George Washington has become an archetype of the great American leader. Subsequent generals and presidents all have been compared to Washington, and in the American mythos, they all fall short of this founder’s military and political genius. What many people don’t know about Washington, however, is that his formal schooling abruptly ended at age 11 with the death of his father and that he was largely self-taught. My guest today wrote an intellectual biography of Washington and how this autodidact rose to American apotheosis despite lacking the classical education of his Revolutionary contemporaries.
Her name is Dr. Adrienne Harrison and her book isA Powerful Mind: The Self-Education of George Washington.Today on the show, Adrienne discusses how her time as a combat officer in Iraq led her to researching and writing her doctoral dissertation about Washington’s intellectual journey. We then discuss why Washington’s education was deficient compared to other Founding Fathers like Jefferson and Adams, how this lack made Washington extremely self-conscious, and what he did to mitigate ever revealing it. Dr. Harrison then takes us through how Washington charted his own education throughout the different stages of his life and career to help him become a wealthy landowner, successful general, and first executive of the United States. Adrienne also takes us on a tour of Washington’s personal study and library and what is says about his learning style. We end our discussion on lessons we can take from Washington on maintaining a passion for lifelong learning.
- Dr. Harrison’s lifelong interest in George Washington
- What makes her biography of Washington different from the hundreds of ones to come before
- Why didn’t Washington get a traditional classical education?
- When do we start to see Washington’s auto-didactic nature
- Washington’s practical reading habits
- How Washington started the Seven Years’ War
- How Washington responded to that failure
- Why Washington implored his troops to read
- His approach to reading
- How his reading and self-education made him American
- The way Washington’s reading changed during the war, and how it impacted his leadership
- How Washington’s reading informed his governing
- Highlights from Washington’s personal library
- Why his study was off limits
- Why Adrienne learned about self-teaching from writing about Washington
Resources/People/Articles Mentioned in Podcast
- My podcast with Susan Wise Bauer about the classical education you never had
- Why Every Man Should Study Classical Culture
- The Rules of Civility and Decent Behavior
- How and Why to Become a Lifelong Learner
- Libraries of Famous Men (AoM series)
- Seven Years’ War
- The Battle of Fort Necessity
- Podcast: Washington and Benedict Arnold
- AoM’s series on honor
Listen to the Podcast! (And don’t forget to leave us a review!)
Recorded with ClearCast.io.
Read the Transcript
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Brett McKay here, and welcome to another edition of the Art of Manliness podcast. Well, George Washington has become an archetype of the great American leader. Subsequent generals and presidents have all been compared to Washington, and in the American mythos, they all fall short of this founder’s military and political genius. What many people don’t know about Washington, however, is that his formal schooling abruptly ended, age 11, with the death of his father, and he was largely self-taught.
My guest today wrote an intellectual biography of Washington and how this autodidactic rose to American apotheosis, despite lacking the classical education of his revolutionary contemporaries. Her name is Dr. Adrienne Harrison, and her book is A Powerful Mind: The Self-Education of George Washington. Today on the show, Adrienne discusses how her time as a combat officer in Iraq led her to researching and writing her doctoral dissertation about Washington’s intellectual journey. We then discuss why Washington’s education was deficient, compared to other Founding Fathers like Thomas Jefferson or John Adams, how this lack made Washington extremely self-conscious, and what he did to mitigate ever revealing it.
Adrienne Harrison then takes us through how Washington charted his own education throughout the different stages of his life and career, to help him become a wealthy landowner, successful general, and the first Executive of the United States. Adrienne also takes us on a tour of Washington’s personal study and library, and what it says about his learning style. We end our discussion on lessons we can take from Washington on maintaining a passion for lifelong learning.
After the show’s over, check out our show notes at aom.is/powerfulmind. Adrienne Harrison joins me now via clearcast.io.
Adrienne Harrison, welcome to the show.
Adrienne Harrison: Thank you. Thanks for having me.
Brett McKay: You wrote a book, a biography, of George Washington, and now there’s tons of … he’s probably the most written about people, besides Jesus or Buddha or something like that. But you got really niche. You got really unique with your biography. You wrote a biography of his reading habits and his self-education. So I’m curious, what led you down the path to write about that specific part of George Washington’s life?
Adrienne Harrison: Well, I’ll start by saying that I’ve always been interested in Washington’s life, going back to when I was about six years old. When I was six, my parents bought a VCR, because I’m a child of the ’80s. My parents bought a VCR and they started taping everything that they could possibly find on TV. They had taped this six-hour mini-series on the life of George Washington that was produced by General Motors, and it had a lot of ’80s names in it. Anyway, I was home sick from school one day and I started watching this mini-series. From that point on, I was hooked. I was just fascinated. I mean, as a little kid I was kind of fascinated by this really cool guy on a horse, doing amazing things, but I never lost the interest, and as I got older and I was making my way through school, the reasons why I was interested in Washington changed a little bit.
