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George Washington’s Practical Self-Education

Washington was a practical reader. He clearly valued useful knowledge that made many of his tasks easier. He was and still is the quintessential American success story because he applied his mind to achieving success. He was relentless in pursuing his goals, and his reading is an applied demonstration of it. 

-Adrienne Harrison

Our first President and Commander-in-Chief, George Washington, is not known as an intellectual, the way Ben Franklin, James Madison, Thomas Jefferson, and some of his other Revolutionary counterparts were. Washington had little formal education — he was not a university man and he did not occupy the intellectual circles when was young. He didn’t hope to make any contribution to political philosophy or the scientific understanding.

Washington grew up in Virginia into a landowning family, and his education didn’t continue beyond the equivalent of elementary school. He developed a trade — surveying — and would eventually inherit his family’s land and become a farmer and plantation owner. Washington couldn’t speak or read any language but English, living in a time when it was considered necessary and desirable to know French and Latin, at a minimum. (Ben Franklin learned English, Italian, Spanish, Latin, French, and German.) Unlike others we’ve written about before, Washington wasn’t very bookish.

And yet, this poorly educated man with seemingly little interest in literature, classics, or reading at all, became one of the seminal leaders in American history, and as Adrienne Harrison details in her book A Powerful Mind, he did it in large part by reading. Even a man with little interest in high-brow intellect, a man with very little time to spare, felt that sitting on his ass with a book was a useful thing indeed. He was a lifelong learner.

Practical Self-Education

As judged by the library he left behind, his diaries, and the investigations into his life, Washington did not carry much interest in theoretical or classical reading or learning. It seems unlikely that he read for pleasure. But Washington used reading as a means to an end — he wanted to know how to farm better, how to lead an army, how to lead a country, how to conduct himself civilly. There wasn’t any other way but to read and combine it with his direct experience.

Says Harrison in her book:

Washington was a practical reader … While the purpose of this book is not to remake Washington’s image into a sort of closeted scholar, it does argue that reading was a key component behind Washington’s success. The real contribution that this volume makes is that it takes one step closer to understanding how Washington’s mind worked. While his self-directed reading was not anywhere near that of Jefferson, Franklin, and Adams, Washington outshone them all by combining the knowledge he gained from his reading with his natural talent for leadership into a masterful performance.

Washington’s lack of education and culture certainly bothered him as a youngster. He was ambitious — he wanted to serve as a high-level British military officer and operate in government. He wanted to be a somebody. But he knew his formal education was going to be lacking, and he knew it wouldn’t all happen by accident. So he set out to do some of the hard work.

In a story that eventually became well-known, Washington first spent time as a teenager copying over a French manual for conducting yourself in high circles:

As his younger brothers Samuel and John Augustine still lay sleeping nearby and the first of the sun’s rays stretched through the neatly curtained windows and across the small table, the future father of his country busily copied word for word a translation of an old guidebook for princely behavior that a French Jesuit priest wrote called The Rules of Civility. 

Such a project was no small undertaking for the boy, but little by little he was determined to press on to the end; so he kept scratching at the paper with his quill, careful to keep his ink-stained fingers off the paper. By the time he was finished, young Washington’s manuscript consisted of 110 rules for how to properly conduct himself as a respectable member of society. He took pride in his work, for he would rely on these maxims to guide him throughout a long career in the public light.

This tells you a lot of Washington: He was a climber, he had discipline, and he could apply himself when needed. Even in the 18th century, not too many wealthy southern teenagers would have taken on that kind of task.

Learning the rules of civilized social behavior in this way, Washington started a pattern he’d carry on his entire life: Gaining knowledge from books that he couldn’t get through experience, or that he needed before he had the right experience. He did it again when he was put in charge of the Virginia Regiment, the first dedicated military unit in the colonies.

