This digital collection contains views of selected rare 18th century bindings from the library of George Washington, the first president of the United States. This initiative was made possible through a generous gift from the Massachusetts Society of the Cincinnati.
The volumes from George Washington’s personal library are probably the most famous books in the Boston Athenæum. Most of their fame comes from Washington’s extraordinary position in history but some of their attraction springs from the story of their migration to Boston from Virginia. In his will, Washington left his books to his nephew, Judge Bushrod Washington. Bushrod augmented the collection and, at his death, left his books to his nephews.
In 1848, one of the nephews, George Corbin Washington, decided to sell his portion of the library to a flamboyant American bookseller, Henry Stevens of Vermont. Stevens was an ambitious self-promoter who had the flair to occasionally add the initials “G.M.B.” after his name to signify that he was a “Green Mountain Boy”. Through assiduous self-promotion he became an agent for the British Museum with the specific responsibility of providing that institution with American imprints. Stevens knew that the Washington books held a certain cachet and he tried to sell the collection to the United States Government. Congress did not act favorably so he looked elsewhere. Harvard seemed a likely repository for such a famous collection but the college also disappointed him.
By floating the unlikely idea that the books would be sold to the British Museum, Stevens managed to excite the patriotism of a goodly number of Bostonians. The idea of a subscription to cover the purchase price took hold and a total of about 70 men from Boston, Cambridge and Salem donated funds for the purchase. While the sum raised fell far short of Stevens’ asking price, the sale went forward because Stevens had already spent part of the money from the first installment that he had received. He was not pleased that the books were secured at a price he felt was too low but the Bostonians who had come forward were happy that the books were to be protected as a collection. The subscribers to the Fund chose to give the Washington books to the Boston Athenæum since many of the subscribers were members of the Library and knew that it would give them a safe home. The Athenæum recognized Washington’s books to be a patriotic icon and built an ornate case to house them with distinction.
Of course, George Washington’s books had been housed beautifully at Mount Vernon, his Virginia estate overlooking the Potomac River. They provided handsome symbol of thoughtful learning and a practical resource for a very public man who felt that he had been somewhat slighted in his education. Washington needed books on the various subjects that defined his life, such as agriculture, military affairs, history, and politics. As he became more and more prominent and revered, Washington was given numerous books by admirers. Since he rarely made marginal notes in his books, it is very hard to know which were particularly important to him. He frequently autographed title pages and less frequently had his armorial bookplate pasted inside the front cover. Many of the gift books he received were inscribed or elaborately bound to make them more distinctive. One handsome small volume in the Athenæum, A Collection of the Speeches of the President of the United States, was bound in Boston by Henry Bilson Legge. It is presumed to be a gift from an admirer and is a tour de force by a talented binder who seemingly used every tool in his shop in an effort to please the author recipient.
One of the best known books from Mount Vernon is stamped "Common Sense" on the spine and contains Thomas Paine’s highly influential political tract along with seven other pamphlets on the American Revolution. It was assembled by Washington and bound for him in a distinctive but subtle style that one sees on a number of the books from his library that he thought worthy of preservation in a leather binding. His elegant autograph is on the title page of four of the pamphlets although the binder, in trimming the individual publications to make them the same height and width, cut away a portion of Washington’s handwriting. Washington realized that Paine had been very influential in motivating Americans to revolt against the British with the rhetoric in Common Sense. He kept copies of several of his writings even when Paine became very unpopular due to his abrasive personality and his later criticism of Washington and the U.S. Government.
Stanley Ellis Cushing
Anne C. and David J. Bromer Curator of Rare Books and Manuscripts