MOUNT VERNON, Va. — If you make your way into the inner sanctum of the imposing new research library that opened here at George Washington’s Mount Vernon on Friday, past its handsome reading room and through its rare-book suite, into a small oval chamber sparsely stocked with Washington’s own books, you might be tempted to accept conventional wisdom: Washington was first in war, first in peace, and first in the hearts of his countrymen — but, as a reader among the Founding Fathers, he was one of the last.
And fellow founders were among the first to so testify: the Harvard-educated John Adams wrote that Washington was “too illiterate, unlearned, unread for his station and reputation.” Jefferson said that Washington’s “education was merely reading, writing and common arithmetic,” and that “his time was employed in action chiefly, reading little.”
But as the new library and an accompanying exhibition make abundantly clear, these influential judgments of Washington as a man of action, marred by bookish ignorance, are deeply flawed. The exhibition, “Take Note! George Washington the Reader” (through Jan. 12), gathers more than 86 items, including Washington’s books, letters and a touch screen that allows us to explore his annotations. It shows that Washington’s actions succeeded partly because of what he read: books informed his approaches to warfare, agriculture, government and slavery.