Then, when I was in the army, after graduating from West Point, I was in the invasion of Iraq as a young lieutenant in 2003, and I was a platoon leader in the 82nd Airborne Division. We had been out on a mission, my platoon and I, and we had gotten ambushed. And everything was fine, but we made our way back to our base camp and I was thinking that night, kind of processing everything. Everybody had their hobbies that they did, little things to stay sane over there, and one of mine was reading. I had a nice supply of books from my family and friends back home, and I was reading this book that someone had sent me about … a new one that had come out about Washington.
I began thinking about him and that at the same age, roughly, that I was … I was 22, he was 21 at the time … he had his first engagement of being under fire, as a young officer. I was thinking about how I gotten through that day and how we were very fortunate, in my unit, that I didn’t lose anybody or anything like that. But I began thinking about Washington, and how did he do it? I mean, I had the benefit of four years of West Point education behind me. I was in the most professional army that’s ever existed, best trained, best equipped, lots of experience, voices of experience around me to guide me in my decision making, and as I shaped my own leadership style. But how did Washington do it? Because he was my age with absolutely no education, no experience around him, and his first attempt at leading was disastrous, but he had come back from it and he was obviously enormously successful. So that question was kind of in the back of my mind for the next couple of years.
Then I was selected to go back to West Point and teach history, and before you can do that, the army sends you to graduate school. So I was in grad school and I was kicking around ideas for a dissertation. I came back to my army question of Washington’s education and how he did it. How did he forge this successful career as a military leader? So I convinced my dissertation committee to let me pursue this, because one thing that’s fascinating about Washington is that he was not just a Founding Father. He had to lead the Founding Fathers, so leading men like John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, some of the most towering intellects of his time. And Washington had what, today, would be about a 4th grade education, in terms of formal schooling. So how did he do it in politics? How did he do it in the military, where he was entirely on his own, doing things differently than even the British officers around him were doing?
So that’s kind of how I got the idea, then I had to sell it to my dissertation committee, who absolutely hated it at first.
Brett McKay: Why’d they hate? I mean, it sounds like … When you described it there, if I was on the committee, like, that’s really interesting. But why did they hate it?
Adrienne Harrison: They didn’t think there was enough … Originally, they didn’t think there was enough new material about Washington. As you said at the start of this interview, he is probably, aside from Jesus, the most talked about, most studied, biographied man in all of human history. So what else is there to say? I had to really convince them that there was something original here.
And the thing that’s original is, if you look at all the other Washington biographies that are out there, starting with the ones that were written in his lifetime, all the way up until a couple of years ago, they all dismiss the fact, or just overlook it entirely, that he had this enormous library at Mount Vernon, at his home. And nobody thought he was a scholar, in fact, a lot of them thought he was kind of … I don’t know, like a dumb jock. You know, this guy that, you know, he looked good on a horse, he was good at riding a horse, and he was tall so he was bound to be leading something, and that kind of explained his greatness. But there was this huge resource that no one had ever touched and it was right under everybody’s noses the whole time.
So I really had to sell that to my committee, and then they were like, “Okay, well, if you think can do it, go ahead. Go write a book and come back when you’re done.” So I was fortunate that they let me do it.
Brett McKay: All right, so let’s … There a lot to unpack, there. As you said, I don’t think a lot of people know this about Washington, but he, yeah, wasn’t well educated. Why didn’t he get the traditional, classical education that a lot of the other Founding Fathers received?
Adrienne Harrison: Well, Washington, he was not born into enormous wealth. I mean, he was born into what, today, would be solidly middle class. There were plans, initially, when he was a young boy, to send him to school in England, as his father and his elder two half-brothers had been educated in England. But his father died when Washington was 11 and so that pretty much killed that plan all together. And George Washington, as the third son of his father, gained an inheritance when his father died, but not an enormous amount of money or land. So he didn’t have the money for this big European education, and his mother was left as a single mother to him and the rest of his siblings that were all very young at the time. His mother just would not hear of him going away to school, so that kind of put the tin lid on his future education.
He did have a couple of private tutors in his adolescence but, really, that was it. So he set off on this path of trying to improve himself, because … I thoroughly believe that the ambition to be big and important in society was always there, from the time he was a small boy.
Brett McKay: Despite that ambition, was he self-conscious about his lack of education?
Adrienne Harrison: Absolutely. One thing that you learn about, studying Washington, is that for all of his greatness … and we kind of now look back at him and we think of him more as the statue, or as the stern face in the painting, rather than a real flesh and blood person. Washington, the man, was incredibly thin-skinned, incredibly susceptible to criticism, and so all of his flaws, which he considered his … he called his education defective, that was his word … he did his best to hide from public view. In fact, everything that we know or that we kind of commonly think about, about Washington and the American memory of him, is because he wanted it that way. The lack of the education was something that would have made him stand out like a sore thumb among the men that he was trying to be a leader of.
I mean, everybody around him, if you go back even before his real international fame as the revolutionary leader and first president, go back to his early adulthood in Virginia, and he’s trying to make his way as a young member of the House of Burgesses, pretty much every other member around him, minus a couple, were all university educated. Either at William and Mary, right there in Williamsburg, or back in England. Most of them were attorneys, and Washington could not possibly hope to hold a candle to that. So he tried to do things that would mask that defective education. He tried to learn as much as he could privately, but then he would do his best to steer clear of intellectual conversations. He would never walk up on Thomas Jefferson and George Wythe talking about Virginia law. He would steer way clear of that and just go find a pretty girl to dance with instead, because he was very good at that.
