History Stories

Days after he voluntarily left the presidency at the end of his second term, George Washington returned to his beloved Mount Vernon. The estate on the banks of the Potomac River rang with the music of hammers. The scent of wet paint drifted through its corridors as carpenters, masons and painters worked to repair the home Washington had neglected during his eight years in office.

While the former president focused his attention on rehabilitating Mount Vernon’s existing structures, there was one new building he wished to construct—a presidential library. In a letter to friend James McHenry, dated April 3, 1797, Washington wrote, “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.”

Washington never built his presidential library before his death in 1799, but now, more than two centuries later, the founding father’s wish has been realized. Last week, the new Fred W. Smith National Library for the Study of George Washington opened on a 15-acre parcel across the street from Mount Vernon’s main entrance. The 45,000-square-foot library was fully funded by $106 million in private contributions raised from more than 7,000 individuals, foundations and corporations by the not-for-profit Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association. Unlike the presidential libraries devoted to each of the 13 chief executives between Herbert Hoover and George W. Bush, which are administered by the National Archives and Records Administration, Washington’s library receives no government support.

Inside the new library’s two-story reading room, busts of six founding fathers, including Washington, gaze down at researchers perusing the holdings, which include approximately 500 of Washington’s letters, ledgers, farm books and account books along with family collections, including the Martha Washington Papers. High-tech meeting rooms will host lectures, conferences and leadership training courses. The heart of the library, however, is an oval vault that contains a six-foot-high pewter bas relief representation of Washington’s bookplate bearing the family crest. The inner sanctum houses the library’s most prized possessions—103 original volumes that once rested on Washington’s custom bookcases in his Mount Vernon study.

The books, however, represent only a slice of Washington’s complete library, which included more than 900 titles and 1,200 volumes by the time of his death. The books had passed through various family members until the majority of the collection was sold in 1848 to bookseller Henry Stevens. When Stevens announced plans to sell Washington’s books to the British Museum, dozens of Massachusetts patriots raised the money to purchase the collection, which was donated to the Boston Athenaeum. Many of Washington’s books reside there today.

The books stored in the Fred W. Smith National Library include those that remained in the Washington family along with those repurchased by Mount Vernon. Last year, for example, it bought Washington’s annotated copy of the 1789 Acts of Congress—which contained the Constitution, Bill of Rights and other legislation passed in the first year of the new government—for a record $9.8 million at auction.

Although Washington had completed his formal schooling by the age of 15, he remained a voracious reader for the rest of his life. “I conceive a knowledge of books is the basis 
upon which other knowledge is to be built,” Washington wrote in 1771. Not surprisingly, political and legal works dominated his library, accounting for a third of his tomes, but his eclectic collection covered subjects from tax policy to farming to popular fiction. His bookshelves included a classic such as “The Iliad,” drier fare such as “A Treatise on the Improvement of Canal Navigation” and even an illustrated four-volume set of “Don Quixote” that he bought in 1787 on the last day of the Constitutional Convention, just a few nights after he heard the novel mentioned by the Spanish ambassador at a dinner party hosted by Benjamin Franklin.

The library is open to researchers and scholars by appointment only, but to coincide with its opening, Mount Vernon is hosting “Take Note! George Washington the Reader,” a special exhibition of important books, letters and documents from Washington’s collection. Visitors can view some of the first president’s volumes and even read the marginalia he scribbled inside. The special exhibition runs through January 12, 2014.

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