The issue: It’s a place of scholarship as much as a tourist destination
The library of our 42nd president, Bill Clinton, opened in 2004 in Little Rock, Ark. The library of our 43rd president, George W. Bush, opened this past April in Dallas.
Those are our two most recent ex-presidents. The library of our first president opened last month and it is long overdue. The preliminary reviews are that it was worth a wait, although perhaps not two centuries’ worth.
IN CONTRAST to most presidential libraries, which are generally government-run, the $106 million Fred W. Smith National Library for the Study of George Washington is privately owned, as is the Mount Vernon mansion and its grounds, by the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association.
By 1853, when the association was formed to rescue Washington’s home, Mount Vernon was nearly derelict, its paint peeling, the grounds overgrown, the portico partially propped up by an old ship’s mast. It took the association five years to raise the $200,000 to buy the house and grounds from Washington’s great-grandnephew.
Washington’s collection of some 900 bound volumes and other materials had been allowed to scatter, in contrast to Thomas Jefferson’s, which became the nucleus of the Library of Congress. The association owns 103 of Washington’s books, is searching for more, and has period duplicates of many of the missing volumes.
Pride of place at the library’s dedication went to Washington’s 1789 annotated copy of the Acts of Congress, two of which were the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. Of special interest to Washington were Sections 2 and 3 of Article II, the closest thing there was to a set of directions for a president.
THE ASSOCIATION has patiently restored the Mount Vernon property, rebuilding Washington’s gristmill and his rye whiskey distillery (bottles of which are on sale at the gift shop) and offering a relatively clear-eyed view of the lives of the slaves who made the estate run.
The new library is a three-story building of limestone, wood and glass on 65 acres across the suitably named Mount Vernon Parkway from the mansion. It has stacks and vaults for the especially rare acquisitions and quarters for visiting scholars.
The association hopes to make Mount Vernon a center of scholarship as well as a tourist destination. Library Director Douglas Bradburn told The Washington Post, “Anybody writing anything on Washington or his era — we want them to feel like they need to come here.”
Washington would be pleased since he loved having guests, constantly entertained and eventually had to add a wing so he and Martha could have a little privacy. The wing contained his office and rapidly expanding library. He wrote to a friend that he wanted a building to house “my Military, Civil & private Papers, which are voluminous and may be interesting.”
WASHINGTON DIED in 1799 before the project could be started. Now, 214 years later, our first president finally has his library — and the interest is greater than ever.