It’s interesting how Washington, throughout his life, really from his adolescence right through the end of his life, was very conscious about shaping how people saw him, and it was always done in a way that would enhance his strengths and minimize or even make invisible his weaknesses.
Brett McKay: Let’s talk about this autodidactism of Washington. When can we start seeing it appear in his life? Was is at a very young age?
Adrienne Harrison: Yeah, it was probably around the age of about 12 to 14 years old. The thing that he’s the most famous for, at that young age, is the fact that he copied out the Rules of Civility and Decent Behavior, which was a really old … it was 200 years old at the time … manual for princes, on how to behave in public and how you get dressed, how you speak, how you sit, stand. Washington, as a pre-teen boy, got a hold of this book somehow and copied it, word for word. Partly to probably work on his penmanship, and partly because he wanted to learn how to act in polite society because living with his mother at Ferry Farm, which was his inheritance from his father … His mother was a domineering woman, they did not get along, and she shunned everything to do with polite society, so he really wasn’t going to learn a lot of the practical life lessons about how to be a gentleman, how to behave, and how to move among society. He was not going to learn that from her, and there weren’t too many other white adults around him, in his immediate home and area, to teach him that.
So he started out with that, and then he got into the surveying as a way to make money. Because it became very clear to Washington, by the time he was about 14, 15 years old, that his mother was not going to hand over his inherited property when he came of age. He had the well-developed Washington family instinct for real estate and he wanted to acquire land because land, in 18th century Virginia, was money. You could develop it, you could rent it to people, you could live on it yourself and become a farmer.
Washington wanted money, he wanted land, and without a lot of society connections to help him, what he decided to do was hone in on his math ability. He was a pretty good math student, and he found his father’s old surveying tools left in a shed on the farm. He borrowed from some neighbors a couple of books about the basics of surveying and he taught himself all of the fundamental skills, and then he apprenticed himself to a couple of Virginia surveyors and he started doing plots for people. It brought him his first cash and with that, he bought his first land.
But also, he then started to meet landowners in Virginia, the people that were that next social rung up the ladder. And he impressed them with his work ethic, with his accuracy, and they could see in him, this ambition. There were a few, most notably the Fairfaxes, whom his oldest half-brother married into, that saw this boy and saw the potential in him, and they kind of took him under their wing and they kind of mentored him through his teen years. You can see the self-taught philosophy that he was dabbling in as a 14-year old, really started to pay off quickly. It was something that he really just kept up throughout the rest of his life.
Brett McKay: Right, and we’ll talk about how this plays out later on in his life, but already I guess the reading philosophy that Washington had wasn’t like Jefferson who would just read the stoics and the classics just for the heck of it, right?
Adrienne Harrison: Yeah.
Brett McKay: Washington read because he had a problem, or he needed something, and he read for that.
Adrienne Harrison: Absolutely. Washington, throughout his life, is a practical reader. The idea of cultivating knowledge for knowledge sake, kind of as you said with Jefferson or even with Benjamin Franklin, Washington had no time for that. He was trying to always better himself and his position in society. So it was more the surveying skills, the farming skills, the military skills, that he was trying to get practical knowledge about. That was kind of his approach.
Washington was also limited by the fact that he never learned any foreign languages. He could not read or write in any language other than English, so a lot of literature that Jefferson and Franklin were reading and were enjoying, a lot of that was in French, a lot of if was in Italian, and Washington really just had no … he didn’t have the skills for it, nor did he seemingly have any interest to learn the languages that would unlock the key to that kind of more artistic world. He just didn’t have a use for it.
Brett McKay: Right, but that lack of language education kind of did him in the rear later on, in his military career when he was a commander in the British Army during the French and … I think in the French and Indian Wars …
Adrienne Harrison: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Brett McKay: … I believe. He couldn’t speak French and there was some incident where there’s some guy surrendered and he brought over the terms of surrender, but he couldn’t read French, because it was in French, and then somebody signed away something, it was like, actually, it wasn’t surrender, it was something actually completely wrong.
Adrienne Harrison: Yeah, so Washington’s inability to speak French, he never really … this is kind of the one time that he did not learn his lesson and go out and rectify his language skills, or even get a reliable translator. Twice, as a young officer at the outset of his military career in the French and Indian War, he was left exposed for not having the French-speaking ability.
His first foray into combat operations was at a place called Jumonville’s Glen, and there was a … Basically, Washington had his regiment of Virginia militia out on the frontier of Virginia, which is kind of like, now, would be in the West Virginia, Pennsylvania area. Their mission was to sit out on the frontier and observe and report back to Williamsburg, to the Governor, if they saw any French activity in the area. There was no war going on yet. Washington, being the young officer’s eager to do something.
