Step into George Washington’s world through his books. Look over Washington’s shoulder, read the books that he read, took notes from, and recommended to others.

Special Exhibit Showing From

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Education Center

Washington's Pursuit of Knowledge

George Washington’s formal schooling ended by the time he was 15, but his pursuit of knowledge continued throughout his life. Born in the Age of Reason, he was part of a new generation of readers that had access to more information than ever before. He read to become a better soldier, farmer, and president; he corresponded with authors and friends in America and Europe; and he exchanged ideas that fed the ongoing agricultural, social, and political revolutions of his day.

As a young man, George Washington copied out 110 “Rules of Civility and Decent Behaviour in Company and Conversation” from a popular English text, Youth’s Behaviour, or Decency in Conversation Amongst Men. The rules instruct students to practice consideration and respect towards others, by paying careful attention to body language, dress, and speech.

Youth's Behaviour, or Decency in Conversation Amongst Men

Translated and edited by Francis Hawkins. London: S. Griffin, 1668

Courtesy Washington State University

“I have a great many instructive books, on many subjects, as well as amusing ones.”

- GEORGE WASHINGTON to Lawrence Lewis, August 4, 1797

Washington's Library

Washington collected more than 1,200 publications over the course of his lifetime. Kept in custom bookcases in his study at Mount Vernon, these books, pamphlets, and newspapers connected him to ideas, events, and people from around the world.

Political works dominated Washington's collection

Washington’s library was his go-to source when researching politics, farming, and warfare, but it also provided a rich source of entertainment, in the form of novels, plays, and poetry, as well as food for thought, in works on religious and philosophical subjects.

“I conceive a knowledge of books is the basis upon which other knowledge is to be built.”

- – GEORGE WASHINGTON to Jonathan Boucher, July 9, 1771

Discovering Washington the Reader

Deciphering what Washington read, how he read, and how it influenced him has occupied scholars for the past two centuries. With careful study, letters, purchase records, and the books themselves all yield clues that can lead to a better understanding of Washington as a reader, and by extension, as a leader.

George Washington’s copy of The History and Adventures of the Renowned Don Quixote


By Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra, translated by Tobias Smollett
London: W. Longman et al., 1786

A conversation at the home of Benjamin Franklin in Philadelphia may have inspired Washington to read the epic Spanish novel, Don Quixote. Washington purchased this English edition on September 17, 1787, the very day that the Constitutional Convention concluded.

Gift of the William Randolph Hearst Foundation, 1983 [ML-267-W]

George Washington to Elizabeth Powel January 25, 1795


“[Thomas] Jefferson’s Notes of Virginia I have the pleasure to send you,” writes Washington to Powel, a close friend, and one of the most well-read and articulate women in America. Powel may have also requested or recommended the other article mentioned: “Doctr. [Benjamin] Franklin’s strictures on the abuse of the Press.”

Purchase, 1952 [A-417.32]

George Washington’s copy of A View of the Conduct of the Executive, in the Foreign Affairs of the United States Connected with the Mission to the French Republic, During the Years 1794, 5, & 6


By James Monroe
Philadelphia: Benjamin Franklin Bache, 1797

James Monroe’s critique of Washington’s foreign policy prompted the first president to respond with written comments in the margins. This book contains more notes in Washington’s hand than any of the surviving books from his library.

*AC7.Un33P.Zz1m, Houghton Library, Harvard University, Gift of Joseph Story, 1847

“Every hour misspent is lost forever... endeavour not only to be learned but virtuous.”

- – GEORGE WASHINGTON to his nephew, George Steptoe Washington, December 5, 1790

Love the exhibit? Then you’ll love this...

The catalog of the exhibition...

"Take Note! George Washington the Reader"

Softcover with 172 pages including 137 color illustrations.

Exhibit Details

George Washington made learning a lifelong quest.  “Take Note! George Washington the Reader” is an unprecedented special exhibition of important books, letters, documents, and museum artifacts from Washington’s library and life. The exhibition brings Washington’s lifelong passion and quest for education into view, and gives us an intriguing glimpse into the Father of our Nation.

Exhibit Dates

“Take Note! George Washington the Reader” is showing from September 27, 2013 through January 12, 2014 in the F.M. Kirby Foundation Gallery which is located in the Donald W. Reynolds Museum at Mount Vernon.

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