HISTORY MYSTERY / Founding Fathers

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What were the Founding Fathers' favorite books?
#1 - George Washington


This article is part of a series that explores the personal libraries of Founding Fathers.

MORE: Thomas Jefferson's Recommended Reads



Washington’s library was his go-to source when researching politics, farming, and warfare, but it also provided a rich source of entertainment, in the form of novels, plays, and poetry, as well as food for thought, in works on religious and philosophical subjects.

In 1783, just before his retirement as commander-in-chief of the Continental Army, Washington had his estate manager compile a list of all of the books at Mount Vernon. Despite Washington’s wide-ranging collection, this list did not include a Bible. In fact, he owned very few books about religion, and those that he did own probably were given to him as gifts by their authors.

Cato, A Tragedy by Joseph Addison

Many might cite George Washington’s book containing over 100 “rules of civility,” which he copied by hand, as being the one that impacted him the most. But it was probably the play Cato by Addison that really resonated with Washington more than anything. This 1712 historic tragedy was a hit throughout the English-speaking world, especially in the colonies. The play explores themes of stoicism, republicanism, virtue, and liberty by telling the story of a Roman politician failing to prevent Julius Caesar’s rise to emperor. Washington often paraphrased the work in his letters, refashioned its dramatic speeches into his own, and even had a production performed for his troops at Valley Forge.

Youth's Behaviour (or Decency in Conversation Amongst Men) translated and edited by Francis Hawkins

As a young man, George Washington copied out 110 “Rules of Civility and Decent Behaviour in Company and Conversation” from a popular English text, Youth’s Behaviour, or Decency in Conversation Amongst Men. The rules instruct students to practice consideration and respect towards others, by paying careful attention to body language, dress, and speech.

Rules of Civility - Richard Brookhiser

George Washington first copied Brookhiser's Rules of Civility as a schoolboy exercise, and the words would continue to have an impact on the future President throughout his lifetime.

The Expedition of Humphrey Clinker - Tobias Smollett

This comedy, written from the variant perspectives of six different characters, was Tobias Smollet's best work and a favorite of Washington's. The novel is a satire aimed against British imperialism, and makes many observations on 18th century British life and behaviors.

MORE: Founding Fathers

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What were the Founding Fathers' favorite books? 
#2 - Thomas Jefferson

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The saga of GW's 221-year overdue library book