In a letter to his friend James McHenry, President George Washington wrote on April 3, 1797, that he needed a place to store his documents. "I have not houses to build, except one, which I must erect for the accommodation and security of my military, civil and private papers.” They are “voluminous,” he noted, “and may be interesting."
Now, more than 200 years later, Washington’s dream has come true. The Fred W. Smith National Library for the Study of George Washington opened on Friday, September 27, 2013, at Mount Vernon, in Alexandria, Virginia. TIME For Kids attended the opening celebration. It marks a momentous step in the study of George Washington, or, as he was known during his own lifetime, “The General.”
In a massive outdoor area, those assembled heard fife and drum music from the Revolutionary War era and “America the Beautiful” sung by country musicians Amy Grant and Vince Gill. Following this was a solo of the national anthem and the Pledge of Allegiance by students from Fort Belvoir Elementary School. Reverend Donald Binder led a short prayer. Mount Vernon estate president Curtis Viebranz welcomed all.
United States Senators for Virginia, Mark Warner and Tim Kaine, spoke of politics. Kaine reminded those gathered at the event that the U.S. Congress reads Washington’s farewell address every year. Why? “It’s like a crystal that has 360 degrees,” Kaine said. “You hear it every year and you grab onto something new and different in that same speech. It’s so powerful.”
When historian David McCullough, the day’s keynote speaker, stepped to the microphone, the skies cleared from cloudy gray to gleaming blue. “His autobiography is not on paper. His autobiography is in this place,” McCullough said of Washington and the new library. “I think this is one of the most important, interesting sites not just in America but in the world.”
He also spoke about Washington’s lasting influence. “Very little of consequence is ever accomplished alone,” McCullough said. “It’s a joint effort, and here we see it.” The Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association spearheaded the library effort, raising more than $106 million for its construction.
Finally, McCullough foretold the importance that “this center of learning will have on future generations,” and expressed his love for history and the fascinating story of our first president: what he did, why he did it, and who he was.
Launchers shot red, white, and blue streamers to announce the opening of the two-story sandstone library to the crowd. Inside, treasures abound, including 103 volumes from Washington’s personal library. The collection also includes approximately 500 letters, 6,000 historical documents and maps, as well as children’s books, novels, histories, and biographies about Washington. Stamps and coins featuring George Washington are also part of the library’s vast holdings.
Mark Santangelo, chief librarian, told TFK, “We are going to do everything we can to have students of all ages come and use our library.” He hopes kids will come for many reasons. What does Santangelo anticipate? Perhaps they’ll “want to have a new book or to write a screenplay or movie, or maybe they want to do a really cool database, or videogame.” The library’s books cover Washington’s entire life, not just his presidency.
Santangelo’s favorite is George Washington’s personal copy of the Acts of Congress, which includes the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. The volume was owned and annotated by The General himself. “If you look in the margins, Washington has his own notes, and you can just imagine him sitting down, poring over this fantastic book, and wondering: How is the Congress going to work, how is the president going to work, how are all these functions going to come together in one body?” Santangelo says. The document provides an inside view into Washington’s mind.
Old and new, crackly and shiny books lining its shelves, the George Washington library will be a center of learning for years to come.