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Personally, George Washington had made learning a lifelong quest, and he passionately believed that all Americans should have the opportunity to broaden their horizons.

Throughout his presidency, he advocated for the establishment of a national university to promote these goals, and he privately gave money to support the establishment of schools throughout the country.

Knowledge is in every country the surest basis of public happiness

–George Washington, First Annual Address to Congress, January 8, 1790

Alexandria Academy, as it stands today in Alexandria, Virginia.
Alexandria Academy, as it stands today in Alexandria, Virginia.
In his will, Washington set up a trust for the Alexandria Academy specifically to support the education of orphans, and an endowment for the establishment of a national university, which would prepare the youth of America to maintain the “true and genuine liberties” of the United States. The university project was never realized, but in honor of his vision, Columbian University in D.C. was renamed George Washington University in 1904.

Over the last 200 years, more than 10,000 books have been written about Washington, inspiring readers of all ages much as the biographies of ancient and European leaders once inspired Washington. Some of the works written about him incorporated more fiction than facts about his life.

Studying Washington

As the first historian to attempt a study of Washington, Jared Sparks was given unprecedented access to Washington’s papers by his nephew, Bushrod Washington. While Spark’s Life of Washington drew heavily from the original sources, he came under fire for his editorial method, in which he sometimes altered Washington’s writings in order to make them appear more dignified.

One of the most popular biographies was Mason Locke Weems’ Life of George Washington, which appeared in numerous editions throughout the 19th century. Weems’ melodramatic Life transformed Washington the Virginia gentleman into a folksy legend. Later biographers recycled Weems’ tales, including the famous but fictional account of Washington chopping down a cherry tree, while tempering them with document-based evidence.

“The Life of Washington,” in The Writings of George Washington, Vol. 1, 1837, by Jared Sparks, MVLA.

Now, in the 21st century, we know more about Washington than ever before. The Papers of George Washington project continues to evaluate, organize, and make accessible, in print and online, the more than 135,000 documents associated with Washington. The Fred W. Smith National Library for the Study of George Washington provides a center for continued scholarly research of the man first in the arts of peace as well as war. 

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.