Washington’s Education

In proportion as the structure of a government gives force to public opinion, it is essential that public opinion should be enlightened.1

Source: Library of Congress

On September 1, 1796, two hundred fourteen years ago today, President George Washington wrote a private letter from the nation’s capital in Philadelphia to Alexander Hamilton, who in addition to serving as Secretary of the Treasury also wrote many speeches for the first chief executive of the United States.  The entire letter addressed details of one recommendation for a rough draft Hamilton was writing of the Farewell Address that Washington would deliver to the rest of his Cabinet two weeks later and publish nationally on September 19, informing Americans of his final retirement from public service.2

“I have regretted that another subject (which in my estimation is of interesting concern to the well-being of this country) was not touched upon also,” Washington said, “I mean education generally as one of the surest means of enlightening and giving just ways of thinking to our citizens.” 3

Washington believed in reading for self-improvement.  It was a conviction that Washington personified and encouraged throughout his entire life.  From his first writings that survive, signatures on title pages of his books and exercises in geometry, to his first annual message to Congress on the State of the Union that ended with recommendations to assist established seminaries and “by the institution of a national university,” to the donation made in his last will and testament to establish an school system “for the purpose of educating such orphan children, or the children of such other poor and indigent persons as are unable to accomplish it with their own means.”  Advising a tutor to his step-son in 1771, Washington said, “A knowledge of books is the basis upon which other knowledge is to be built.” 4

With the current administration believing that it can somehow predict the future allocation of a human resource, “so that when that person goes to college and they’re taking out some of those loans to go to college, they know at the end of the road there’s actually going to be a job available to them,” recommendations to Congress for discretionary funds for Washington’s objectives to improve American society through education seem more likely to effect safety and happiness. 5

More than two hundred years later, Washington’s reasoning might still warrant the best explanation for such academic prudence.  “In which the measures of government receive their impression so immediately from the sense of the community as in ours, it is proportionably essential.” 6


1.  John C. Fitzpatrick, ed., The Writings of George Washington from the Original Manuscript Sources, 1745-1799, 39 vols. (Washington: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1931-1944), 35:230.

2.  Ibid., 35:198.

3.  Ibid., 35:199.

4.  Ibid., 1:1-5, 3:50-51, 30:494, 37:278-281.

5.  Alan Murray, “The End of Management,” The Wall Street Journal, August 21, 2010, Management.  Barack Obama, “Remarks by the President at a Discussion with Ohio Families on the Economy,” The White House, http://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2010/08/18/remarks-president-a-discussion-with-ohio-families-economy

6.  Fitzpatrick, ed., The Writings of George Washington from the Original Manuscript Sources, 30:493.