George Washington's collection of books took over forty years of concerted, calculated efforts to assemble.

George Washington’s copy of A View of Society and Manners in France, Switzerland, and Germany, 1783, by John Moore, MVLA.In the absence of a public library system or the internet, a personal library provided ready access to practical information and entertainment. It was also a status symbol, attesting to the learning, virtue, and wealth of its owner. Washington’s efforts to build a personal library reflected the importance of books in colonial America. The printed materials it contained connected readers to the cultural centers of Europe and brought up-to-date news of politics, science, fashion, and manners. By becoming familiar with the writings of ancient and modern authors, Washington expanded his knowledge beyond the limits of his own experience.

As a surveyor and soldier, Washington’s earliest book purchases were limited by his finances and immediate needs. After making his permanent home at Mount Vernon, he began to build the knowledge base he desired. His marriage to Martha Dandridge Custis in 1759 temporarily enlarged his collection, in the form of hundreds of books from the library of Martha’s first husband, Daniel Parke Custis, an exceptionally wealthy planter. Washington kept these books for the education of his stepson, John (Jacky) Parke Custis, and until Jacky’s coming of age, the whole family benefited from their use.

Washington added regularly to his collection, amassing more than 1,200 titles in more than 900 volumes by the time of his death. While it was not as large as his contemporary bibliophiles, John Adams (more than 3,500 volumes) and Thomas Jefferson (more than 6,700 volumes), it far out-numbered the modest handful of books found in most households in Virginia at the time. In seeking to hire a secretary in 1797, Washington offered access to his library as a perk, acknowledging: “I have a great many instructive Books, on many subjects, as well as amusing ones.”

Washington's Bookplate

George Washington's bookplate, MVLA, photo by Mark Finkenstaedt.

George Washington's bookplate, MVLA, photo by Mark Finkenstaedt.

The presence or absence of George Washington’s bookplate in a volume is one means of identifying books that Washington may have valued highly or read more carefully than others. In 1771, he ordered from England a custom “plate with my Arms engraved.” He received the engraved copper plate the following spring, along with 300 printed paper book plates. Created by the London jeweler Stephen Valliscure, the design featured the Washington family coat-of-arms and motto surrounded by flowery embellishments typical of the elegant but fanciful rococo fashion of the day. Washington placed book plates in some of the books he already owned, as well as new acquisitions.

The bookplate took on a life of its own after Washington’s death and the dispersal of his library. Restrikes from the original copperplate were commissioned by descendants in the 1860s, for the benefit of avid collectors and patriotic bibliophiles. Seeing opportunity, forgers copied the bookplate and used it to increase the value of otherwise unremarkable 18th-century books. Notably, the quality of the copies never rivaled that of the original. 

The First Mount Vernon Library

George Washington, "List of Books at Mount Vernon," ca. 1764, Virginia Museum of History & Culture.

George Washington, "List of Books at Mount Vernon," ca. 1764, Virginia Museum of History & Culture.

Ever a man of method and order, George Washington created this book list to gain intellectual control over his holdings, and perhaps to plan for future purchases. He likely drafted the inventory after receiving Tobias Smollett’s History of England from London in the summer of 1763, but before his next order of books arrived in 1765. He recorded 325 titles in all.

The location of the first library at Mount Vernon is unknown, but the list’s headings indicate the books were in at least five places –bookcases, trunks, or a combination thereof - and arranged largely by size.

John Parke Custis, 1772, refashioned c. 1790, MVLA, purchased, 1956 [W-2102/A-B]

To distinguish his materials from those held in custody for his stepson, John (Jacky) Parke Custis, Washington added “GW” or “JC” next to each title, but stopped part way through the list. (The abbreviation “Do” stands for “Ditto.”) The list also includes one book on loan from his neighbor, George William Fairfax.

John Parke Custis, 1772, refashioned c. 1790, MVLA, purchased, 1956 [W-2102/A-B]

Expanding the Library

Lund Washington, "List of Books at Mount Vernon," July 23, 1783, Library of Congress.

Lund Washington, "List of Books at Mount Vernon," July 23, 1783, Library of Congress.

Washington added an expansive study to Mount Vernon in 1775, but the outbreak of the Revolutionary War forced him to postpone his plans for rehousing and organizing his library. In 1783, when a peace treaty seemed near at hand, Washington turned his attention back to his books, planning an extensive reading program while still with the army in New York.

