200 years later, George Washington finally gets his presidential library

September 27, 2013

The new president of the United States got out his copy of the Acts of Congress, turned to the Constitution and looked up his duties.

At Article II, Section 2, where it read, “The President shall be Commander in Chief,” he marked the passage. In the margin, he penciled in, “president powers.”

At Section 3, which began, “He shall from time to time give to the Congress Information of the State of the Union,” he wrote in the margin, “required.”

It wasn’t that George Washington was unprepared for his new job. He was just the first person in history to have it, and he wanted to get it right.

Washington’s revealing copy of the first Acts of Congress is one of the jewels in the elegant, new George Washington library that opens Friday at his historic homestead, Mount Vernon.

More than 200 years after his death, George Washington joins the league of other U.S. presidents who have their own library. The Post's Lee Powell goes to Mount Vernon and into the vault protecting Washington's tomes. (The Washington Post)

The Fred W. Smith National Library for the Study of George Washington at Mount Vernon is a $106 million project designed to be the international center for Washington scholarship, with a trove of his personal books and manuscripts at its core.

The enterprise aims to elevate Mount Vernon from a popular tourist stop among the region’s pantheon of historic sites to a place of rigorous Washington research as well.

“I wouldn’t say we, as an institution, would be thought of as a place of serious scholarship around the founding era and Washington,” Curt Viebranz, Mount Vernon’s president, said at the library this week.

“I think now, if we do this correctly, we will be,” he said.

In addition, he said, Mount Vernon is not known as a state-of-the-art digital source where the latest research is quickly available online. “And if we do this right, we will be,” he said. ”We have serious technology here.”

The library could also raise the profile of the dour man on the dollar bill who has perhaps lacked the modern buzz around fellow Founding Fathers Thomas Jefferson and John Adams.

The building is set to open during an 11 a.m. invitation-only ceremony featuring an address by historian David McCullough, and speeches by Virginia’s governor, Robert F. McDonnell (R), and Sens. Timothy M. Kaine and Mark R. Warner.

The three-level limestone and wood structure has largely vacant state-of-the-art stacks in the basement, a reading room with busts of Revolutionary-era heroes and an inner vault containing some of Washington’s books.

There’s also a rare-book room that houses, among other things, a manuscript collection that includes letters to or from Washington as well as the letters of his wife, Martha.

Built on 65 acres just across Route 235 from the Mount Vernon Inn, the library is named for the benefactor who chairs the Donald W. Reynolds Foundation, which provided a majority of the funding.

It also includes paneled meeting rooms, the latest electronic gadgets and separate quarters for visiting scholars. The first of seven resident scholars arrives next week.

“We need to think of it, really, as kind of center for the study of George Washington,” said the library’s director, Douglas Bradburn. “Anybody writing anything on Washington or his era — we want them to feel like they need to come here.”

Washington, who also led the American army that wrested independence from Great Britain during the Revolutionary War, acquired Mount Vernon in the 1761 after the deaths of its owners, his older half brother, Lawrence, and his widow, Ann.

He then spent four decades expanding the estate and its mansion, which overlooks the Potomac River. In 1774, Washington added a private study to the house, where he washed, dressed and shaved and later assembled his library, according to Mount Vernon.

His floor-to-ceiling bookcase — his “book press,” he called it — held many of the 900 or so bound volumes and hundreds of maps, newspapers and pamphlets he owned.

By 1797, he seems to have run out of room. He wrote a friend that he wanted to build one more thing: a structure to house “my Military, Civil & private Papers, which are voluminous and may be interesting.”

But Washington died short of that goal in 1799.

Now, more than 200 years later,“we are building his dream,” said Ann H. Bookout, head of the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association, which owns and operates Mount Vernon.

Mount Vernon owns 103 of Washington’s books and many more period duplicates of books he owned.

It also continues to buy important Washington books.

Last year, it paid a record $9.8 million at auction for his 1789 signed copy of the Acts of Congress, a volume that includes the Constitution, the Bill of Rights and other legislation passed by the first Congress.

“Here we have the first president needing to define the office. [He] ■has no guidelines, with his copy of the Constitution,” Bradburn said of the 106-page volume. “Then he actually writes little annotations. . . . That’s just not any Washington book. That’s a really significant one.”

In June, the library paid $1.2 million at auction for five other Washington titles — two works of fiction, a French general’s Revolutionary War memoir, and a book by the Unitarian minister and scientist Joseph Priestley, among others.

Washington, unlike James Madison, Jefferson and Adams, was largely self-educated.

“His colloquial talents were not above mediocrity, possessing neither copiousness of ideas, nor fluency of words,” Jefferson wrote of him.

Viebranz, the Mount Vernon president, said: “Where . . . he would be thought to have been not intellectually the equal of those men, in point of fact he was extremely well read, just not formally educated.”

“He wants to be a gentleman,” Bradburn, the library director said. “He doesn’t have a classical education. But he’s always improving.”

Washington, himself, though, had doubts about his abilities.

“I am now Imbarkd on a tempestuous Ocean from whence, perhaps, no friendly harbour is to be found,” he wrote a relative after Congress gave him command of the American army in 1775.

“It is an honour I by no means aspired to . . . from an unwillingness to quit the peaceful enjoyment of my Family as [well as] from a thorough conviction of my own Incapacity & want of experience in the conduct of so momentous a concern.”

Mike is a general assignment reporter who also covers Washington institutions and historical topics.
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