A Powerful Mind: The Self-Education of George Washington by Adrienne M. Harrison (review)
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George Washington, Literature, Education, Reading

A Powerful Mind: The Self-Education of George Washington. By Adrienne M. Harrison. (Lincoln, NE: Potomac Books, 2015. Pp. xvi + 307. Cloth, $29.95.)

Calling down a volume from the Washington collection at the Boston Athenaeum one day, I learned from the librarian that another patron had just requested the identical book. That patron was François Furstenberg, who was seated at the next table. Once the librarian introduced us, we two began discussing our common interest in the library of George Washington. Apparently, our discussion became quite animated because the librarian suddenly shushed us. Having not been shushed by a librarian since the sixth grade, I was taken aback, and our conversation ended. Pursuing my research, I subsequently met Michele Lee, the Special Collections Librarian at Mount Vernon, who eagerly discussed with me the discoveries she had made among George Washington’s books. I never met Adrienne Harrison during my research, but Lee told me about an army officer and West Point graduate at Rutgers University who was writing a doctoral dissertation about George Washington’s reading.

A Powerful Mind: The Self-Education of George Washington is the revised version of Harrison’s 2013 Rutgers dissertation. The speed with which she took the work from dissertation to publication is impressive, but A Powerful Mind still reads like a dissertation. Her introduction, for example, presents a review of literature like those all graduate students learn to write. It reminds me of something I learned forty years ago. Trying to publish some poems, I consulted The Writers’ Market to see where to send them. I still remember one journal’s submission advice: “No love poems, please. These are poems that must be written but [End Page 164] should not be published.” Let’s adapt this advice to suit all new PhDs seeking to publish their dissertations: “No review of literature, please. This is a task that must be undertaken but should not be published.”

Harrison’s review of literature is especially unnecessary because it no longer applies. Her argument, that few scholars have studied the books Washington read, may have been true when she first proposed her dissertation, but much work has been done since. Furstenberg published his research in the William and Mary Quarterly. The Fred W. Smith National Library for the Study of George Washington at Mount Vernon celebrated its opening in 2013 with a special exhibition dedicated to the subject of Washington’s reading, which was accompanied by Amanda C. Isaac’s 160-page exhibition catalogue, Take Note!: George Washington the Reader, which included an essay by Michele Lee. Harrison never updated her review of literature to accommodate the recent work being done on the subject.1 Regardless, A Powerful Mind is a welcome addition to the growing study of Washington’s intellect.

Harrison’s military background shapes the contents of A Powerful Mind. Eager to tell the story of Washington’s battlefield experiences, she covers the first twenty years of his life in the first five pages of Chapter 1, largely ignoring the books he read in boyhood. The next eighteen pages are devoted to Washington’s military service during the Seven Years’ War. Beyond a brief discussion of Julius Caesar’s Commentaries and Humphrey Bland’s Treatise of Military Discipline, these pages say little about his reading. After the war, Washington stopped reading military manuals and turned his attention to domestic pursuits: This is the crucial point of the chapter. Washington, the great military leader, only read military books when he needed to do so. Back on the farm, he read husbandry manuals. The shift from military to agricultural books illustrates Harrison’s thesis: Washington was a practical reader who always read for a purpose.

Harrison overstates her case. At one point, she asserts that Washington had no time for belles lettres and “almost never read for pleasure” (17). For support, she says his writings contain few literary allusions. I [End Page 165] can think of Washington’s references to The Tempest, Gil Blas, and Hudibras.2 These three examples—a play, a novel, and a poem—suggest that he did have time for...