Explore Mount Vernon's Digital Encyclopedia to learn more about George Washington's affinity for Don Quixote.
George Washington's personal copies of the literary classic Don Quixote each offer a unique story while providing an invaluable glimpse into the reading habits of the General.
By Kevin J. Hayes
It took several days after George Washington reached Philadelphia during the second week of May 1787 before a quorum of delegates arrived, allowing the Constitutional Convention to begin. Washington spent some of that time renewing his friendship with another convention delegate. One day, he went to Franklin Court on Market Street, where he became reacquainted with Benjamin Franklin, whom Washington had not seen since Franklin had visited the headquarters of the Continental Army in Cambridge, Massachusetts, on behalf of Congress in 1775. The two were happy to see one another after the lapse of a dozen years.
During her father’s absence and ambassadorship, Sarah Franklin Bache and her husband Richard had taken care of Franklin Court. Upon returning from Paris, Benjamin Franklin found his house chock-full of little Baches. There was scarcely enough room for his ample girth or the thousands of books he brought from Europe, so he built a new addition to his home. He enjoyed showing off the new wing and its library, which housed the books he had collected throughout his life. Displaying his library to visitors, Franklin would choose books that suited their tastes and interests. With more than 4,000 volumes, his personal library impressed everyone who visited.
Washington’s correspondence records one work Franklin showed him. When he and Don Diego de Gardoqui—the Spanish envoy to the United States—coincidentally visited Franklin Court at the same time, they toured their host’s library together. Franklin showed them some of the finest books he had obtained in Paris, including the four-volume edition of Don Quixote published in Madrid by Joaquin Ibarra. Commissioned by the Real Academia de la Lengua, which oversaw its publication, the edition is gorgeous.
Printed on distinctive paper, using a new typeface specially designed for it, and illustrated with handsome copperplate engravings, this edition established Don Quixote as a landmark of Spanish literature. Paradoxically, Don Quixote had been recognized as a great book among English readers before it was accepted as a classic in Spain. The Spanish initially saw the work as little more than a burlesque of chivalric romance, but the Real Academia edition made Don Quixote a Spanish national treasure.
Don Quixote was well-known among the founding fathers. Elbridge Gerry, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, owned a four-volume Dublin edition. Alexander Hamilton read Don Quixote in its native Spanish. In his youth, Thomas Jefferson had read it in French, but by the time he sailed for Europe to fulfill his position as minister plenipotentiary to the Court of France, he had realized that a knowledge of Spanish would help his diplomatic work. So he taught himself the language by reading Don Quixote in the original and, later, helped his daughters do the same. John Adams followed a similar pattern; familiar with Don Quixote from his youth, he obtained a Dutch translation to teach himself the language around the time he was appointed commissioner to the Netherlands.
The list goes on. Richard Henry Lee, a signer from Virginia, read Don Quixote in Spanish. Patrick Henry read it in English. One evening while both men were serving in the Virginia legislature, Lee kept Henry and some other legislators up late extolling the genius of Cervantes. He drew several examples from Don Quixote to prove his point. Lee got so involved that he lost track of time, continuing his lengthy discourse into the small hours. Henry, the story goes, was the first to rise from his chair to interrupt Lee. Don Quixote is an excellent work of literature, Henry agreed, but Lee had overlooked one of the book’s finest parts. When Lee asked what that was, Henry told him it was “that divine exclamation of Sancho, ‘Blessed be the man that first invented sleep: it covers one all over, like a cloak.’”
The founding fathers, like other English speakers in the 18th century, pronounced the title of Cervantes’ masterpiece differently from the way the Spanish pronounced it, as Patrick Henry’s library catalog reveals. Inventorying a library typically required two people—one would read the spine titles aloud as the other recorded them. Apparently, the people recording the titles of Henry’s books had spotty knowledge of literary history, recording the title as “Don Quick Zotte.”
Daniel Parke Custis was another colonial Virginian with an English translation of Don Quixote in his personal library. After he died intestate in 1757, his wife Martha had to administer the estate, which would eventually descend to their son John Parke “Jacky” Custis, who was only three at the time of his father’s death. After Martha became Mrs. George Washington in 1759, her new husband became Jacky’s stepfather and had the Custis library shipped to Mount Vernon. In short, the library at Mount Vernon contained a copy of Don Quixote from 1759 until 1778, when Jacky Custis moved to Abingdon, his own estate on the Potomac.
