Finally, a library for our first president

By Kathleen Parker
Wednesday, April 21, 2010


It was fitting that the buzz around George Washington's homestead recently was about the first president's overdue library books, just as the estate's guardians were plotting a new presidential library in the Founding Father's name.

It seems that the man who could not tell a lie failed to return a couple of volumes that were due on Nov. 2, 1789. That comes to more than 220 years late, or about $300,000 in fines.

Borrowed from the New York Society Library, the books were Emmerich de Vattel's "Law of Nations," dealing with international relations, and a collection of debates from Britain's House of Commons. Some light reading for a man preoccupied with the business of creating a nation and learning how to be its president.

Although librarian Mark Bartlett says the library isn't pursuing the fines, he would be happy to get the books back. Perchance to donate them to a new library bearing the last borrower's name? Just a thought.

Washington's lapse in returning his books provided a handy metaphor for the Mount Vernon Ladies' Association's biannual meeting, which I attended as an unpaid member of the advisory board. The main topic was the proposed library, which will be a repository of Washington's books and papers as well as a center for educational outreach and scholarly research. With the addition of a residence for scholars, serious students can immerse themselves for several weeks in all things George.

Officially named the Fred W. Smith National Library for the Study of George Washington, the 41,000-square-foot building is expected to be completed in 2012. Assuming, that is, the ladies' association, now in its 151st year of running the estate exclusively with private funds, can raise $20 million this year.

An initial $38 million already has been pledged by Smith, chairman of the Donald W. Reynolds Foundation, but spade will not touch earth until the balance is secured.

It's an ambitious and noble project that will fill an astonishing void. At a time when presidential libraries are monuments to legacy and ego, it is surprising that the first president of the United States doesn't have one.

Those errant books, meanwhile, are a reminder of so much else that is missing regarding George Washington. Too little is known about him and the founding era because too little is taught. And though America's growing historical illiteracy is well-known to educators and policymakers, a glance at the statistics would probably surprise most Americans.

In 2006, for instance, the Intercollegiate Studies Institute tested the civic literacy of 14,000 freshmen and seniors at 50 colleges and universities. The average senior failed with a score of 54 percent.

Also in 2006, the National Assessment of Educational Progress, often referred to as the Nation's Report Card, found that only about one-sixth of students in grades four, eight and 12 are proficient in American history.

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