I mean, everyone … When I was a young officer in the army, you’re given these people to be in charge of and you feel like everybody’s staring at you, and everybody’s expecting you to actually do something, and do something glorious. So these orders were not really appealing to someone as aggressive and ambitious as Washington was. When he got a report that there were some … a party of French soldiers heading in his direction, he decided he was going to do something about it, not follow his orders and just send a messenger back to Williamsburg. But he took a detachment of his men with some of his Native American allies out into the woods. They stalked them, they found these guys and surrounded them, and started shooting.
It probably only lasted for about 10 minutes, this little battle, and when the … If you ever have been around, or you see a reenactment and you see muskets being fired, it only takes one or two rounds for the entire area to be completely filled with gun smoke in the air. So the air was thick with this, there were leaves on the trees, it was kind of … the weather was not great, and so Washington really couldn’t see what was going on. As this kind of short little action unfolded, the Native Americans took control of the situation and started hacking apart and murdering these French wounded soldiers that the colonists hadn’t actually totally killed.
Washington’s standing there as the smoke clears and there’s this one French officer that’s kind of propped up against a tree, who’d been shot in the abdomen. In those days, if you were gut shot like that, you were going to die. There was no question. It was just a matter of when. This guy knew he was going to die but he was begging and pleading for the lives of his surviving men to be spared. But the problem was, Washington couldn’t understand a single word he was saying, because he was only speaking French and Washington didn’t have a translator around him, either.
So this guy’s clearly pleading but as Washington’s standing there trying to figure out what to do next, the leader of his Indian allies kind of elbowed him out of the way, walked up to this Frenchman and said, symbolically, “You are longer my father,” meaning that these Indians had, at one point, been allies with the French but that was clearly broken. So he says, “You are no longer my father.” And he took a hatchet and hacked open this guys head, and washed his hands in the man’s brains.
That man was actually an ambassador, so he had diplomatic immunity, he was not a soldier, the soldiers he had with him were really just an escort. So Washington, by leading this little party that turned out to be an ambush, actually gave the French the legal right to start a war with Great Britain. Every once in a while in history, you find the reason for a war happening comes down to one person. The Seven Years’ War, otherwise known as the French and Indian War, was started by George Washington and his inability to speak French.
Fast forward a little bit after that, the French find out what happened in this glen. There was one survivor who scurried away into the woods and made his way back to his French outpost. As word gets back to France of what’s happening, the French commander on the ground in North America sent a larger force after Washington. This becomes the battle of Fort Necessity, Washington’s really terrible little ramshackle fort in the middle of the woods, and Washington loses this battle, kind of predictably if you saw it. He was in completely the wrong place, it’s raining, his men were so terrified, they’d never been under fire before. These were untrained militia soldiers. Then many of them just decided to get drunk instead. If you’re going to go down, if you’re going to die, you might as well die drunk. So they weren’t really fighting back and it becomes clear to Washington and his top officers around him that they really have to surrender if they’ve got any chance of saving what’s left of their unit.
So he signs this surrender document that his, kind of, closest thing to a translator brought back to him in the rain, and he didn’t realize that … He was so hung up on the idea that this surrender document allowed him to keep his flag and keep his drums, which was a big thing, back then. It was like saying that he was surrendering with honor. He was so stuck on that fact and thought he had actually done something pretty good, salvaging what honor he could out of a bad situation, he didn’t realize, because he couldn’t read the French himself, that the rest of the document said it was a confession, basically, of the murder of this ambassador in that glen in the woods. So he just signed his name to a document saying, “Yeah, I murdered this ambassador.” It was exactly the proof that the French government wanted, to go ahead and commence this war with Great Britain that had been in the offing for a while. Washington just went ahead and handed it to them.
Brett McKay: Wow.
Adrienne Harrison: So, yeah, not a great start.
Brett McKay: Not a great start, but how did he respond to that? Did he go to books to overcome that, or did he just not learn from that and just … he just kind of plowed ahead?
Adrienne Harrison: He kind of just plowed ahead. Really, the lesson that he took away from it was not so much that he should learn a foreign language. Because, I mean, when we think about it, that’s a pretty daunting task, in an era more than 250 years before Rosetta Stone existed, that could make it nice and easy for him to learn French in the privacy of his own home. He really didn’t have anyone who could teach him, so instead he turned his attention to what he should … what the other things that he should be learning, like how to lead troops, and how to train troops.
He became fixated on the fact that, as he looked back on the Battle of Fort Necessity, that not so much about the surrender document, but about the fact that his soldiers got drunk instead of fighting back. He threw himself into trying to learn how to train and discipline and lead troops the British way. He had consulted his mentor, Colonel Fairfax, who had some ties into the British military establishment, and as the French and Indian War began to unfold and the British sent a regular army over to Virginia, Washington volunteered to serve under the commanding officer, a guy named General Braddock, and Braddock started teaching him, introducing him to the key books that young British cadets and officers would read.
So Washington begins this military-centric self-study as a young officer, and as he became commander of the Virginia Regiment, he began telling his officers that they needed to read. So he was trying to buy multiple copies of these books for his officers and there’s a pretty famous written order that I quote in the book, where he says to his officers in the Virginia Regiment, “Having no opportunity to learn from example, let us read.” That’s kind of how he applied himself for the rest of his military career, after that.