Though the Custis copy of Don Quixote stood on the bookshelves of Mount Vernon for many years, there is no evidence that Washington read it. His surviving letters and journals of the period contain no allusions to Don Quixote. Of course, the absence of references in his correspondence does not prove he did not read it. Washington wore his learning lightly and seldom saw the need to boast about his knowledge by dropping literary allusions.
If Washington avoided Don Quixote during this time in his life, that behavior is consistent with his general reading patterns. Although he read some fiction as a young man, he grew to prefer practical works, like agricultural manuals, and informative works, like histories and travels. One fictional work from the Custis collection that he did read was Gulliver’s Travels, but the nominal status of Jonathan Swift’s masterpiece as travel literature let Washington read it in that mindset.
Letters Washington received during the Revolutionary War reminded him of gaps in his literary knowledge. In 1778, Patrick Henry wrote to him, forwarding an anonymous letter that criticized the depreciation of American currency. The letter said that the United States had been “distracted with the Don Quixotte attempts to regulate the prices of provisions.” Turning the name of Cervantes’s hero into an adjective, the letter writer demonstrated the word’s place in the vernacular. More common at that time than our present-day form of the word (“quixotic”), “Quixote”—also pronounced “quick zotte” in its adjective form—carries the same meaning. A Quixote person is foolhardy, no matter how idealistic or well-intended. Three years later, Richard Henry Lee wrote Washington a letter about General William Howe, the commander in chief of British forces during the Revolutionary War. Lee expressed hope that Howe would “repent the Quixote part that he has been acting in America.”
When Benjamin Franklin showed his copy of Don Quixote to his two visitors, the beauty of the book thoroughly impressed Washington, who told Franklin he had never seen the Real Academia edition before. A good diplomat, Gardoqui stored away this bit of information. Six months later, in an effort to curry Washington’s favor, Gardoqui presented him with a copy of the Real Academia Don Quixote, which survives today among the treasures at Mount Vernon.
Unanimously elected president of the Constitutional Convention, Washington remained busy throughout his stay in Philadelphia during the summer of 1787. He did find time for another activity in his spare moments: he went shopping for books, which would make handsome additions to his home library and give him many hours of reading pleasure. Washington’s behavior toward the end of the Constitutional Convention parallels his behavior at the end of the Revolutionary War: he imagined his retirement from public life and bought books to read at his leisure. On September 17, the last day of the convention, Washington ordered two books, both picaresque novels: a four-volume English edition of Don Quixote and Thomas Amory’s rambunctious Life of John Buncle.
The purchase of fiction was unusual for Washington, who had not added any novels to his library in years. Acquisition of Don Quixote seems partly motivated by his interaction with other convention delegates. The Constitutional Convention included some of the best-educated and most well-read men in the nation. Franklin Court was not the only place in Philadelphia where Don Quixote entered the conversation; the work was so well-known that friends and fellow delegates would toss off allusions to it in conversation. William Livingston, a delegate from New Jersey, was known as the “Don Quixote of the Jerseys.” The imaginative world of Don Quixote and Sancho Panza was part of the everyday world of Revolutionary America.
Doug Bradburn discusses what drew Washington to read the book and the history behind the two versions (that now reside in Mount Vernon's vaults).
Whereas his acquisition of an English edition of Don Quixote reflects Washington’s desire to catch up his literary knowledge and align it with that of his peers, his acquisition of John Buncle shows him deepening his literary knowledge with another picaresque novel. This title was not nearly as well-known—rarely did 18th-century readers toss off allusions to John Buncle—meaning that with this purchase, Washington was going beyond the standard works to broaden his knowledge. More than any of the books he obtained in Philadelphia during the Constitutional Convention, John Buncle verifies Washington’s literary predilections. This fun-filled yet highfalutin work appeals to connoisseurs, those curious about new ideas and new ways to express them.
At around the same time, Washington acquired a third picaresque novel: Alain-René Lesage’s History of Gil Blas in Tobias Smollett’s four-volume translation. Since it does not appear in Washington’s financial accounts, precisely how he obtained this work is a mystery—it may have been a gift. However, its similarity to the other two works, and the quality of the edition, make it likely that this, too, dates to his time in Philadelphia for the Constitutional Convention. Washington’s desire to read Gil Blas parallels his desire to read Don Quixote: it, too, was a work friends and fellow patriots knew well. A few years earlier, Thomas Jefferson had linked Gil Blas and Don Quixote, calling them “the best books of their class as far as I am acquainted with them.”
