As a man of the Enlightenment, Washington was caught up in the quest to advance knowledge, better the human condition, and attain world peace.
The great debates of his day ranged from the weighty questions of the morality of slavery and the best form of government to scientific theories that, by modern standards, appear comical, such as the idea that the American environment produced inferior humans, plants, and animals compared to Europe.
For Washington and his peers, staying connected meant daily newspaper reading, picking up the latest pamphlet at the printer’s office, and writing letters that could take months to travel thousands of miles before reaching their recipients. Using paper-based media, social reformers, cultural elites, and ambitious citizens from around the globe traded goods and inventions, coordinated data-collection projects, and fomented revolution.
In the 18th-century, to be an American was to be part of one of the most literate cultures in the world. This was in large part due to a well-established press, run and patronized by a broad spectrum of the middle and upper classes, and the influence of Protestantism, which promoted literacy to encourage personal Bible study.
Short printed booklets stitched loosely together, with only a paper cover, if they had one at all — provided one of the quickest ways to voice opinions and start debates. Costing only a few shillings or cents, pamphlets were affordable to many and could be quickly published and distributed. Whether serious or satirical, in prose or poetry, they invited back-and-forth exchanges that often became heated and personal. Before, during, and after the American Revolution, pamphlets served as catalysts that transformed public opinion.
Washington purchased and received hundreds of pamphlets over the course of his lifetime. In his last years, he selected some to be bound together with spine labels such as “Tracts on Slavery,” “Political Sermons,” and “Miscellanies.” Those that he selected to be preserved and bound are believed to have been the writings that he found most influential or was most likely to reference again.
Washington's Changing Views