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Sneak Peek: Take Note! George Washington the Reader


There’s a new exhibit opening at Mount Vernon on September 27!

Have you ever thought about what George Washington read? Bookstore and library shelves are filled with books about Washington, but only a handful look at the books that influenced him as a young man, as General of the Continental Army, and as President of the United States.

Inspired by the grand opening of the Fred W. Smith National Library for the Study of George Washington, our curators researched the library of the first president for our newest exhibit, Take Note!

As a reader, Washington was an avid note taker; however, he rarely wrote in his books. Instead, he chose to record his thoughts in notebooks. Today, almost 900 pages of his reading notes survive. What types of books inspired Washington’s thoughts?

56856-9, 3/1/13, 9:58 AM,  8C, 4266x5323 (452+676), 100%, Custom, 1/120 s, R36.5, G20.1, B41.8

George Washington’s Notes, ca. 1786- 1787 copied from James Madison’s “Notes on Ancient and Modern Confederacies”.
Courtesy of Manuscript Division, Library of Congress, Washington D.C.

His personal library was filled with books meant to help him become a better soldier, farmer, and statesman. He had books exploring the global issues of the 18th century, the newest research about farming, and even works of fiction. Controversial pamphlets about politics and slavery also made it onto Washington’s library shelves. One of the more interesting documents in his library is a Native American vocabulary list compiled as a special project for Catherine the Great of Russia.

56856-10, 3/1/13, 10:38 AM,  8C, 4540x6968 (1106+177), 100%, Custom, 1/120 s, R39.5, G23.1, B44.8

Richard Butler, English-Shawnee-Delaware Vocabulary, November 30, 1787. Courtesy of Manuscript Division, Library of Congress, Washington D.C.

Take Note! will bring visitors back into the 18th century world of print, ideas, and stories; allow them to read the words Washington read; and with the help of modern technology, to flip through the pages of Washington’s own books. The exhibit will also showcase more than 80 books, letters, manuscripts, and objects – many of which have not been together since the sale of Washington’s library in the early 19th century. As a special treat, examples of Washington’s handwritten notes will be on display as well as three of the six known books that Washington did write notes in. We hope, like us, you’ll be amazed by these humble, but powerful vehicles that carried revolutionary ideas across thousands of miles and connected diverse individuals around the world.

Take Note! will be on view from September 27, 2013 to January 12, 2014 in the F.M Kirby Gallery of the Donald W. Reynolds Museum & Education Center at Mount Vernon.

Amanda Isaac
Associate Curator
Department of Historic Preservation and Collections

Classroom Connections

The father of our country loved the latest technology and he liked to read – his personal library had more than 800 books! Use the following questions as prompts for a classroom discussion on libraries.

  • George Washington arranged his books on shelves in his personal study. Where do you store your books?
  • Washington’s library reflected his many interests. Well represented on his bookshelves were books about farming, history, military, architecture, and gardening. If a historian in the future were to look at your bookshelves, what would your books tell about you?
  • What would your books tell a historian in the future about you?
  • The father of our country loved the latest technology and stayed up to date on the latest trends. How do you think he would react to the increased use of E-Readers (such as iPads, Nooks, and Kindles) for reading?

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3 Responses to “Sneak Peek: Take Note! George Washington the Reader”

  1. Lori Gibson Says:

    Do you have the list of books Washington read & referred to ? At least the four in the picture?

  2. F. Leeper Says:

    Didn’t he read from the Bible often?

  3. Mount Vernon Contributor Says:


    You can explore Washington’s Library on LibraryThing! Here’s the link:

    Zerah Jakub
    Manager of Education Outreach and Leadership Programs

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Portraits in Schools

Kids holding George Washington Portrait

Mount Vernon recently invited K-12 schools nationwide to request framed portraits of George Washington to display in a respectful, prominent place.

The response was overwhelming: thousands of schools submitted letters! Along with the portrait, schools received curriculum materials to help explore our first president’s contributions.

Where has George Washington gone back to school? Click here to see!

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