Brett McKay: What kind of reader was Washington? Did he just read or did he have, like, a pencil in hand, making notes in the margins? What were you able to figure out from that?
Adrienne Harrison: It would have been great for me, writing this book, if he had taken notes with a pen in the margins, but he really didn’t do that. He seemed to … With a couple of exceptions, he mostly just seemed to read, the way that anybody would just pick up a book and read, without taking that scholarly approach. The only times that I really found instances of him writing in the margins, there’s really two.
One of them was a book about farming. It was a French book about farming that had been translated into English and he was … you can see in his copy of the book where he was trying to convert the French measurements into English measurements and he was taking notes about how he was going to experiment based on the things he was reading, both in the margins of the book and his journal that he kept. The journal, the diaries that he kept throughout his life were really more about farming than they were about his private thoughts and about his family. You could really see him trying to actually apply the knowledge that he was … the stuff he was reading, the way a student does, doing their homework.
That was one instance, the other one was much later in life when he was president. As I said earlier, he was very susceptible to criticism and during his presidency he had sent James Monroe off to Paris to be an ambassador, and then later had to recall Monroe based on the way that the diplomatic scene was changing. Monroe was so incensed that Washington recalled him that he wrote a book that condemned Washington’s presidency, basically said that Washington was an old fool that didn’t know what he was doing, and so Washington gets ahold of this book and you can see … I saw his copy of it when I was doing my research, and you could see the anger in his pen, because you could see the pen strokes get heavier, like he was pushing on the paper a lot more, writing, like, “Wrong, never said that,” and he was just tearing into this thing as a piece of slander. It was interesting to see the actual anger. The way that somebody today, if you are angry at something and you’re writing with a ballpoint pen and you press in and you almost tear the paper because you’re pressing so hard. It was kind of the same thing. So it was interesting. But other than that, he just seemed to read.
Brett McKay: Just seemed to read. Again, when he was a commander in the British military, he was reading to be a better commander. Again, very practical. I’m curious, were you able to find how Washington’s reading helped turned him into an American, right? Did any of his reading help transition him from being seeing himself as a British citizen, as a rebel basically, against the Crown. Because Jefferson and all these other guys, they were reading Locke and then there’s Thomas Paine, kind of getting very philosophical, highfalutin. I imagine Washington wasn’t really reading that but was there any … ? Did his reading help him decide, I’m going to be an American now?
Adrienne Harrison: Yeah. His reading, and the fact that what he was reading was judged as not being good enough, and Washington became an American, I would argue, earlier than a lot of the other founders, other than maybe John Adams. I think John Adams saw the writing on the wall about independence fairly early in the game. But Washington, the moment for him, where I argue he becomes an American and breaks with this British colonial identity that he had grown up with, was towards the end of his career in the Virginia Regiment.
The one thing that Washington was really chasing after was a commission in the British Army. The Virginia Regiment, it was kind of like having a National Guard unit, and Washington was trying to become active duty, in more modern terms. But Washington wanted to be a regular British red-coated officer, and it was something that General Braddock had apparently promised Washington before Braddock was killed in the war on the frontier. Washington did not forget that Braddock had promised him this, and so he begins to lobby Braddock’s successors for this British commission.
If you read Washington’s writing during this time, it’s almost painful to read. I mean, he’s really sucking up to these people and he’s playing up his strengths to almost absurd levels as he’s trying to brown-nose for this commission. He begs Governor Dinwiddie for leave so he can go to Philadelphia and meet the newly appointed commender, British Commander in Chief in North America, a guy named Lord Loudoun. Loudoun is an aristocrat, very well educated, classically educated in Britain, and Dinwiddie does not want to let Washington go. He knows that this is not going to pan out, but Washington’s so annoying about asking for leave that, finally, he just gives in. His actual letter to Washington said, “I cannot conceive the good that you think is going to come from this, but since you’re so insistent, fine. Go.”
Washington gets his appointment with Lord Loudoun, and Loudoun, instead of hearing Washington out … Washington had all these plans for how to win the war in North America, how to really take back the territory that the French had gained on the frontier in what’s now Pennsylvania and around Pittsburgh. Washington had a whole campaign plan worked out based on the lessons he had learned from the Braddock campaign and his other service, and Loudoun didn’t want to hear any of it and instead, started asking him questions about what books he had read. Washington was answering, “Well, I read this one, but … ” “Oh, but you … I see you read Bland’s treatise, but you didn’t read this book, and you didn’t read that book.” So Loudoun dismisses Washington as this uneducated provincial.
At the moment, Washington knows that his dream, his lifelong dream of wearing a British uniform is never, ever going to happen because he’s not educated enough and he’s not really … he’s of British descent but he’s an American. So he’s never going to have a title and he’s never going to have the wealth that it takes to buy that British commission because that’s how you got promoted in the British Army. Your connections, your family name, might get you in but if you wanted to be promoted, you had to purchase your commission. Washington didn’t have that kind of money.
