“I cannot live without books; but fewer will suffice where amusement, and not use, is the only future object.” Thomas Jefferson wrote this in a letter to John Adams on June 10, 1815.
Both George Washington and Benjamin Franklin were self taught but early on realized the value of books and reading the great works that were being taught to others their age. Although both Founding Fathers both mentioned how they felt inferior because of not being formally educated, they both worked hard and read everything they could in order to learn from the past, to learn from the greatest minds of the West, and to learn to be an upstanding moral member of society. By examining their letters and memoirs along with those of the other, more formally educated Founding Fathers, you can put together an impressive list of books to read over the course of your life.
George Washington did not receive a typical education in England, like many of the other boys his age. Rather he had tutors and possibly attended a school in Fredericksburg. He studied reading, writing, geometry, and trigonometry to prepare him for his career in surveying. George also studied manners, and when he was 14 years old, he began copying the 110 “Rules of Civility and Decent Behavior in Company and Conversation,” from the book Youth’s Behaviour, or Decency in Conversation Amongst Men. This book was based on rules that French Jesuit priests wrote in 1595. They became very popular and were taught to the youth to provide guidance for morality and behavior. The first five read:
- Every action done in company ought to be with some sign of respect, to those that are present.
- When in company, put not your hands to any part of the body, not usually discovered.
- Show nothing to your friend that may affright him.
- In the presence of others sing not to yourself with a humming noise, nor drum with your fingers or feet.
- If you cough, sneeze, sigh, or yawn, do it not loud but privately; and speak not in your yawning, but put your handkerchief or hand before your face and turn aside.
You can read the whole work here.
These early lessons and manners impacted his behavior throughout his life. Although he did receive some education, he always felt embarrassed by his lack of formal
education. His fellow Founding Fathers were all highly educated, attending college and studying classics and law.
Similarly, Benjamin Franklin learned to read at a young age, and although he was doing well in school, he was needed to work in his father’s business in order to help the family. So, he stopped his schooling at ten years old and worked making candles. When he was 12, his father apprenticed him to his older brother’s printing shop. Franklin writes about this experience in his autobiography:
BEGINNING LIFE AS A PRINTER
From a child I was fond of reading, and all the little money that came into my hands was ever laid out in books. Pleased with the Pilgrim’s Progress, my first collection was of John Bunyan’s works in separate little volumes. I afterward sold them to enable me to buy R. Burton’s Historical Collections; they were small chapmen’s books, and cheap, 40 or 50 in all. My father’s little library consisted chiefly of books in polemic divinity, most of which I read, and have since often regretted that, at a time when I had such a thirst for knowledge, more proper books had not fallen in my way, since it was now resolved I should not be a clergyman. Plutarch’s Lives there was in which I read abundantly, and I still think that time spent to great advantage. There was also a book of DeFoe’s, called an Essay on Projects, and another of Dr. Mather’s, called Essays to do Good, which perhaps gave me a turn of thinking that had an influence on some of the principal future events of my life.
This bookish inclination at length determined my father to make me a printer, though he had already one son (James) of that profession. In 1717 my brother James returned from England with a press and letters to set up his business in Boston. I liked it much better than that of my father, but still had a hankering for the sea. To prevent the apprehended effect of such an inclination, my father was impatient to have me bound to my brother. I stood out some time, but at last was persuaded, and signed the indentures when I was yet but twelve years old. I was to serve as an apprentice till I was twenty-one years of age, only I was to be allowed journeyman’s wages during the last year. In a little time I made great proficiency in the business, and became a useful hand to my brother. I now had access to better books. An acquaintance with the apprentices of booksellers enabled me sometimes to borrow a small one, which I was careful to return soon and clean. Often I sat up in my room reading the greatest part of the night, when the book was borrowed in the evening and to be returned early in the morning, lest it should be missed or wanted.
And after some time an ingenious tradesman, Mr. Matthew Adams, who had a pretty collection of books, and who frequented our printing-house, took notice of me, invited me to his library, and very kindly lent me such books as I chose to read. I now took a fancy to poetry, and made some little pieces; my brother, thinking it might turn to account, encouraged me, and put me on composing occasional ballads. One was called The Lighthouse Tragedy, and contained an account of the drowning of Captain Worthilake, with his two daughters: the other was a sailor’s song, on the taking of Teach (or Blackbeard) the pirate. They were wretched stuff, in
the Grub-street-ballad style; and when they were printed he sent me about the town to sell them. The first sold wonderfully, the event being recent, having made a great noise. This flattered my vanity; but my father discouraged me by ridiculing my performances, and telling me verse-makers were generally beggars.
So I escaped being a poet, most probably a very bad one; but as prose writing has been of great use to me in the course of my life, and was a principal means of my advancement, I shall tell you how, in such a situation, I acquired what little ability I have in that way. There was another bookish lad in the town, John Collins by name, with whom I was intimately acquainted. We sometimes disputed, and very fond we were of argument, and very desirous of confuting one another, which disputatious turn, by the way, is apt to become a very bad habit, making people often extremely disagreeable in company by the contradiction that is necessary to bring it into practice; and thence, besides souring and spoiling the conversation, is productive of disgusts and, perhaps enmities where you may have occasion for friendship. I had caught it by reading my father’s books of dispute about religion. Persons of good sense, I have since observed, seldom fall into it, except lawyers, university men, and men of all sorts that have been bred at Edinborough.
You can read Benjamin Franklin’s full autobiography here.
Both Benjamin Franklin and George Washington learned at a young age how important being educated was. They were both self-taught and both felt insecure about it, but by today’s standards, they would still be considered very well-educated due to the books that they read and how they both sought knowledge throughout their lives.