George Washington
George Washington, A National Treasure
The Portrait Kids Washington's Life Exhibition Calendar
Nothing but harmony, honesty, industry and frugality are necessary to make us a great and happy people. -George Washington to Marquis de Lafayette, Mount Vernon, Janurary 29, 1789

The Portrait

Books Under Table Detail

Detail of George Washington (Lansdowne portrait)
Constitutional Convention, 1787
Constitutional Convention, 1787
Library of Congress

The books under the table include General Orders, American Revolution and Constitution and Bylaws; they symbolize Washington's roles as commander of the American army, and as President of the Constitutional Convention of 1787, during the debates over the structure of the new government.


Washington letter to Thomas Jefferson, December 27, 1780
Washington letter to Thomas Jefferson,
December 27, 1780
Library of Congress

Washington was sensitive about his lack of formal education. His father died when he was 11 years old, so he did not get the education typical of boys in his station. He could hold his own in a conversation with Thomas Jefferson or the other Founding Fathers, but behind his back some of his contemporaries derided his rudimentary education. John Adams, a graduate of Harvard, called him “unlearned” and “unread.” Aaron Burr, a Princeton man, claimed that Washington did not know how to spell—this at a time when spelling was phonetically inventive rather than subject to strict rules.

Washington and his generals
Washington and
his generals
Chicago Historical Society

In 1755, while serving as an aide to British General Edward Braddock during the French and Indian War, Washington began his military education by copying many of Braddock’s General Orders. During the Revolutionary War, Washington issued many General Orders, including the one that launched his Continental Army, reminding his men that they “are now Troops of the United Provinces of North America” and adding the hope that “all Distinctions of Colonies will be laid aside; so that one and the same Spirit may animate the whole....”

Constitutional Convention, 1787
Constitutional Convention, 1787
The Mount Vernon
Ladies’ Association

The book Constitution and Bylaws recalls Washington’s attendance at the Constitutional Convention in 1787, where the delegates chose him by unanimous vote to preside. Although he said little, his commanding presence gave the convention a seal of legitimacy. He supported a new Constitution, rather than a revision of the Articles of Confederation. His support was a major factor in ensuring that the states would approve the Constitution.


Books from Washingon’s collection at Mt. Vernon
Books from Washingon’s
collection at Mt. Vernon
The Mount Vernon
Ladies’ Association

One book leans against the table leg. Another stands alone. The books, a subtle part of the overall composition of the painting, give it a touch of reality. In contrast to the perfect posture of Washington, the books are somewhat jumbled, suggesting that Washington used them often.

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