George Washington: A Life in Books


January 19, 2018
by Titus Belgard Also by this Author


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Book review: George Washington: A Life in Books by Kevin J. Hayes (Oxford University Press, May 2017)


In the introduction to George Washington: A Life in Books, historian Kevin Hayes discusses an encounter during a vacation to Australia before he began graduate school. Hayes met an Australian couple, and they asked him to tell them everything he knew about George Washington. This amounted to the crossing of the Delaware River, the hard winter at Valley Forge, Washington’s time as President, and his portrait on the one dollar bill. Hayes further notes in his introduction that Washington’s reputation as a Founding Father revolves around the image of him being a man of action and not, contrasted against Jefferson and Franklin, a man of deep intellect. Washington has always been seen as a soldier, a surveyor, and a planter, among other things, but never as a thinker. After a career focused on the cultural life of early American history, particularly the role that books played in that cultural life, Hayes seeks to correct that image by examining the intellectual life of George Washington.

Intellectual biography has been a popular avenue for historians in recent years, and Hayes is not alone in exploring this angle in the lives of early American figures. In the 1995 biography Emerson: The Mind on Fire, for example, Robert Richardson set himself the task of reading everything that Ralph Waldo Emerson is known to have read in his lifetime, and Hayes follows a similar approach with Washington. The patience and endurance needed to complete this task is laudable and commendable, but Hayes is careful early on to make a couple of points about books in the eighteenth century. First, a work that today would be a sizable single volume was often published in Washington’s day as a multi-volume set, each volume being a thin member of the whole. Second, it is not unusual for surviving sets to have one or more missing volumes. A common occurrence even in Washington’s day, this is what is referred to as a “broken set.” Third, an author or publisher solicited subscriptions for a work before it was written, and members of the public often became subscribers as a way to reflect their social status, not necessarily as an indication that they actually intended to read the book.[1]

Similarly, readers must understand certain traits Washington cultivated during his life with regard to his books. Paramount among these was his habit of “meditating” after finishing a book or reading a pertinent section of a book. That is, Washington would set the book aside, retreat to a quiet spot if possible, and turn the material over and over in his mind so that it became ingrained in his thinking. Also, Washington was a very close and astute reader of his books, and Hayes shows repeatedly how the marginalia in his books bears this out. One of the few works of fiction we know Washington read was a multi-volume edition of Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift owned by Jack Custis, Washington’s stepson. Hayes tells us that page 45 of the second volume contains a correction of a spelling error, evidence that Washington actually read this copy of Gulliver’s Travels and paid very close attention while doing so.[2] Washington’s marginalia can also be problematic if one is trying to use it to draw a straight line to reconstruct with any precision the events of Washington’s life. Detecting a pattern to his reading and thinking in any respect does not lend itself to easy generalizations. As Hayes points out, “He took notes in different ways at different times for different reasons, even from the same work.”[3] Establishing a date to the handwritten notes in Washington’s books can be a tricky business, and this leads to the third point regarding Washington’s habits of reading. His tendency was to read for information and to further his education, not to read for pleasure. His favorite topics were agriculture, history, and travel.

As Washington’s personal library grew, his skills as a caretaker of his books grew too. Washington cataloged his books twice during his lifetime, and this included the sizeable Custis collection of books which Jack was too young to manage when George married Martha. In 1783, Washington’s personal library is believed to have contained 150 volumes, a slim number compared to Jefferson’s 2,000 volumes in 1783 and Franklin’s 4,000 volumes in 1785.[4] By the time of his death in December 1799, Washington’s personal library numbered over 1,000 volumes.[5]

The portrait of Washington that emerges in these pages is a very humanizing one. The use of Washington’s books to tell the story of his life brings into sharp focus the strengths and weaknesses Washington possessed and how they changed over time. Along the way, we see Washington as a young, inexperienced colonial officer during the French and Indian War and how the publication of The Journal of Major George Washington in 1754 brought literary success and name recognition on both sides of the Atlantic. The Journal was also published with a reworking of annotations and footnotes by the French with an eye to its propaganda value. We see, too, Washington as an increasingly frustrated stepfather with regard to the education of his stepson Jack Custis whose attention to the textbooks and private tutors Washington paid for was something less than stellar. Simply put, the focus on Washington’s books allows us to see him grow and learn from his mistakes, an element that we know is under the surface in standard biographies but one that is allowed here to bloom into full form.