He pored over booksellers’ catalogs and dashed off orders to agents in New York and Philadelphia, then asked his farm manager, Lund Washington, to draw up a list of books that remained in the library at Mount Vernon. The short, hastily written document shows the reduced state of Washington’s collection after eight years of neglect and rearrangement. Lund Washington’s list shows only 60 titles remaining out of the more than 300 that had appeared on the 1764 list.

Much of the reduction was due to the removal of the Custis collection of books, which Washington’s stepston, John (Jacky) Parke Custis, took with him after his marriage in 1774. Surprised at how few were left, George Washington asked his cousin to check his stepson’s library and retrieve any books “with my name or Arms in them.”

Sacred Texts and Religious Commentaries

Washington Family Bible, 1725-1775, MVLA, Purchase 1908, [W-408].

Washington Family Bible, 1725-1775, MVLA, Purchase 1908, [W-408].

Whether large or small, colonial American libraries almost always centered around the Bible and related works, such as devotional guides and collections of sermons. George Washington’s library was no exception. By the end of his life, it contained three Bibles and over a hundred titles on religious subjects.

These texts framed the Washingtons’ daily life with an eternal perspective. On Sundays, when weather and health allowed, the family attended divine services at a church several miles distant, and the day took on a quieter tone than the rest of the week. Rather than gathering together to play cards or games, the family listened to selections from the Bible, sermons, or extracts from books on religious subjects, read aloud by Washington or his secretary. Family tradition suggests that during the week, George and Martha Washington individually set aside time for private devotions in the morning, possibly using the Book of Common Prayer as a guide.

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Statistically Speaking

At the time of his death, George Washington had more than 1,200 titles in his library.
Which subject dominated his collection? 

Politics, Economics, & Law 33%
Agriculture 14%
Religion & Philosophy 14%
Military & Naval Affairs 9%
Popular Fiction, Plays, & Poetry 9%
History & Biography 7%
General Reference, Dictionaries, & Encyclopedias 5%
Science, Industry, & Natural History 5%
Travel Accounts, Geographies, & Atlases 4%

Bestsellers

Washington’s library linked his household to the popular culture of the day. It included recent bestsellers as well as established classics. Though works of literature were less often found in colonial libraries, they were valued for several reasons. Read aloud or enjoyed alone, they entertained. Stylistically, their word choice and expression provided examples worthy of imitation. The colorful characters of novels and their exploits — Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, Gulliver, Humphrey Clinker, and Peregrine Pickle — supplied cultural reference points that enlivened conversations and letters, much as celebrities do today. To the thoughtful reader, the misfortunes and successes of the characters also illustrated moral lessons.

Armchair Traveler

The books that George Washington purchased in his retirement allowed him to travel the world and explore the frontiers of knowledge from the relative comfort of his study. During the course of his lifetime, Washington was able to leave the United States only once. He accompanied his half-brother Lawrence Washington, who was suffering from tuberculosis, to the island of Barbados in 1751, in the hopes that the climate would improve his health. Washington may have briefly contemplated a visit to France at the conclusion of the Revolutionary War, but his limited finances and family and business affairs kept him at home.

A New and Complete Dictionary... explained everything from plants and animals to mathematical equations and new inventions such as the steam engine. Dictionaries and encyclopedias attempted to offer 18th-century readers everything they wanted to know about the world in one handy spot, much as Wikipedia does today, ordering it alphabetically for quick reference.

Washington attempted to learn French in hopes of better communicating with his former allies and comrades-in-arms. He purchased a huge dictionary, Nouveau Dictionnaire François-Anglois & Anglois-François by Louis Chambaud, in 1783 and later requested a grammar and pocket dictionary. Despite these efforts, he relied on translators for the rest of his life when corresponding with French associates.

The World Displayed gave readers a close-up view of distant lands, via the collected writings of independent travelers. Washington’s well-thumbed copy of volume 12 describes a harrowing journey inside an Egyptian pyramid and discusses the ancient Egyptian means of preserving their dead.

Experimental Farmer

George Washington's systematic approach to reading is nowhere more evident than in his study of agriculture.

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Take Note!

Take Note!

The content on this page was adapted from Take Note! George Washington the Reader, an exhibition on view in the Donald W. Reynolds Museum & Education Center from 2013–2014 and the exhibition catalogue.

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