ALEXANDRIA, Va. — In 1797, carpenters were slathering Prussian blue paint on parlor walls, replacing mahogany paneling in the entryway and installing a stove in a sleeping chamber, but George Washington had something else in mind for his beloved Mount Vernon — a separate structure on his green estate on the Potomac.
“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 letter to friend and aide James McHenry of Maryland in April, 1797, a month after his presidency ended.
It has taken 216 years, but the first president finally has his library.
The Fred W. Smith National Library for the Study of George Washington opened last month on the lush plantation where Washington made his home before and after his presidency. The 45,000-square-foot, sandstone-and-limestone building occupies a 15-acre plot just a few hundred yards north of Washington’s historic home.
Two weeks ago, hangers still hadn’t made their way into the coat closets, the drainage system remained untested by severe weather, and an exit sign still waited to be hung. But that was no matter to scholars from around the country who already were pulling books from the shelves and plugging in laptops beneath busts of the founding fathers that encircle the airy reading room in the center of the library.
“This will become a major center for Revolutionary era studies,” said James Kirby Martin, a University of Houston professor of history and one of the first scholars to arrive at the library. Like six others, Mr. Martin’s work is being funded by an endowment from the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association, the private group that built the library.
Unlike most presidential libraries, this one is being operated by a private foundation, not the National Archives and Records Administration.
More than 7,000 individuals and organizations contributed $106.4 million to the library’s construction and its endowment. The first and largest contribution, $38 million, came from the Donald W. Reynolds Foundation, and the library gets its name from the foundation’s longtime chairman, Fred W. Smith.
The private status of the library raises concerns that library operators, who are among George Washington’s greatest admirers, might be more interested in protecting their beloved president’s image than providing access to documents that might paint him in a bad light, particularly when it comes to his views on America’s original sin.
“The people running Mount Vernon are incredibly protective of Mr. Washington, so one wonders how they’re going to treat the issue of Washington and slaves,” said Jerald Podair, a presidential scholar and professor of history at Lawrence University in Wisconsin.
Library Director Douglas Bradburn, formerly a Binghamton University professor of history, dismisses that concern. Association members know Mr. Washington had flaws, and they want to make available everything they can find related to the first president and his family, he said.
“They are lovers of George Washington, but they want more scholarship,” Mr. Bradburn said.
Mr. Washington’s relationship to slavery is an important part of the American story, said Mr. Bradburn, who has written two books on the Revolutionary period. The evolution of the president’s views paralleled the shifts in the nation’s attitude toward slavery, he said.
The slave issue
If their treatment of slavery at the adjacent Mount Vernon estate is any indication, the ladies won’t let the library gloss over the first president’s relationship to slavery.
Tourists are told that Mr. Washington had 318 slaves at the time of his death, and they can peer into the cramped quarters where they cooked, laundered clothes, and slept on stacked wood frames, the men in one area and women and children in another.
For most tourists, though, their Washington education won’t include chances to read the first president’s papers, to glimpse the handwritten notations on his copy of the Constitution, or to see the portrait by Rembrandt Peale that hangs near the stacks.
From the outside, the library isn’t the most welcoming place to visitors, who must announce themselves through an intercom before wrought-iron gates swing open to let them ascend the library’s driveway from Mount Vernon Memorial Highway.
Generally, to get inside, visitors must have an appointment and a specific scholarly reason to view the collection.
“This really is a place for scholarly research. You can’t have tourists coming through on a regular basis,” Mr. Bradburn said.
Still, the library will host occasional public tours and other events.
“We are a private library with a public mission,” Mr. Bradburn said.
Quest for answers
The rarest volumes — 103 books from the president’s personal library — are held in a stately, climate-controlled, oval vault behind a hidden door. Those books — everything from Ralph Irving’s Experiments on Peruvian Bark to Principles of Taxation — became guides for Washington the plantation manager, Washington the general, and Washington the president.
