MOUNT VERNON, Va. — The Fred W. Smith National Library for the Study of George Washington, from its historic book collection to the beautiful landscape of its exterior, is a breathtaking achievement.
The new facility, privately operated and funded outside the National Archives, encompasses 15 acres of land across from Mount Vernon, Washington’s 18th-century mansion. The elegantly constructed library boasts rich limestone and American sycamore, a tree familiar to Washington’s era.
While an Education Learning Center for young people has for over a decade provided an elementary history of Washington’s life, it failed to appeal to a class of presidential historians, political junkies, and citizens who crave an immersion into Washington’s intellectual world. The library was the missing ingredient.
In its John and Adrienne Mars Rare Books & Manuscripts Room rest the first acts passed at the first Congress, including its inaugural proceedings from New York on March 4, 1789. Engraved book titles on a curved stone wall in a reception hall include John Locke’s “An Essay Concerning Human Understanding” (1689) and from a century later, the collection of essays called “The Federalist” (1787-8), the most illuminating record of the constitutional-era discourse in the run-up to ratification.
The library has preserved a richly eclectic set of the first commander in chief’s books, ranging from a 1794 biography of figures “distinguished in America as adventurers, statesmen, philosophers, and divines, warriors, authors and other remarkable characters” to a 1790 study of taxation principles to Spanish tales of El Ingenioso Hildago Don Quixote de la Manche.
At the center of the library entrance are meticulously sculpted busts of Washington and fellow Founding Fathers John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Alexander Hamilton, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison, their facial features depicted as they were in 1785, based on forensic studies and portraiture evidence. In a secure suite housing the rarest letters, volumes, medals, and commemorative objects from Washington’s collection stands a portrait of him by the American artist Rembrandt Peale.
Accompanying the new library is a special museum exhibition, “Take Note! George Washington the Reader,” that aspires to showcase Washington as a voracious, discerning, and model reader. In fact, the cerebral Washington has gone largely unnoticed in the popular historical profile of a shrewd military strategist and humble servant of the people. That is likely because among the founders and most successive presidents, our first president lacked formal schooling. Despite the void of academic training, the exhibit pointedly shows Washington as an intellectual.
Washington’s books are a diverse collection. Library curators note that roughly one-third focused on politics, such as his 1776 copy of Thomas Paine’s “Common Sense,” and economics and law, while about another third focused on agriculture, religion, and philosophy. A less than expected 10 percent covered military and naval affairs. Paine’s passionate defense of American liberty not only awakened the nation but prompted an unusually bold reply from Washington as “unanswerable reasoning” for independence.
The exhibited book perhaps most integral to the formation of Washington’s above-the-fray civility was a popular English text, “Youth’s Behaviour, or Decency in Conversation Amongst Men.” According to the exhibit, it is an “adaptation of a 1595 work written by French Jesuit priests” encouraging young men to “practice consideration and respect towards others, by paying careful attention to body language, dress, and speech.”
“Take Note!” also explores — if somewhat neglected by historians to date — Washington’s active interest in the slavery debate. He owned 17 pamphlets concerning slavery, which collectively embraced an incremental approach to its eradication (including a 1789 copy of the British debate on petitions for the abolition of the slave trade). Perhaps a testament to his absorption of the British objections to slavery and his own foresight about its eventual demise, Washington (1732-99) provided for the freedom of his slaves after his death.
Washington himself was the inspiration for the library’s creation: “I have not houses to build, except one, which I must erect for the accommodation and security of my military, civil and private papers, which are voluminous and may be interesting” he wrote in a 1797 letter to friend James McHenry. Over 200 years later, those who celebrate his legacy have realized that vision in a beautiful 45,000-square-foot space free for the public’s perusal.
THE FRED W. SMITH NATIONAL LIBRARY FOR THE STUDY OF GEORGE WASHINGTON
3200 Mount Vernon Memorial Highway, 703-780-2000, www.MountVernon.org. To make
a research appointment, call 703-780-3600 or e-mail FWSlibrary@mountvernon.org.
Alexander Heffner can be reached at alexander.heffner