MOUNT VERNON, Va. — George Washington’s majestic estate overlooking the Potomac River has an added attraction: a presidential library.
The grand opening Friday of the Fred W. Smith National Library for the Study of George Washington celebrated the father of our country with a crowd that included both U.S. senators from Virginia, the governor, performances by country singers — and couple — Vince Gill and Amy Grant, and a keynote speech by Pulitzer Prize-winning historian David McCullough.
The $47 million library was designed to add a scholarly element to the understanding of the first president, who had written to a friend in 1797 that he wanted a building on his property to house his papers.
“If there’s anybody who deserves a presidential library, it’s Washington,” said historian Stephen Knott, professor of national-security affairs at the U.S. Naval War College in Newport, R.I., who has studied the Founding Fathers. “He was our greatest president. This is 220 years overdue.”
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If scholars who use the library occasionally knock Washington off his lofty perch as the flawless Father of Our Country, that’s OK by Mount Vernon.
“There is this vision of Washington as a man on a pedestal,” said Curt Viebranz, Mount Vernon’s president and chief executive officer. “I actually think if you take him down off the pedestal, it’s an even more compelling story. We’re not going to try to control the message.”
The library’s director, Douglas Bradburn, said there is a trend among historians now who may be more likely to look at the American Revolution through perhaps a more cynical lens, resurrecting arguments from a century ago that Washington and the other Founding Fathers were motivated more out of securing their own economic interests than by any lofty notions of liberty and self-governance.
Bradburn said the beauty of a library like Mount Vernon’s is that historians and researchers from different schools of interpretation can come together, collaborate and commiserate.
The Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association, a private group that has owned and operated the estate since 1858, raised $106 million in private funds for the library and its endowment in the past three years. Philanthropist Fred Smith, chairman of the Donald W. Reynolds Foundation, was a leader of the effort. The foundation contributed $38 million in 2010.
Washington is most famous as a man of action, a leader and landowner. But he also had a deep love of learning. He was largely self-taught, eventually mastering the art of surveying, his profession before joining the military. As colonists rose up against the British, Washington became the commander of the Continental Army and, after he led the revolutionary forces to victory, a national hero.
As the Founding Fathers debated the new government, it was Washington who declined any overture to be king. He supported the American experiment in democracy.
The new library owns 62 titles, or 103 volumes, of Washington’s original 1,200 titles and duplicates of books that are known to have been in his collection. They are all stored in a secure oval room that is temperature- and light-protected. His books can only be handled by library employees, who will bring volumes to scholars seated at tables in another secure anteroom where his manuscripts and correspondence are stored.
Among the original books: “The Iliad” by Homer; “The Federalist” by Alexander Hamilton, James Madison and John Jay; “Common Sense” by Thomas Paine; and a recently acquired prize possession, Washington’s personal copy of the Acts of Congress, which includes the Constitution, with the Bill of Rights annotated with Washington’s notes in the margins. The acts, bought at auction last year for $9.8 million, just finished a tour of all the official presidential libraries.
Washington’s library, a large airy structure built in the woods across the street from his Mount Vernon residence, will be, like all the “official” presidential libraries, a center for study, research and conferences. In some ways it will function like a modern presidential library. But unlike official presidential libraries, the Mount Vernon library receives no government funding, and since it is intended to promote formal scholarship, it will not generally be open to tourists.
Material from The Associated Press is included in this report.