Hayes pays something of a price for this, however, and it can be seen as both a bit of a blessing and a shortcoming. Hayes does not invest his time lingering too long in any one chapter in examining the various aspects of Washington’s life. He follows the bibliographic evidence as far as it will go, fills in any gaps by speculating as much and as far as the evidence allows, and then goes no farther. Hayes never overworks his material, and some readers may feel he has not explored the connection between Washington and his books nearly enough. Chapter eleven, for example, revolves around the impact of Thomas Paine’s Common Sense and The American Crisis. It begins with the Second Continental Congress in May 1775 and ends with the crossing of the Delaware River in 1776. Where some readers might see as a lack of breadth in any one chapter, Hayes compensates with depth, if not poignancy.

Two examples should suffice. Hayes ends chapter eleven noting that some soldiers to go into battle carrying a copy of the Bible, but it is reasonable to think that Paine’s words meant so much to Washington’s men that they carried The American Crisis with them too. How is this reasonable? It is reasonable because, Hayes tells us, the surviving copy of The American Crisis at the American Philosophical Society in Philadelphia “is badly stained with blood.”[6]

Second, chapter twelve, only fifteen pages long, discusses the remaining years of the American Revolution. For anyone interested in Washington’s military leadership, this is the chapter, brief though it is, to read the most carefully. It is where Hayes makes a key contribution to the historiography of George Washington. In discussing the petite guerre and Washington’s personal collection of books on military science, Hayes says, “Though his field library is seldom discussed in biographies of him or histories of the war, the collection of books he assembled and carried with him throughout its duration emphasizes the strategic value of partisan warfare, which would be crucial to American success on the battlefield.”[7] The corresponding endnote is a deeper discussion of two works focused on Washington’s command of the army. One is a 400-page military biography from 1996 in which the author mentions Washington’s library only once, and that occurs in a citation. The other work is a short piece titled “Washington’s Irregulars,” part of A Companion to George Washington published in 2012, which mentions Washington’s books “but downplays their influence.”[8] Put another way, if anyone is curious to know how Washington was able to have as much success against the British as he had, for Hayes the answer can be found within another question. What did the man read?

After the war, Washington’s popularity soared, and while he became more polished at dropping references to literary works in his correspondence and in polite conversation, his need for self-improvement never left him. This continual need for self-improvement fed the view of Washington’s peers that he was not a serious intellectual, despite having won the war for independence. Hayes encapsulates this tension by noting, “Washington remained quite self-conscious about his spotty knowledge of literature. He apparently felt uncomfortable when others alluded to works he did not know.”[9] Even before and during his presidency, it was not uncommon for artists, authors, and researchers to undermine this perception and pawn off their work to the public as having been authorized or endorsed by Washington when he actually had not done so. Fortunately, others approached their literary and artistic work with integrity, and they found that Washington could be a shrewd subject. Rev. William Gordon, whom Washington had met in Cambridge, Massachusetts in 1775, collected first-hand accounts and other primary material for an official history of the Revolutionary War while it was still being conducted. After the war, Gordon became the first serious researcher to ask Washington for permission to read his wartime papers. Realizing his position and the sensitivity of some of the material in his papers, Washington required Gordon to first secure Congressional approval, which was granted, before opening his papers to him.[10] Recognizing early on that Mount Vernon was something of an archive, this is hardly the action of a naïve and unintelligent man.

Publishers sometimes benefitted from Washington’s experience and insight. As part of his efforts to be a patron of the arts while president, Washington was a subscriber to American Museum, a literary magazine founded by Philadelphia publisher Mathew Carey in 1787. At one point, Carey asked the president for permission to reprint a private letter. He was wise to have done so. Washington advised Carey that the letter was a forgery, one of many. Collectively, these forgeries were known as the “spurious letters” and had been published in London as wartime propaganda ten years earlier.[11] The spurious letters would see light again when two editions of them were published toward the end of Washington’s second term. Lest anyone believe that every American alive at the time was enamored of the president, one of these two editions was published by newspaper editor and perpetual critic of Washington’s administration, Benjamin Franklin Bach, grandson of Benjamin Franklin.[12]

