In a letter to a friend in 1797, George Washington wrote that he hoped to build a library “for the accommodation & security of my military, civil & private papers, which are voluminous and may be interesting.” He died two years later, before undertaking the project.
Most of Washington’s books were subsequently sold off. Many found a good home at the Boston Athenaeum, which is justly proud of its Washington collection. But the first president’s vision of a repository for his papers was never forgotten, and it’s finally been realized with the opening of Washington’s presidential library near his estate in Mount Vernon, Va.
Like the 13 presidential libraries administered by the US Department of the Interior (one for each chief executive from Herbert Hoover through George W. Bush), the new Washington facility will serve as an archive, a research center, and a gallery for artifacts. Unlike the others, this presidential library — formally named the Fred W. Smith National Library for the Study of George Washington — is entirely privately funded. The Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association, the nation’s oldest historic preservation group, raised more than $106 million for the project. One sign of the association’s commitment is its $8.7 million acquisition of Washington’s personal copy of “Acts of Congress,” a custom-bound volume that contains the text of the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, and other laws enacted by the First Congress, with Washington’s notes neatly penciled in the margins.
America’s first president was a towering figure in his day — “first in war, first in peace, first in the hearts of his countrymen.” His reputation has remained unscathed through 214 years of posthumous scholarship, and his willingness to give up power after two terms — an unprecedented act — provided a foundation for democracy around the world. The newest presidential library will help make clear just how indispensable the “father of his country” was.