By Stephen Yoch
John Adams complained in a letter to Benjamin Rush that President Washington was “too illiterate, unlearned, and unread for his station.”
Thomas Jefferson was equally unkind, describing Washington as an awkward public speaker with a mind that was “slow in operation, being little aided by invention or imagination, but sure in conclusion.”
Was that true? Was Washington dumb or inadequately educated?
The short answer is no (and yes). In truth, Washington was bright and tenacious, with broad interests and knowledge. However, he also had an extremely limited formal education. The remaining founders presented perhaps the greatest concentration of intellectual power the country has ever known. Most enjoyed a university education. For example, John Adams attended Harvard, James Madison went to Princeton, Benjamin Franklin received honorary degrees from both Harvard and Yale, John Jay and Alexander Hamilton both attended Kings College (renamed Columbia University).
At best, Washington received a grade-school education under the tutelage of the Reverend James Marye at St. George’s parish in Fredericksburg. Over 200 pages of his surviving boyhood schoolwork demonstrate detailed studies in geometry, mathematics, spelling and grammar. His interests included natural history and agriculture. Certainly he possessed an adequate education for a planter of the time.
Desiring above all to be an English country gentleman, he carefully copied and wrote out the Rules of Civility and Decent Behavior in Company in Conversation. These included “do not laugh too much or too loud in public” and “in the presence of others, sing not to yourself with a humming noise, nor drum your fingers or feet.”
By age 15, George began training to become a surveyor and was formally accepted into the profession at age 17. This was a worthy and gentlemanly profession in Tidewater Virginia, akin to a lawyer or doctor in social status. It required a substantial background in both mathematics and geometry. Washington had access to surveying tools left behind by his father and likely received training at the hands of George Hume, a prominent local surveyor employed by George Washington’s patrons and indirect family relatives, the Fairfaxes.
As he entered young adulthood, he was given full access to the extensive library of the Fairfax family in nearby Belvoir. There, he consumed classics such as Caesar’s Contemporaries, Voltaire’s The History of Charles XII, King of Sweden, Seneca’s Morals and Humphrey Bland’s Treatise of Military Discipline. Most of all, Washington was captivated by the philosophy of the stoics, and his favorite play was Joseph Addison’s Cato.
What we see in Washington is a steady progression of knowledge and academic capabilities throughout his life. Indeed, for those letters that he retained from his youth, he later corrected spelling and grammar errors, attempting to soften his embarrassment of his ill-educated origins. Washington was a prodigious reader during his lifetime and acquired a substantial library by his death. He read newspapers every day until he died.
Washington almost never discussed his education. He did, however, regret his lack of Latin, Greek, and French. He advised young people to enter college, noting in a 1790 letter that “failing to attend college cannot be overcome and future years cannot compensate for lost days at this period of your life.”
Having been denied a university education himself, Washington went to great lengths to see that his stepchildren with Martha were properly educated. He hired tutors for his stepchildren, Jacky and Patsy, and dutifully marked both their progress and failings.
What is particularly admirable about Washington and his lack of education was his self-confidence in surrounding himself with the best and brightest. When Washington was organizing the new American government, with the little direction provided in the Constitution, he set up a cabinet in which he was the “hub of the wheel.” The “spokes” represented some of the most formidable cabinet members ever assembled. With Alexander Hamilton as the Secretary of the Treasury and Thomas Jefferson as the Secretary of State, Washington kept the wheels of government moving, managing this group of luminaries to the advantage of the new country. He was never in fear or subservient to these intellectual giants, but harnessed their power even as they looked down on his supposed lack of mental capacity.
Finally, Washington’s intelligence is revealed when touring Mount Vernon. He was a constant innovator, whether brewing and distilling whisky, moving away from a tobacco-based economy, or better managing his extensive plantations. Always a man of action, he did not focus on rhetoric but instead built a world around him in a highly rational and functional way. Whether he was amassing a personal fortune, improving the functioning of Mount Vernon, organizing and leading an army in the field, or establishing the major departments of the new government, Washington’s intellectual capabilities cannot seriously be challenged—notwithstanding his lack of “formal” education.