The concluding chapters focus on the writing and the afterlife of Washington’s 1796 farewell address to the nation, which was delivered in print, not orally, and finally, Washington’s years in retirement. In examining the farewell address, Hayes describes Washington as forward-thinking in contemplating the country’s future. Kentucky and Tennessee had become states during Washington’s time in office, and Washington had come to see the United States not in terms of North and South but in terms of East and West, and the West represented the future. Throughout the farewell address, Hayes argues that Washington used the tone of a departing friend who saw eye to eye and shared a common touch with the American people and not a practiced, career politician who believed himself to be superior to them.[13] In terms of the role of books, the retirement years of this man of the people were particularly undercut by the 1798 publication of View of the Conduct of the Executive of the United States by James Monroe. Washington’s minister to France for two years, Monroe had not been entirely supportive of the administration, and this book was welcome fodder for Benjamin Franklin Bache. Washington’s copy is marked by extensive notes in the margins. Ordinarily, Washington’s marginalia had been made to correct typographical errors, but this was different. This is the only book in Washington’s personal library in which his anger, in this case toward a former subordinate, comes through unfiltered.[14]

In his closing remarks, Hayes comments that this new book is by no means the final word in the role that books played in the life of George Washington.[15] Indeed, one of the weaknesses of this book is that it contains no mention of Washington as a Freemason. Mount Vernon does own The Sentimental and Masonic Magazine, a five volume set of books spanning the years 1792 to 1794. Published by John Jones of Dublin, Ireland, the set was sent to Washington in 1795. The set, which contains Washington’s signature, was an anonymous gift to Mount Vernon in 1907.[16] Another weakness, this one more substantial, is that Hayes does not provide a bibliography of his sources. A reader who wishes to know, for example, how many times Hayes cites his previous books and articles must thumb through the endnotes section which spans pages 317 to 366 and keep careful track of the material. Anyone curious to compare the number of primary sources against secondary sources, and Hayes makes ample use of both, must follow the same course.

On the positive side, Hayes’s prose is highly readable. It is the type of history book that this reviewer enjoys reading the most, one in which it is clear that the author is not on the prowl for tenure. Some readers may feel that Hayes slips into an informal tone a little too occasionally, but given the attention to detail and the time required to study Washington’s personal library, this is a minor quibble. On the whole, this is a highly enjoyable and informative book. For anyone interested in the primary documentation of the lives of the Founding Fathers or for anyone wishing to be an informed visitor to Mount Vernon, this is essential reading.


[1] Hayes, Kevin J. George Washington: A Life in Books (Oxford University Press, 2017), 37.

[2] Ibid., 118.

[3] Ibid., 107.

[4] Ibid., 196-197.

[5] Ibid., 314.

[6] Ibid., 172.

[7] Ibid., 183.

[8] Ibid., 348. The military biography is Washington’s Partisan War, 1775-1783 by Mark V. Kwansy, published by Kent State University Press.

[9] Ibid., 249.

[10] Ibid., 215-216.

[11] Ibid., 274-275.

[12] Ibid., 284.

[13] Ibid., 294.

[14] Ibid., 305-306.

[15] Ibid., 367.

[16] “The Sentimental and Masonic Magazine, Vol. I.” George Washington’s Mount Vernon. Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association., accessed November 3, 2017.

One thought on “George Washington: A Life in Books

  • Mr. Belgard, Thanks for this review. Went right out and acquired the book. Good read. I do, like you, have some reservations, however, regarding how much an author can reach beyond evidence in forming conclusions. As you point out, at the end of Ch. 11, the author concludes that there is “proof” that Thomas Paine’s words from The American Crisis Number 1 were carried by Washington’s soldiers across the Delaware to the Battle of Trenton, because the American Philosophical Society in Philadelphia has an original human blood-stained first edition of the pamphlet. I must say I’ve not handled that particular pamphlet (did look at a first edition of a stained Common Sense there, though no idea of the source of the stain on that one), but according to the MARC catalog record of the particular edition of Paine’s American Crisis 1 in question, it was acquired in 2010 by the library and there is no further information at all referencing the origin or source. So, leaping from a single blood-stained pamphlet to what likely caused that at the Battle of Trenton, absent any other evidence which the author does not provide is, well, quite a leap. Perhaps the author has some information which he did not share in his book to make that assertion. As I have two articles in JAR about Paine’s role and influence in Washington’s Crossing, I’d be very interested in learning of anything I’ve overlooked. But, to the best of my knowledge, there is no proof that (a) Washington read the American Crisis to his troops prior to crossing the Delaware on Christmas night, 1776, in spite of the tradition that says so, and (b) I’ve never found a first-hand account by any participant who was there who mentions Paine’s words in association with that event. That said, I’d love to be proven wrong!

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