So the dream was over, and I think at that point, before the French and Indian War is even over, Washington, in his mind, has broken that British American identity and now he’s just a … he’s a Virginian, at that point, an American. The term American really wasn’t used yet, but he would identify himself as a Virginian. And he turns away from the Virginia Regiment, he resigns his commission, he marries Martha and throws himself into his next great pursuit, which is becoming one of the wealthiest and most successful planters in Virginia.
Brett McKay: Yeah. I think that’s so interesting, that … The reason why he decided to become American wasn’t for some abstract ideal, it was just an offended sense of honor. And I think Benedict Arnold was sort of the same way, except it’s … he went from American to British. The reason why Benedict Arnold did that, because he wasn’t getting the honor that he thought was due to him in the American military, and there was that moment he just decided, “Okay, I’m done with this. I’m going somewhere else.” I think that was really interesting.
Adrienne Harrison: Yeah. I think for Washington, it is a little personal. It’s personal at this point in time, but as he watches the road to the Revolution unfold, what Washington does that Arnold doesn’t do, later on, is that Washington takes his personal experience with Loudoun and the individual dream being crushed, and he applies that to the larger American colonial situation of, they will never be treated as full-fledged British subjects. They’re never going to have the representation in parliament because they’re not recognized as equal players in that. They are subject colonists.
Washington takes that experience that he had and he transcends it onto a more philosophical level. But he has to be removed from that a few years, he got to let his temper cool down a little bit so he could be more reflective, and that’s where he becomes this very committed revolutionary, from the earliest of the colonial resistance movement.
Brett McKay: When Washington was made General of the Continental Army, how did his reading change? Before, he was reading all these British manuals on how to be a British officer, but this was a different kind of war, and I think if I remember correctly, I’ve read things, the beginning of the Revolutionary War, Washington tried to fight it like a British army would but he was getting his … he was getting trounced because the British Army was just huge, right.
Adrienne Harrison: Yeah.
Brett McKay: Did any of his reading change his tactics or his battlefield command?
Adrienne Harrison: Sure. First of all, you can see, looking at his expense accounts and his letters that were written as he’s a delegate in Congress, before he’s appointed commander, he sees what’s coming. People are talking about, “Hey, we have this where we’re going to form this army. Who’s going to lead it?” And he’s the only guy there that’s attending the Congress in uniform, kind of advertising his experience and his availability.
What he does is he goes to a lot of the Philadelphia book stores and he gets a couple of people the act as his book buying agents, both in New York and in Philadelphia, and he’s asking them to buy everything military that they can find, whether it was a manual about how to use an artillery piece in the field, to how to organize squads and platoons, anything that was on a military subject, he was asking them to buy. And he also asked them to buy something that was published every year in the British Army, which was their Order of Merit list. He wanted to know, if he was to be the American commander, who he was going to be up against because he knew a lot of these guys from the French and Indian War, and so he was doing his background research.
But the thing to note is that all of Washington’s reading is really stuff that, in a more modern army, we would assign sergeants and lieutenants to read. He’s not reading anything that’s grand strategy. There’s nothing that’s at a senior commander, general officer level. One, because he doesn’t really have time for that. He’s got to figure out how to take a army of volunteers … I mean, some of these men and boys are turning up off their farms with their hunting pieces and pitchforks to fight. They don’t know anything about being in the military. Washington doesn’t need grand strategy, he needs to learn how to organize a professional army. He had a little bit of experience in that in the Virginia Regiment but not enough to be on the scale that he needed to be. So that’s his first very practical problem, is how to take citizens and make them soldiers.
But also, the other important thing to remember is that almost all the books he’s reading are British. He wants to organize the Continental Army along the same lines as the British Army, even though he knows in the back of his mind that he really can’t hope that this group of farmers and frontiersmen and sailors were going to be able to beat the British and their Hessian allies on a traditional battlefield. But the reason why he wants, so desperately, to make the army look like the British one is that, for Washington, very early, as I said, this war is about independence, and so it’s not just a rebellion that gets put down. There had been lots of rebellions in British history and always, the rebellions gets crushed, the leaders get beheaded or hung or some other kind of savage execution, and the system is repressive.
But for Washington to establish an independent country, he has to be seen as a commander of an army that’s professional. He does not want to be seen as the leader of a group of rebels because rebels are criminals. Washington thoroughly believes in the righteousness of the American cause. He believes that he is playing his role, but his role is to make an organization that is professional and it’s something that the British would recognize as being a worthy adversary. He’s obsessed with rank, with uniforms, with organization, to make everything run like clockwork.
He does things that really, in today’s army, you would have a sergeant or a lieutenant doing. He’s giving orders about where to dig latrines and how many times a soldier is required to bathe, at the same time as he’s trying to draw up plans to beat the British on a big battlefield. He’s trying to do this all with nothing but a few field manuals to help him.
Brett McKay: So I imagine his strategic thinking, his higher level thinking, that was based more probably on experience as opposed to reading?
Adrienne Harrison: Yeah, it is based on experience. He knows how the British are approaching things, because he’d spent years of being around them. He knows that British officers like to win big battles, that’s how wars were won. You would go onto an open field and you would slug it out with your enemy and whoever’s standing at the end of the day, that’s who won and that’s how you win a war. Washington very much tries to do it but neither he nor his army know how to fight a battle on that kind of scale and this is where his self-taught education lets him down.