Mr. Washington’s formal education ended at age 10 when his father died, so he was largely self-taught, and reading was important to him.
Scholars are delving into those tomes in an effort to understand how they shaped the founding of the country, and how they caused the president to reflect the values and culture of his time.
Mr. Martin, for one, wants to know why Mr. Washington made the sacrifices he did, how he avoided corruption, and why he didn’t become a power monger.
“Dictatorship was waiting there to be served up on a silver platter if he wanted it,” said Mr. Martin, who is writing a book on the subject. “I’m trying to get into his mind because to turn down absolute power is a difficult thing to do.”
Other scholars — who are being housed in a guesthouse adjacent to the library — are researching Revolutionary War prisoners, Mr. Washington’s role in shaping the Constitution, commerce in the late 18th century, and more.
Digital collections allow them to start formulating answers to their research questions offsite, but studying at Mount Vernon adds compelling dimensions, Mr. Martin said during a break from reviewing Mr. Washington’s orders that established a winter camp site in New Windsor, N.Y.
“I can walk around the grounds and see all this as he saw it. That’s part of it. Visualization is a very, very important part of construction. I want to see history as people lived it,” he said. “If you live life as [Mr. Washington] lived it, you come to very, very different conclusions.”
That’s one reason scholars across the country are excited about the library and the potential for it to gather previously inaccessible primary documents and artifacts in one place.
“They seem to have an exceptional library of books from the era, and those aren’t easy to find,” said Mr. Podair, who has explored the collection online and intends to visit soon.
What scholars won’t find there are many letters between the president and Martha Washington. That’s because the first lady made it a point to burn them.
What letters reveal
Countless other documents are in the collection, though, including war communications and revealing letters from descendants of the Washingtons.
Some of those documents have been in the public domain, while others are just now being archived as part of a massive George Washington Papers Project at the University of Virginia. Two-thirds of the project’s 135,000 records and documents have been processed and will have a permanent home at the new library.
“I don’t know that they’re going to find a treasure trove of new information or a smoking gun, but I don’t think that’s the purpose,” Mr. Podair said. Rather, he said, the library can help fill a void by providing a more well-rounded picture of the founder, statesman, general, and plantation manager.
“He is not really well understood by Americans. He’s like a granite man and almost carved in stone and not real,” Mr. Podair said. “This library will help flesh-and-blood him out. It will help show how wise he was in many ways.”
Wise, yes, but also common, Mr. Bradburn said.
“He was a lot more like us than we think. He had the same kinds of passions and concerns and worries that we have,” he said.
“The best way to really get people excited about Washington and his life is to show him as a regular person, not some superhero who sort of floated above. We want people to be able to see that Washington wasn’t all that different from them, so they can see how they can achieve greatness as well.”
Mr. Bradburn said documents, such as letters from Martha Washington’s granddaughter, are trickling in now that the library has opened.
“That’s where we can have an impact. We can preserve things that are scattered all around not being preserved,” and scholars can assimilate that new information into their research, he said.
Like Mr. Podair, Mr. Bradburn doesn’t expect scholars to uncover any bombshells since so much is already known about Washington.
The history doesn’t change, but the questions do, he said. That’s why historians are still churning out research.
For example, since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, researchers have been interested in Mr. Washington’s policies for dealing with Muslim countries when Barbary Coast pirates were active and American shippers were no longer protected by British bribes, Mr. Bradburn said.
“Historians are looking back at early relations between America and Muslim countries. That didn’t seem important during the Cold War but now it does,” Mr. Bradburn said.
More recently, and particularly during the government shutdown this month, scholars have been looking into partisanship in the Washington era.
“History is written for the present,” Mr. Bradburn said. “It’s to figure out why the world works the way it works, not just to collect old facts.”
Block News Alliance consists of The Blade and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Tracie Mauriello is the Washington bureau chief of the Post-Gazette.
Contact her at: firstname.lastname@example.org, 703-996-9292, or on Twitter @pgPoliTweets.