Washington hoped that leading this ragtag group of frontier soldiers against the French and the Natives would eventually lead to his becoming a full British military officer (which never happened). And although he was not actually part of the British military, as with his study of the Rules of Civility Washington took it upon himself to read the most influential book in British military circles, and instructed his officers to study it with him:

With specific regard to training, Washington was responsible for training not only raw recruits but also officers. Washington pushed his officers to study, particularly the latest in British military texts such as Humphrey Bland’s A Treatise on Military Discipline. Washington wrote that “having no opportunity to improve from example, let us read”; for he recognized that it was not possible for an ambitious officer to obtain the requisite expertise “without application, nor any merit or applause to be achieved without certain knowledge thereof.”

Bland’s Treatise was the fundamental textbook for all British officers. Known throughout the army as “the bible,” the 360-page manual spelled out everything a new officer needed to know about how to form and operate a regiment both in garrison and in the field. Bland outlined what an officer’s duties were and what officers could reasonably expect from their subordinates.

Studying for Success

Washington didn’t stop his self education upon completion of his duties as a frontier officer — he just changed course:

He therefore turned his attention to doing his duty to his country, Virginia, and shifted his focus to becoming a leader in that provincial society, which did actually appreciate his achievements…Washington abandoned his study of the military arts that he had begun some four years earlier, for that reading no longer served a practical purpose for him. He instead devoted his energies in the coming years to increasing his wealth and status in Virginia society.

[…]

To successfully mix in the best social circles, Washington had to learn more about the science of agriculture, history, politics, and religion, for he had to balance being a planter, a member of the House of Burgesses, and a parish vestryman. After he returned to Mount Vernon and began assembling a library, those subjects that had the practical purpose of advancing his social stature dominated his burgeoning collection.

Washington took it upon himself to delve deeply into agriculture, acquiring scores of books on how to improve the productivity of his farms and manage the soil more effectively. He read religious tracts to understand the mood of the people around him, and history books to understand the history of English people.

It’s important to note what Washington didn’t do. He didn’t try to achieve a classical education on his own. Some of his contemporaries were educated in England and became legal scholars, classicists, and composers of belles lettres. They wanted the mind of a European intellectual.

Washington didn’t do this — he wanted to learn things he could use, and given a limited amount of time, focused his attention where it was most profitable to him. (An opportunity cost problem which we hit on in our How to Read a Book course earlier this year.)

Having made his mental break with his Englishness after Lord Loudon harshly dealt him a very personal affront, Washington in that key moment was forced to confront his academic shortcomings. This realization, when coupled with his extreme sensitivity to criticism, drove Washington intellectually inward and toward the subjects that he felt most comfortable with and that, more important, could meet his immediate needs at the time. He was fortunate to have already made his public reputation in Virginia based on his natural propensities for physical bravery and on his leadership experience. Learning to read Latin or becoming an amateur scientist would not sustain that hard-won reputation in the planter-dominated high society; earning money and being a dedicated public servant would. Consequently, Washington focused his reading and intellectual pursuits accordingly, and reading remained an intensely private activity. For example, when in residence at Mount Vernon, he spent on average two hours in the morning and all afternoon alone in his library.

Washington would keep these habits the rest of his life, although during the Revolution and his presidency, he had a lot less time to devote to reading than at Mount Vernon. But he still did it, even in the midst of the great upheaval he led against the British:

With these military treatises and drill manuals that he acquired during the first two years of the Revolution, we see Washington applying the same diligent study method he had used previously with Duhamel’s Practical Treatise of Husbandry when he sought to make his plantations profitable. In other words, he read these military books for the sake of immediate practical problem solving. There is nothing philosophical or reflective about them. They are tactical field manuals, not massive theoretical tomes on the art of command as it evolved over the centuries.

This is not to recommend avoiding such reflective, theoretical tomes, if such reading interests you. But Washington does provide a good example to those who don’t take an inherent pleasure in deep reflection. The process of reading can be intensely practical as well as enjoyable for its own sake. Never think that reading is a mere luxury. Even the busiest man of the 18th century, who did not enjoy reading as an end itself, felt a duty to allocate his time to the written word. It was simply that important.

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Still Interested? Check out the rest of Adrienne Harrison’s A Powerful Mind, or for a better and more thorough treatment, try the wonderful biography written by Ron Chernow, now the standard and most modern bio of the fascinating GW.