MOUNT VERNON, Va. – George Washington’s Mount Vernon estate on Friday formally opened a new $47 million library dedicated to the study of America’s first president, with plans to host a series of scholars who will examine the lives of Washington and the Founding Fathers.
And if those scholars occasionally knock Washington off his lofty perch as the flawless Father of Our Country, that’s OK by Mount Vernon.
Since 1853, the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association has been dedicated to preserving and promoting Washington’s legacy. But with Friday’s opening of The Fred W. Smith National Library for the Study of George Washington, Mount Vernon is committing itself to sponsoring a formal level of scholarship about Washington, and Mount Vernon officials say they have no intention of insisting on a glossy interpretation.
“There is this vision of Washington as a man on a pedestal,” said Curt Viebranz, Mount Vernon’s president and CEO. “I actually think if you take him down off the pedestal, it’s an even more compelling story. We’re not going to try to control the message.”
The library’s director, Douglas Bradburn, said there is a neo-Progressive trend among historians now who may be more likely to look at the American Revolution through perhaps a more cynical lens, resurrecting arguments from a century ago that Washington and the other Founding Fathers were motivated more out of securing their own economic interests than by any lofty notions of liberty and self-governance.
Bradburn said the beauty of a library like Mount Vernon’s is that historians and researchers from different schools of interpretation can come together, collaborate and commiserate.
Sandra Moats, a history professor at the University of Wisconsin, Parkside who will be one of the first seven visiting scholars at the estate, will research Washington and the advent of American neutrality after the Revolution.
She said she is looking forward to delving “into the nitty-gritty policy in the way a historian would with any president.” She expects her work will be neither critical nor glowing, but more of a straightforward examination.
One reason he hasn’t been subjected to a lot of scholarly criticism, she said: Washington did a pretty good job.
“He’s not someone with a lot of scandals or problems. He’s not someone where I’m expecting to find a lot of skeletons,” she said.
The library also gives Mount Vernon an opportunity to host seminars and retreats for political and military leaders and others who want to understand Washington’s values. Mount Vernon has often hosted small gatherings like these, but it never had the facilities to accommodate such meetings as it would have liked until now.
At Friday’s dedication, historian David McCullough called Mount Vernon one of the most interesting and important historical sites in the world.
“While some people say he was very difficult to get to know, I do not feel that way whatsoever. I think that his autobiography is not on paper. His autobiography is in this place,” he said. “The more we come to this place, the more we look at this place, the more we read into this place the imprint of his achievement out of public life … the more we understand why he was the way he was.”
The estate highlights Washington’s abilities and interests as an architect, farmer and whiskey-maker, among other things. And Washington’s library, McCullough said, provides especially keen insights into the man. The books he read and kept, from Thomas Paine’s Common Sense, to books on gardening, to Alexander Pope’s Essay on Man, shed light on how Washington viewed the world.
One of the library’s highlights is a climate-controlled, rare-book vault that stores papers of George and Martha Washington, and family like nephew Bushrod Washington. The innermost vault stores the books that Washington personally owned, including a copy of the first acts of Congress and the Constitution that features Washington’s own handwriting in the margins, highlighting portions he believed to be important. Mount Vernon bought the book last year at auction for $9.8 million.
More than 1,000 invitees attended Friday’s dedication ceremony, which included a performance of “America the Beautiful” by singers Amy Grant and Vince Gill.
The 45,000-square foot library cost $47 million to build, but is supported by a $100 million fundraising campaign that will endow its operation. More than 7,000 people contributed to the campaign, Viebranz said, including 15 who contributed $1 million or more.
In some ways the library will function like a modern presidential library. But unlike official presidential libraries, the Mount Vernon library receives no government funding.
Also, the library is intended to promote formal scholarship and is not generally open to tourists. In 2006, Mount Vernon opened new education and orientation centers and a museum that are designed to educate the general public about Washington.