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A Powerful Mind: The Self-Education of George Washington, by Adrienne M. Harrison

Lincoln: University of Nebraska Potomac Books, 2015. Pp. xvi, 310. Notes, biblio., index. $29.95. ISBN: 1612347258.

Washington’s Lifetime Pursuit of Useful Knowledge

In this work Dr. Harrison, former professor of history at West Point, looks at how Washington overcame his lack of a formal education through a lifetime’s dedication to reading.

Harrison bases her analysis on several catalogues of Washington’s library, records of his purchasing agents in Britain, and his own references to his reading in his letters.  She concludes that Washington apparently never read for pleasure or for the sake of learning, but rather he structured his reading to his needs, and aptly characterizes this approach using the apt phrase “pursuing useful knowledge”. 

So, as appropriate to a gentleman farmer, for most of his life Washington delved deeply into the most current literature on agriculture, often requesting specific works even before they were available in English. As a regimental commander in the Virginia militia during the Seven Years’ War, he read widely in drill manuals and military handbooks, as appropriate to his rank. Elected to the Virginia House of Burgesses, he read widely in British constitutional history and politics. Upon being named commander-in-chief of the Continental Army, Washington procured a number of important works on army organization and military history, to acquire an understanding of strategy and, apparently, logistics. And finally, as President, he read much in political theory and law.

There are some surprises, such as Washington’s wide reading in the abolitionist literature of his day and his familiarity with current architectural literature. Harrison also gives us a look at Washington’s private office, a surprisingly austere place clearly designed for serious private study. As Harrison tells us how Washington educated himself, she also throws some light on the education background of professional army officers of the day, contemporary politics, the transition of Washington and others from Englishmen to Americans, and more. Surprisingly, Harrison fails to note that while commanding the Continental Army, Washington issued what can only be termed a reading list to his officers, noting specific works likely to be of value in improving their knowledge of the military profession, many of which he had himself in his library.

Of great of value to anyone interested in Washington, this work also throws a good deal of light on life and society in the eighteenth century British world.

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Reviewer: A. A. Nofi   


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