He realizes though, learning from past mistakes, that as he’s watching this group of disparate farmers get better, they’re never going to be on that level with the British. So he adapts his strategic thinking to realize that you don’t have to win the big battles to win the war, because what Washington had, the Americans had, was the home field advantage. This is incredibly expensive for the British to fight. They had, coming out of the Seven Years’ War, or the French and Indian War, the British national debt, in today’s money, would really dwarf ours, to give you a sense of scale. They were under a staggering amount of debt from the last war and now they are deploying, what was at the time, the largest expeditionary force the world had ever seen. The entire Royal Navy is mobilized for this, pretty much. Huge regiments of, and armies from Britain are sent, as well as the British ministry hires these German soldiers, these Hessians, that they were paying basically per head to send over to America. This is incredibly expensive and Washington knows that the British taxpayers in England will not stand for this for very long.
He realizes in about 1776, after he has a terrible series of battles in New York and New Jersey, that all he has to do is survive, hit the British where he could, small battles that were something that would build confidence among his own troops. I mean, you’ve got to give your own guys a little bit of a win here and there. You’ve got to give these guys a reason to reenlist, but you don’t want to bite off more than they can chew. So you think about when he crossed the Delaware and the famous Christmas of 1776 and the beginning of 1777 with the battles of Trenton and Princeton, those were prefect battles for the Americans to fight. They were small scale, they were taking the British and the Hessians by surprise, and they were taking advantage of the terrain and the local knowledge that these men brought to the fight that the British and the Hessians just didn’t have.
From the American standpoint, these guys are pumped up, more soldiers come to enlist, and the belief in the fact that this is winnable is reinstilled among the American people. But from the British standpoint, they can never pin Washington down. He’s always a day ahead of them, a day’s march away from them. They’re never able to close it and he basically ends up forcing them to chase him around, mostly in the Mid-Atlantic region, but then later in the South. They run them ragged, to the point where they’re like, “Okay, enough. We can’t do this anymore. We’re going to have to just end this and give the Americans their independence.”
Brett McKay: Wow. So he wins the war and then now everyone’s calling for him to be the first president, and Washington knew this, this was kind of the talk. He was elected president and, as you talked about in the book with, I think you did a really great job was, describing how, again, self-conscious Washington was about this. He knew he was the first president and by being the first president he was going to set the precedent for all subsequent presidents. With that in mind, did his reading, his personal reading change with this new position as the Executive of the United States?
Adrienne Harrison: Yeah, it did. Washington, because he’s trying to shape this new Republican government, he doesn’t really have the time, similar to when the American Revolution was breaking out, and he didn’t have time to read this grand strategy stuff that his British counterparts had read already. Washington doesn’t have time to really sit and read the enlightenment philosophers like Locke and Rousseau, and think about and ponder the future. He’s got to get a government functioning. There’s nothing, if you read the Constitution, there’s nothing that requires the president to have a cabinet. That’s something that he had brought over from his experience in the Revolution, of having a staff of smart people around you, and he would let them debate and argue and that would inform his decision making.
He’s doing those practical things, but from a reading standpoint, what Washington sorely needed was an understanding of how his actions, and how the actions of his administration, were going down with the public. This is an era long before opinion polling. He needed some sort of gauge as to public reaction because when people are around Washington, they’re always going to be polite. They’re always going to applaud when he comes into the room and stand and be respectful but what are they saying when he’s out of earshot? What are they saying in other states?
So first, he starts paying attention to newspapers and the mass media of the day, but over time, the newspapers all became increasing partisan and some of them became harshly critical of him. I don’t think he would ever use the term fake news but for the first time he’s really being heavily criticized, so he didn’t really enjoy that kind of reading and it wasn’t objective for him. So what he turned to was these printed sermons that were out there. He was basically making the assumption that every pulpit in America was politicized in some way, going back to the Revolution. Every minister, regardless of congregation, had pretty much taken a side and Washington was making the assumption that these ministers who published their sermons were basically reflecting the views of their congregation, they were the voice of their community.
A lot of these sermons, if you go and read the ones that are in Washington’s collection, are talking about the policies that his administration is taking a stand on, some of the laws that the first Congresses are passing, and some of the more controversial aspects of Washington’s administration, like the whiskey tax that leads to a rebellion out in Pennsylvania. There are sermons that are written about this, either for or against the way that Washington’s administration is handling these different crises, and he uses those as a way to gauge what people outside of the colonial … or the new US Capital were thinking, about what was going on in this new country. It was a lot less bitter tone in these sermons than in the newspapers, so he paid very keen attention to those.
You could see, if you look at his collections of what he has saved at Mount Vernon, he has a lot that are favorable to his administration’s policies, but there are some in his collection that are very critical, but they’re critical in a way that’s respectful. I assumed, when I was reading them, that if he took the time and energy to save those, that he took that criticism seriously, but not personally, and he was using it as a way to temper his next move, so to speak. It’s interesting to see how he shifted away from reading the how-to books of the military manuals and the political philosophy books towards a much more practical approach to understanding the American people.
