H-Net Reviews: Slaughter on Hayes, 'George Washington: A Life in Books' (x-h-war)

Peter Knupfer, H-SHEAR's picture
Kevin J. Hayes
Joseph Slaughter

Slaughter on Hayes, 'George Washington: A Life in Books'

Kevin J. Hayes. George Washington: A Life in Books. New York: Oxford University Press, 2017. 408 pp. $34.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-19-045667-2.

Reviewed by Joseph Slaughter (US Naval Academy) Published on H-War (July, 2018) Commissioned by Margaret Sankey (Air War College)

Printable Version: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showpdf.php?id=51945

The name George Washington conjures many images: heroic general, stoic president, gentle farmer, and yes, lifelong owner of other human beings. One image often missing from this collage is George Washington, the intellectual. Kevin Hayes seeks to rectify this omission in his highly readable work, George Washington: A Life in Books. By studying Washington’s library, his scattered marginalia, published writing, correspondence, diaries, and notebooks, Hayes reconstructs an intellectual world that he argues profoundly shaped the first president’s “thought and action” (p. xi).

Washington acquired his first book at age nine: a set of sermons that discussed the nature of divine revelation. Hayes uses this first book to sketch out the first lesson he argues Washington’s library catalogue teaches us: that a young Washington was immersed in works that taught the value of a life of meditation and contemplation. Even rudimentary students of Washington will know this contradicts current scholarship, which paints the picture of a youth struggling to reign in his intense passions. Denied the formal training afforded to his older half-brothers, Hayes argues Washington embraced a program of self-education through his library.

According to Hayes, this self-education took many forms. Washington’s poems reveal his youthful emotions. His travel journals reinforce to us his penchant for meticulous observation and documentation, as do the numerous corrections he inserted into many of his literary possessions. Travel narratives such as George Anson’s Voyage Round the World (1748) broadened his mind, honed his geographic awareness, and reinforced his open-minded perspective toward new ideas and peoples. Novels such as Henry Fielding’s History of Tom Jones (1749) fed his thirst for adventure. Agricultural works such as Thomas Hale’s The Complete Body of Husbandry (1758) deepened his expertise as a hands-on plantation owner, while his marginalia explains his shift from tobacco to wheat farming. Revolutionary pamphlets and sermons such as Samuel Henley’s Candid Refutation (1774) and Samuel Langdon’s Government Corrupted by Vice (1775) shaped his evolving attitude towards Great Britain. Humphrey Bland’s Treatise of Military Discipline (1727) provided the foundation for a military life. Biographies such as John Bancks’s A New History of the Life and Reign of the Czar Peter the Great (1740) reflect his desire to study and emulate the prominent military and political leaders of his age.

One of the most potentially fascinating chapters (15: “The Slave, the Quaker, and the Panopticon”) delves into Washington’s view of slavery.  While he found a collection of pamphlets sent to him by the British reformer Granville Sharpe objectionable (Washington does not seem to have read them), one can see Washington’s attitudes shaped by works such as A Letter to an American Planter from His Friend in London (1771), which advocated converting one’s slaves to Christianity. Washington collected numerous antislavery pamphlets, binding many into personal volumes. Hayes’s relatively brief chapter will leave many scholars unsatisfied, as he does not delve as deeply into the complexity of Washington’s view of slavery as many would hope.  

A Life in Books’ most glaring omission is Hayes’s failure to explore how the most widely read book of early America, the Bible, influenced the development of Washington’s intellect. Since Hayes makes heavy use of correspondence to illuminate the influence of Washington’s other books, this neglect is especially odd. As historians like Daniel L. Dreisbach have demonstrated, biblical phrases such as “a millstone hung to your neck” and “forbidden fruit” permeate Washington’s letters and speeches.[1] Surely, the use of such biblical phrases provides an avenue for assessing how Washington’s biblical knowledge shaped his intellectual development.

Ultimately, the question most readers will ask themselves is, how much did George actually read and subcribe to the ideas of his literary collection? As for the former, Hayes suggests the corrections and notes Washington made in his books supplies confidence he actually read the literature he acquired. As for the latter, the answer is less certain, but correspondence and Washington’s actions do provide some evidence as to the effect of his library. Hayes does caution scholars not to extend his analysis too far, admitting that despite his broad literary life, Washington “was no bookman” and “books were never his first priority” (p. 57). In fact, when compared to the libraries of his contemporaries, Washington’s library was tiny. (By the end of the American Revolution, Hayes estimates Washington owned approximately 150 volumes, compared to Thomas Jefferson’s 2,000 and Ben Franklin’s 4,000.)

Ultimately, A Life in Books forms a nice complement to other recently published works that seek to explore the formation of General and President George Washington.[2] While some will surely doubt Hayes’s central premise that his library dramatically shaped his persona, at the very least, Hayes makes a compelling case that Washington was much more of an intellectual than scholars traditionally admit.


[1]. Daniel L. Dreisbach, Reading the Bible with the Founding Fathers (New York: Oxford University Press, 2017), 76-78, 211-225. Hayes’s only reference to such language (Micah 4:4) is used to reference Washington’s postwar desire for peace and rest (209).

[2]. Examples include Colin G. Calloway, The Indian World of George Washington (New York: Oxford University Press, 2018); and Peter Stark, Young Washington (New York: Ecco, 2018).

Citation: Joseph Slaughter. Review of Hayes, Kevin J., George Washington: A Life in Books. H-War, H-Net Reviews. July, 2018. URL: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=51945

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.