“George Washington: A Life in Books”
By Kevin J. Hayes
408 pp., Oxford University Press
Reviewed by Doug Bradburn
Founding Director, The Fred W. Smith National Library for the Study of George Washington
John Adams, in his bitter old age, complained that George Washington was too much worshiped by the American people. Washington’s talents were at best superficial, Adams growled, and that the great man was “illiterate, unlearned, unread” was a fact Adams considered as “past dispute.” Historians have given too much credence to the musings of John Adams generally, and in these characterizations we find an old man—American’s first one-term president—indulging in his worst petty jealousies. Adams could have worked wonders with a Twitter account.
Thomas Jefferson also opined on the scholastic achievements of George Washington and noted that Washington read “little.” He did assert that Washington possessed a powerful mind, but it was not quite first rate. George Washington, Jefferson concluded, “was not so acute as” Sir Isaac Newton, Francis Bacon, or John Locke—a pretty lofty standard. So where does Washington fit? Somewhere between illiterate and Sir Isaac Newton.
Historians have typically been rather cool on Washington’s reading and learning, echoing Adams and Jefferson. Some have even argued that his best letters were written by someone else—Broadway’s Alexander Hamilton comes to mind—and compared with the constellation of geniuses present at the founding, Washington is sometimes seen as but a dim star, even though he looked great on horseback. The great historian James Flexner argued that the “indispensable” George Washington was the ultimate man of action, but “only a sporadic reader.”
In this new work, Kevin J. Hayes shatters the myth of an ignorant, unread Washington and does something even more difficult: Hayes not only has tracked down new discoveries in one of the most studied American lives, but he reveals a much more human portrait of the great man than most biographies have been able to reveal. Hayes makes George Washington even more real, and more significant. Instead of a dull boy, we find Washington to be a curious, intense, and practical reader, a brilliant writer of letters, a visionary advocate for a broad liberal and useful education, a great patron of arts, literature, and history, and one of the smartest men who ever held the presidency. George the Magnificent.
And click here to watch our interview with the founding director of Mount Vernon’s Fred W. Smith National Library, Dr. Douglas Bradburn.