Brett McKay: Let’s shift gears to his personal library in his study at Mount Vernon. Your books, at that time, that was sort of like it’s a status marker. You kept book there, books were expensive so you only had books or pamphlets that were important to you. I’m curious about this George Washington. I know we’ve all bought books before just because it makes us feel smart but we don’t actually read it. Like I’ve got a copy of Infinite Jest in my bookshelf. I’ve read like three pages of it, but I have it. I’m curious … Did Washington do that? Even though he didn’t read the enlightenment philosophers, did he have those in his personal library?
Adrienne Harrison: Yeah, he did have a lot of stuff in his library that is pretty easy to figure out that he didn’t read, and not because he wanted to collect it but because people started, as he became famous, both during the Revolution and then the Confederation period and then his presidency and beyond, Washington was the celebrity of the day, so people trying to curry favor with him would send him books as gifts. Some were presented to him in these diplomatic ceremonies. So you could tell he didn’t read them, a lot of them were not in English, so easy to discard that. But he didn’t really know what to do. If something was given to him as a gift and was inscribed to him, it was kind of, I think he felt bad about just getting rid of it, and he couldn’t re-gift it to somebody else. There are some of those things in his library.
But the thing to note about his collection and what he used, yes, books are definitely a luxury item in the 18th century. Very few of them are actually produced in the colonies or the new states. Most of them are imported from Europe and then they’re handed down from generation to generation because they are so expensive. But Washington, unlike Jefferson, who would show off his library to visitors to Monitcello, Washington never let people into his library at Mount Vernon. His step-grandson, George Washington Parke Custis, who was raised by the Washingtons at Mount Vernon, said that that room was one which no one entered without permission.
He would never … If he had … guests staying all the time, some people he knew, some people that were just strangers stopping in, if you were a guest at Mount Vernon, no matter how well you knew the Washingtons, you would be provided reading material. You would not be allowed to go and peruse his shelves and select something that appealed to you. He would put out, or have his house slaves put out, newspapers or maybe a couple of books here and there. But, yeah, he didn’t really have yards of unread classics on his shelves just so he could look smart.
I would venture a guess that most of those gift books that he received that I could tell he never read probably just got boxed up and put in storage somewhere, and he kept the books at hand that he was actually going to use, that were more practical for him. Yeah, he was not one to show off because he was so thin-skinned. He did not want to get trapped into some conversation about whatever, whether it be literature, philosophy, politics, that he did not feel prepared for. Letting people into his library, and what if they picked something off the shelf that he hadn’t read and wanted to discuss it with him? Then he’s got to get out of the conversation.
Again, it goes back to what I’d said at the beginning of our conversation here, he wanted people to see what he wanted of him, he did not want people to form their own judgements. So the library was kind of his inner sanctum. I think it was a place, too, for him to organize himself, for him to do his work, to run his farms and run his administration and everything. He didn’t want people disturbing this place that was his man cave, his 18th century man cave. He did not like people coming into it. It was definitely his, and his alone.
Brett McKay: I’m curious, after researching and writing about him, doing this dissertation on his reading habits, I’m curious, did you walk away with anything that you’ve tried to emulate about Washington and his self-education?
Adrienne Harrison: Yeah, I think … you know, I’ve always been a reader myself and when you’re going to West Point you learn there by what’s called the Thayer method, where you read the lesson the night before and you do the homework problems or questions or whatever, and then you go into class the next day prepared to take a quiz on it. So, kind of, that’s … you have an element of self-teaching in that type of education that’s kind of been with me. And I’ve always admired how Washington really strived to learn from his experiences and from the things he was actually reading. You know, he read for self improvement and I think that’s something that I’ve tried to do for myself, and I think it’s something that a lot of people who do that benefit from. Nobody’s ever dumber by reading something. You get through a lot by Googling things now but looking up, finding your own solution, figuring out how to do something on your own, is a very rewarding way to get through things in life.
Brett McKay: Well, Adrienne, this has been a great conversation. Thank you so much for your time. It’s been an absolute pleasure.
Adrienne Harrison: Thanks for having me. I had a lot of fun.
Brett McKay: My guest today was Dr. Adrienne Harrison. Her book is A Powerful Mind: The Self-Education of George Washington. It’s available on Amazon.com. Also, check out our show notes at aom.is/powerfulmind, where you can find links to resources where you can delve deeper into this topic.
Well, that wraps up another edition of The Art of Manliness podcast. For more manly tips and advice, make sure to check out The Art of Manliness website at artofmanliness.com. If you enjoyed the podcast and got something out of it, I’d appreciate if you take one minute to give us a review on iTunes or Stitcher, it helps out a lot. If you’ve done that already, thank you. Please share the show with your friends, the more the merrier around here. Word of mouth is how this show grows. We’re taking a break for the Christmas break, we hope you have a good one. We’ll see you in 2018. Thanks for a great year. Until next time, this is Brett McKay telling you to stay manly.
Last updated: January 18, 2018