Allusions to picaresque novels occur frequently in early American literature. Once the Constitutional Convention had ended and the delegates had gone home, numerous essays for and against the Constitution appeared in newspapers throughout the nation. These essays sought to sway the opinions of those attending the state ratification conventions. One contributor to the Newport Herald asserted that Rhode Islanders disapproved of the Constitution, seeing it as a dangerous plot to curtail their freedom rather than a means to protect it. Refuting the absurdity of that position, another essayist drew parallels to the bizarre actions that Don Quixote performs in the name of Dulcinea del Toboso, a plain farm girl he has never met but whom he idealizes as the greatest beauty in the land. We have heard of a knight of a woeful countenance, who mistaking a dirty wench, for a beautiful damsel, fell so desperately in love with her, that for her sake, he sallied forth, his head covered with brass, and most magnanimously encountered windmills, murdered harmless sheep, and pierced whole skins of wine. When we consider these things,—when we seriously reflect upon the vagaries and incongruities of human nature, our astonishment will be lessened at the view of a certain description of men fishing for plots in a plan of government, devised by the strictest integrity and consummate wisdom, and sanctioned, after the severest examination, by a great number of states.
Washington's English version of "Don Quixote," purchased in Philadelphia on September 17, 1787—the very day that the Constitution was adopted. Washington paid the bookseller 22 shillings, six pence in Pennsylvania currency for the book. (MVLA)
George Washington's original signature graces the title page of his English version of "Don Quixote." (MVLA)
Once he read his newly acquired tales, Washington began making such allusions himself. When President and Mrs. Washington left New York for Philadelphia in September 1790, the first step in moving the national capital south, some of their servants accompanied them, while others stayed in New York with Tobias Lear to finish packing up their things and shutting down their residence. Footman James Hurley went with the president, but James’s wife Fanny remained in New York. After James wrote a letter to Fanny the first week of October, Washington sent it with his next letter to Lear, telling him that he was enclosing a message “from James to his del Toboso.”
Washington’s allusion to Dulcinea del Toboso sounds condescending, but it captures the differences between how James idealized his bride—they had been married earlier that same year—and how Washington felt about her. The characterization may have some basis in fact, as Fanny and James married under questionable circumstances. The literary reference in Washington’s letter suggests that he had read Don Quixote recently; that is, between the end of the Constitutional Convention and the start of his presidency. It also reflects his sense of humor, an aspect of Washington’s personality yet to be appreciated fully.
Reading the likes of Don Quixote, Gil Blas, and John Buncle after the Constitutional Convention—during the same time he was reading the Federalist Papers—Washington would seem to have been engaged in two very different literary activities. Or not: the two types of reading are not unrelated. The world of the picaresque novel is filled with all kinds of people, from the lowest blackguards to leaders of church and state. Gil Blas starts his adventures in a cave full of robbers who force him to live the life of a highway thief. After escaping their clutches, he encounters many other people, some of whom fill positions of respect and authority. Gil Blas learns that highwaymen and statesmen are not so different after all. Leaders of church and state are no less liable to indulge their desire for money and power than cave-dwelling robbers.
In its broadest perspective, the picaresque novel is a comment on human nature, revealing the greed, thirst for power, and need for control that form inherent aspects of the human condition. Government can be interpreted similarly. In Federalist No. 51, James Madison asks, “But what is government itself but the greatest of all reflections on human nature?” He followed this rhetorical question with a poignant observation: “If men were angels, no government would be necessary.” Picaresque novels portray a world gone awry, one in which people grab all the money and power and control they can. The Constitution, as the Federalist Papers clarify, provides a way to control human nature, to guard against the abuse of power and channel it to the common good.
Kevin J. Hayes, emeritus professor of English at the University of Central Oklahoma, now lives and writes in Toledo, Ohio. He is the author of several books, including The Road to Monticello: The Life and Mind of Thomas Jefferson and George Washington: A Life in Books, winner of the 2018 George Washington Prize.
This article originally appeared in the Winter 2018 issue of Mount Vernon magazine. Subscribe to the magazine by becoming a member today.Learn More