by his father and then his brother, Washington learned much of what he needed to know to be accepted into the local Virginia gentry. Private reading helped further pave the way. He did, however, feel his lack of formal education acutely later in life, when he was surrounded by university men, and this may be what prompted him to become, if not an insatiable reader, at least a competent one, amassing a large and diverse library of his own. [figure 4.1] Although Washington’s reputation as a reader suffers in comparison to that of Adams and Jefferson, his books suggest otherwise. Being a man of action, he rarely, if ever, spoke of his personal reading habits.
Mount Vernon housed Washington’s books. [figure 4.3] At the time of his death, it was recorded that his library contained 884 books and pamphlets and 100 charts and maps. Many more were perhaps scattered about. Today a personal library of this size would be considered quite fine, and in 1799 it was a collection of books worthy of great pride.
Washington’s private study (like other great things) was completed in 1776. It quickly became his refuge, his private domain. No one was to enter without express permission. Washington even installed a dressing room off to the side and a private staircase leading to his second-floor bedroom. From his library he privately read books of all sorts, but books on agriculture were favorites as he improved his farm. He also wrote prodigiously, leaving at least 121 bound volumes of letters concerning both personal matters and matters of State. [figure 4.5]
Like many men of his stature, Washington had a library that was deeply indebted to both classical and contemporary authors whose books lined his shelves. One of his favorite books, however, was not a treatise on agriculture but a play titled Cato by the Englishman Joseph Addison. [figure 4.4] Washington, like many other new Americans, found resonance in the play’s depiction of the Roman statesman Cato’s struggle between Republican virtue and Caesarean tyranny. Cato, faced with the choice articulated famously by Patrick Henry, “Give me liberty or give me death!” chose death over subjugation. Washington quoted liberally from Addison’s Cato in his correspondence, as well as in his Farewell Address. In 1778 he even went so far as to order it played for him and his troops at Valley Forge.
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