By Lauren Ingeno
In 1797, just two years before his death, George Washington expressed his dream of building his own library.
“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 his friend James McHenry.
More than two centuries later, the wish of the country’s first president has finally come true, with Friday’s formal opening of the Fred W. Smith National Library for the Study of George Washington at George Washington’s Mount Vernon.
President Steven Knapp attended the library’s opening along with George Washington University students. The event included a keynote address by author David McCullough and musical performances and presentations by the Old Guard Fife and Drum Corps, the Commander-in-Chief’s Guard, the U.S. Army Band, Amy Grant and Vince Gill.
Sitting in a classroom inside the elegant library — which houses a vast array of historical documents and other memorabilia related to the nation’s first president and early America— 15 GW students listened to GW Assistant Professor of History Denver Brunsman discuss “Washington as an intellectual” on Monday morning.
“Washington was right. His papers are voluminous, and they are interesting,” Dr. Brunsman said. “And as we dive into his books and papers for the rest of the semester, I think you’ll find someone who wasn’t an intellectual on the level of a Bacon or a Newton or a Locke, or even a Jefferson. But he was somebody who appreciated education just as much as anyone in that founding generation.”
Dr. Brunsman’s class, titled “George Washington and His World,” explores different aspects of Washington’s life, in which students take a trip to the Mount Vernon property each week. His class session on Monday was the library’s first educational event.
The history class will maintain a close relationship with the Washington library during the upcoming months. While past classes have had the opportunity to explore Washington’s estate, never before have students had so many resources pertaining to the life of Washington “at their fingertips,” Dr. Brunsman said.
His students will have access to the library and its books, including its special collections.
“These are all the things that will make your work original,” Dr. Brunsman said to his students.
And the students have the opportunity to leave a lasting contribution at the library. Each student in Dr. Brunsman’s class will write a 1,000-word entry to be submitted and published to the library’s Digital Encyclopedia.
“It’s something I couldn’t have imagined doing as an undergraduate,” Dr. Brunsman said.
Michelle DeSoiza, a senior in the Columbian College of Arts and Sciences, said that as a history major it is “so special” to be able to visit where Washington lived and to have access to his manuscripts.
“This is something that is so unique to GW,” Ms. DeSoiza said.
She noted that some people tend to have a “narrow minded view” of Washington. But what Dr. Brunsman’s class focuses on is talking about Washington as a person instead of as a legend.
Promoting this of view of Washington seems to be a large part of the Washington library’s mission.
The library’s collection is extensive. There is a rare-book room that includes letters to and from Washington, as well as Martha and their other family members. The library’s collection also contains a 1789 signed copy of the Acts of Congress along with periodicals, newspapers, pamphlets, databases, microforms, information files, electronic resources, audio-visual materials, maps and photographs all related to Washington and his life.
The library is privately owned and operated by the Mount Vernon Ladies Association, which also owns and operates the Mount Vernon estate.
While Mount Vernon has always been a tourist destination, it will now be a place of “real scholarly inquiry,” Dr. Brunsman said.
George Washington, Dr. Brunsman explained to his class, never wrote an autobiography. Washington wrote that he would rather leave “it to posterity to think and say what they please of me, than by an act of mine to have vanity or ostentation imputed to me.”
“So in the coming weeks we will take up Washington’s invitation,” Dr. Brunsman said. “And we will go investigate his life in all kinds of different ways.”
Dr. Brunsman’s lecture at the library was filmed and will appear on the C-SPAN program, "Lectures in History," later this fall.